Saturday, December 24, 2016

Elvis and Christmas

All of us have our Christmas traditions. Whether it’s staying home to cook and having your family over, or loading up in the car and heading to grandma’s house, we all have our traditions.
I’ve tried to develop a tiny tradition of my own over the last few years, inspired by a woman who was probably the strongest person I ever knew, my mammaw. I’ve been playing Elvis for the last many years on Christmas to pay homage to her. Let me tell you why.
So many years ago I remember Christmas at her house, the candy and nuts spread out on trays, the enormous Christmas tree. But what I remember most, what stands out to me in my mind is the snippet of her stepping up to her large wooden console turntable to play her Elvis Christmas record. Now, as a little boy of no more than three or four, I remember those sounds echoing through her large two-story home. It didn’t mean much to me then, because I didn’t know better, but somehow, all these years later, I’ve had the sense to recognize how much it meant to her.
So, in honor of her, here is some ’68 Comeback Elvis, which I’ve been playing for several Christmases now. And let me say, if you don’t think Elvis was the coolest son of a bitch in 1968, then go listen to some Frank Sinatra, or some other shit. Merry Christmas, everyone!

Monday, December 5, 2016


Jimmy had a difficult time keeping still. He squirmed and grew restless in his chair and waited as patiently as any nine-year-old boy could wait. He attempted to watch his favorite television program in order to send his thinking in a different direction. But there was no use. The growing excitement the boy felt on that late summer evening exceeded beyond anything that he had ever experienced before. He was on the brink of receiving the most glorious of gifts, one that meant everything to him, one that would make his dreams come true.
Jimmy Harrison was an undersized kid. He wore a pair of cut off denim shorts and went shirtless, just as he had done all summer long. Sprinkled with dark freckles was his tiny nose. Most of his tangled hair hung well over his ears, while the rest tried desperately to escape the confines of his worn out Little League cap. Turning in his father’s reclining chair, he looked nervously out the window behind him.
“When is Dad gonna be home?” he asked his mother. “He should’ve been here like an hour ago.”
“Just relax, honey,” said Sandra Harrison. “He hasn’t been off work for very long. He’ll be home soon enough.”
Jimmy’s mom was a petite, soft-spoken woman who did not have a lax bone in her tiny body. In her waking moments, there were always chores that needed doing.
“See…look. I told you,” she exclaimed as she unfolded the ironing board. “He’s pulling in the—”
Before she finished, Jimmy bounced out of the reclining chair, sprinted out the front door, and jumped off the porch. He bolted through the yard and leaped over his bicycle just to greet his old man.
Allan Harrison rolled into the driveway just as he had done every evening after working a ten-hour shift. His spirits were high and his favorite country-western station blared from the speakers of his 1985 Jeep Laredo.
With the Jeep still rolling down the driveway, the eager lad ran alongside, demanding answers. “Did you get it? Did you get it?” asked Jimmy, shouting over the music.
“What? I can’t hear you, Jimmy boy,” said Allan, teasing. He kept the radio’s volume at its max. “What in the world are you talking about?” he yelled back, bearing a juvenile grin, the cigarette hanging from his mouth staying securely in place.
“Oh, you know what,” Jimmy hammered back while nervously pumping the bill of his Little League cap. “Did you get my shotgun?”
“Oh…is that all you wanted?” asked Allan. Finally stopping, he turned off the Jeep, rolled-up the windows, and got out.
Jimmy’s dad was an average-sized man who stood around 5 feet 10 inches and weighed nearly 200 pounds. His once prominently flat stomach from his twenties no longer existed. Now, at the age of 35, his mid-section stretched the buttons on his navy-blue work uniform. He had a mustache that was dark and thick and hid his upper lip from the rest of the world, giving him the appearance of a western outlaw from long ago. Smudged proudly across his face was the day’s work from the forging plant, just as it was every day at this time.
“Well, Jimmy boy…” he said and paused with a brief sigh. “I did stop to look at the Remington you’d picked out.” The cigarette dangling from his mouth bobbed up and down as he answered. “It was the one with the walnut stock, right?”
“Yeah, yeah, that’s the one,” answered Jimmy. His patience was all but gone.
“Well,” Allan said and then hesitated once more. “I’m sorry, son; but someone else must have bought it.”
Jimmy paled as his father’s words registered in his mind and all at once his anticipation came to a disappointing end. Emotionally crushed, he dropped his head and gave a couple more discouraging thrusts to the bill of his cap.
“Relax, Jimmy. I’m only kidding!” Allan gave his son a few playful pokes to his ribs. “I bought the last one…you little knucklehead.” Jimmy perked up immediately. For a brief moment, he’d thought his life was over.
When Allan pulled the carrying case from behind the seat of his Jeep, Jimmy was overjoyed. After all the waiting and dreaming, he now had his very own twenty-gauge shotgun. Allan removed the gun from its hard-shell case and handed it over to his glowing son.
“Well, what do you think?”
Jimmy cradled the gun while trying to determine if the moment was real. He looked up at his father and produced a tender, monumental smile. This ceremonial exchange was like no other for the boy. Staring down at his gun, Jimmy realized the importance of what was happening. From this moment on, things would be different. Because now, he held the highest of all bragging rights over each and every one of his buddies at school. This gun was sure to spur some jealousy among any group of nine-year-old boys. However, as important as that was to Jimmy, it did not compare to the gun’s real significance. Jimmy held in his hands the one object that would ensure him the freedom for which he had been waiting all summer. This new twenty-gauge shotgun granted him with his own means to track down and harvest those furry-tailed squirrels.
He had heard his father boast of his successful hunting adventures time and time again. And come morning, Jimmy had great aspirations of doing the same or even better. He had participated in a few hunting excursions in the past, but never toting a gun of his own. Jimmy had also fired guns before—just like the one he was holding now—but usually at nothing more than plastic jugs and paper targets. For Jimmy, this was the big time.
That night, sleep did not come easily for Jimmy. He tossed and turned thinking of the grand hunting adventure and finally having his very own gun. When the alarm clock rang at 4 a.m., Jimmy sprang from his bed. Allan, who had awoken an hour before, was drinking coffee, puffing on a Winston, and watching the early news programs. Sandra was also awake busily preparing breakfast for her two dedicated hunters.
“It’s kinda windy out there this morning,” said Allan as his son staggered into the living room. “It might be hard to hear them. They’re calling for rain too.”
“I don’t care about all that,” said Jimmy, rubbing the sleep from his eyes. “We’ll still find those suckers.”
“Yes, son, I’m sure we will. Now go ahead and start getting ready so we can head out in a few minutes.”
Jimmy needed no more persuading. After a delicious breakfast of scrambled eggs, toast, and bacon, he and his dad were out the door with their gear loaded in the Jeep and heading down the road. The ride to the local wildlife refuge seemed to take an eternity for the anxious lad. With his gun by his side, Jimmy sat listening to the high, lonesome sounds of his dad’s country-western radio station. He daydreamed about having a successful hunt, one concluded and celebrated with a bagged limit of five squirrels each. He had seen his dad accomplish such a feat many times before and he was sure he could do the same.
“You think we’ll see anything?” asked Jimmy.
“I don’t know…maybe,” answered Allan after taking a sip from his coffee mug.
“I hope so.”
“So do I, son…so do I.”
Jimmy and his father pulled in at the refuge around 5 a.m. and Allan began briefing his son.
“When we get in there and settled in, you’ll have to be quiet the whole time. If you make any noise, you’ll scare them away.” Jimmy knew the protocol, but still listened carefully. “Keep your gun unloaded until we hear or see something. Soon as we locate one…well…you know what to do after that.”
“Yeah, I remember,” Jimmy assured his father with gleaming confidence.
Donned in their camouflaged hunting attire, the two started by hiking down a logging road that Allan had traveled many times throughout his years of hunting. Father and son walked side by side. Allan chose the left side and Jimmy walked on the right. The pair trekked a hundred yards deeper into the woodlands and selected a large beech tree to rest and wait under.
Sitting next to his dad, the young hunter tried to take notice of his surroundings. The key to being a good hunter is observing, Jimmy remembered his father’s advice. The sun, however, remained hidden behind the horizon, which caused poor visibility throughout the forest.
The early morning winds subsided and Jimmy was captivated by the sounds of the waking wilderness. The tree frogs chirped messages back and forth. The morning songbirds were waking one by one. Their brief melodic solos rang sweetly, high above in the hidden treetops. Jimmy heard the thunderous jack-hammering of a redheaded woodcock pounding away on a defenseless tree. The natural sounds were all around and the forest was proudly coming to life.
As the pair sat, they watched as the sun rose above the Earth’s horizon. It was not long after and the morning air became hot and thick with humidity. The sunlight peeked through the natural canopy from high above, revealing the vastness of the forest. Jimmy scoured the openness, but not a squirrel in sight.
“Now what?” he asked, turning to his father.
“We’ll wait here a little longer,” Allan whispered. “They should be up and moving about soon.”
They waited and waited, but not a squirrel anywhere. Jimmy’s focus soon moved from hunting to the harassing mosquitoes. The little bloodsuckers swarmed ferociously, buzzing all around, trying to feast upon his face, ears, and neck. He slapped, swatted, and scratched as red welts began to surface upon his exposed skin. Allan was able to keep the flying rascals at bay with a prevailing exhale of cigarette smoke. After seeing his son tormented by the annoying mosquitoes, Allan decided that he and Jimmy should try their luck elsewhere. Scratching fanatically, the boy followed his dad as they ventured deeper into the woodlands.
It was then the persistent hiking became strenuous for the young, adventurous hunter. His hunting attire was soon saturated with sweat in the lingering heat. Jimmy’s camouflaged hat had acquired a noticeable wet ring on the bill while his soggy pants clung to his legs, making it almost impossible to slip comfortably through the forest. The road, which initially was flat and straight, became a hilly trail of hell. This hunting adventure was not the one for which Jimmy had planned.
Hiking up a steep incline, Allan turned to his lagging son. “Are you gonna make it? You’re looking a little peaked.”
Jimmy was feeling whipped and beat down, but he would never confess that particular truth to his father. His flushed cheeks radiated as he cradled his new gun. He looked down to the Remington, searching for a spark of inspiration. He then looked back up to his father.
“I’ll be fine,” said Jimmy.
Allan grinned and then answered, “Okay, son.”
A few steps later, Jimmy’s dad spoke again. “This is a good spot right here. I’ve seen them in this area many times. We’ll stop for a bit and see what happens.” The only thing the boy could do was give an exhausting nod.
The rest was refreshing, but it allowed Jimmy’s mind to wander. He tried to remain focused, but now, it was almost impossible.
He thought of school starting back and entering the fourth grade in the coming weeks. Which teacher will I get? I hope it’s not Mrs. Penn. She has to be the meanest teacher in school. Jimmy’s mind shifted to the camping trip he and his family had taken over the summer. That was a big bass mom caught. It almost pulled her in. Good thing
“Did you hear that?” asked Allan.
“Hear what?” Jimmy asked, returning from his reverie.
Allan nodded to the left. “Over there.”
“I don’t hear anything.” He did detect a few rumbles of thunder in the far distance.
“I think we got company, Jimmy boy.”
The big moment was finally here. Jimmy pulled his focus together and with persisting effort he too heard the bustling of a woodland squirrel. The rattling of the tree limbs sent his heart racing out of control. However, his stirring mind went blank. He had been instructed earlier in the truck, but was not sure of what to do next.
“Load your gun, Jimmy…but slowly and quietly,” Allan whispered.
He proceeded to do as his father said and carefully broke down the single shot twenty-gauge. With his trembling hand, he removed a shell from his front vest pocket and slid the cartridge into the gun’s chamber. Jimmy then quietly closed the barrel back to its original position, and he and his father stood up slowly and waited.
Jimmy’s anticipation was growing and his heart continued to race uncontrollably. He scanned the treetops with determination. He could hear the lively critter, but could not see it wandering about. He worried that his only chance at making a shot was going to pass him by.
The fear of going home empty handed ended quickly when Jimmy finally spied the furry squirrel scurrying gracefully back and forth on an oak tree limb about seventy yards away. He waited for further instructions. Allan thumbed in the squirrel’s direction, signaling his son to proceed onward.
The distant thunder heard moments ago was moving in and the wind began blowing in heavy gusts. The tree limbs propelled wildly, which made keeping an accurate account of the furry tree climber more difficult for the young hunter.
After a few steps, Jimmy stopped behind a hickory tree and again scoured the treetops. His heart pounded as large, round beads of sweat formed across his brow. He swiped his forehead with his sleeve, looked about once more, and then carried on with his hunting pursuit.
In between heavy blasts of wind, the woodland squirrel came into Jimmy’s sight once again. He discovered the critter perched on the side of a large oak tree, raking on a hickory nut, and flapping its tail. A surge of adrenaline coursed throughout the young man’s small body.
Jimmy was about sixty yards away now and in desperate need of closing the gap as quietly as possible. Allan stayed behind and watched from a distance. Jimmy turned to look back and, with a nod, Allan signaled for his son to continue.
Jimmy’s heart was pumping like never before. He looked at his surroundings and tried to determine the most efficient approach. He gazed to his left where he found a thicket of briar bush, which he knew trying to maneuver through would be hopeless. He then peered to the right where he discovered sparse undergrowth and a fallen log. His worry was steadily growing and he determined the second option would have to do.
Accompanied by a steady drizzle of rain, the wind now blew in constant blusters. As he battled the elements, Jimmy semi-circled in the direction of the oak tree, stopped within thirty yards, and now stood at a comfortable shooting distance and a promising view. He observed the tree with a keen and careful eye while his heart continued to beat like a timpani drum. No longer frolicking about, the critter had moved from the spot that Jimmy had seen it in earlier, and again his young mind raced with both eagerness and worry.
After another quick scan, Jimmy pinpointed the flapping of a bushy tail. The squirrel had moved much higher up and off to the right of the tree, perching itself on a skyscraping limb. Jimmy feared that his shooting skills could not accommodate such a challenging shot, but he had to try. He could not give up now.
With everything riding on this big moment, Jimmy intuitively squared his body. He set his feet, taking his shooter’s position, just the way his father had taught him. He slowly brought his new Remington up to his right shoulder and pointed the long barrel into the high tree loft. After pulling back the hammer, he swayed the barrel only for a few moments before he carefully brought the woodland creature into the sights of his gun. He squinted as sprinkles of rain bounced steadily off his face. He pulled in a deep breath, held it, and gently squeezed the trigger.
The blast bellowed throughout the forest, sending many birds fleeing in all directions. The gun’s deafening discharge produced an instant ringing in Jimmy’s head and the powerful recoil jolted him back a few steps.
“Nice shot, Jimmy boy!” Allan shouted as the squirrel fell to the ground. “Nice and clean. I knew you could do it. Go ahead and pick him up and throw him in your vest. We’d better get out of here. This storm is picking up fast.”
“Okay,” was the only word Jimmy managed. The young boy was overwhelmed with joy and self-confidence.
“Dang, son. Wait ‘til your mom hears about this…and your buddies at school!”
Allan continued to dote on his son as they began their long hike back to the Jeep. Neither the rain nor the hilly road troubled the young boy on the return trip. Instead, the two hunters laughed and joked as they always had. Along the way, Allan gave his son a few trademark pokes to the ribs and Jimmy returned a few of his own. The boy now felt like a real hunter, dignified in a way, just like his dad.
In Jimmy’s mind, he has no problem visualizing that wonderful day which happened so many years ago. Though, the recollection stops when he hears his mother’s voice.
“Jim,” Sandra Harrison softly speaks. “Hey…Jimmy.”
“Yeah…sorry,” he answers, returning from his daydream while his mind skips back to his parents’ living room.
“The minister is here.”
Jim Harrison turns in his father’s reclining chair. His heart beats rapidly, just as it did the morning of that memorable hunt so many years ago. Except now, he sits by his father’s side hoping, praying, and believing the angels will spare his life a little while longer.
He watches as his father’s chest slowly rises and falls. Allan Harrison’s large, calloused hands, now skeletal in appearance, rest gently at his sides while his dying body lies peacefully in the contentment of his own bed. The cancer had spread viciously throughout the 70-year-old man’s body.
Sandra Harrison, looking frail and tired, sits on the opposite side of the bed from Jim. She takes her husband’s hand and places it into her own. She begins to gently rub and caress, hoping to induce some kind of reaction from the man whom she has loved all her life. She gazes down with anticipation, but there is no use. The old man is overloaded with pain medication and unresponsive.
Jim continues to watch his father’s chest as it struggles to inhale and then exhale. He waits and anticipates the inevitable. With one last, laboring breath, Allan’s chest moves no more. Jimmy circles around the bed to comfort his crying mother.

While looking down at his father, Jim realizes it’s not sorrow that he’s feeling, but an overwhelming sense of pride and honor. As he wipes away one lonely tear from his cheek, he begins to realize how lucky he is that a great man like Allan Harrison was his father and his friend.
This story is available in the collection Under the Willow Tree and Other Stories. 

Monday, September 5, 2016

THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME by Donald Ray Pollock

I recently discovered Donald Ray Pollock and read his book, THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME. It's one of those books that will stay with you long after finishing it. If you enjoy backwoods, Hillbilly Gothic with a long list of demented and twisted characters, then Don's your man. I highly recommend this book.


Saturday, August 20, 2016


Frank Jamison grabbed a few more pieces of the seasoned hickory and placed them in the bottom barrel of the copper still. The homemade apparatus sat in a remote hollow in which no other human had likely stepped foot. No beaten paths or blazed trails led to this place. The virgin land made for the ideal location.
While Frank stood at a distance smoking his pipe, the fire began to take hold. A physically solid man, he was dressed in his only pair of denim overalls. His once coal black hair, now greying, rested on broad shoulders. His long beard hung to his chest, and, due to worry and despair, the darkness under his eyes had long set in. He had entered his fortieth year this year, nineteen-hundred and twenty-three. Frank had invested thirty of those years into the mysterious trade that became the basic means to his family’s survival. As a boy, he watched and learned from his father. Now, his son stood by his side and observed the family secrets of moonshining.
“See there, Raymond,” Frank said to his son. “You have to get your water boilin’ nice and hot so the steam’ll rise up and out the line.”
Raymond, with his high cheekbones and Cherokee ancestry, was a miniature version of his father. Consumed by intrigue, he stood in bare feet, wearing tattered overalls. The thirteen-year-old boy watched as his father fired the still.
“How much you reckon this’ll make?” asked Raymond.
Frank stirred the corn mash with a wooden oar. “I’d say ‘bout twenty jars or so.”
“We gonna make another batch tomorrow?”
“Doubt it. Not for a few days, anyway.”
As time passed, the mash boiled and condensed into the copper coils, and the liquid trickled slowly into a quart jar. When the jar reached its capacity, Raymond skillfully exchanged the container for an empty one. From the stack on the ground, he grabbed a lid and placed it onto the filled jar, turning it to a snug fit. The jar’s clear contents depicted innocence equal to that of the young boy.

The windy, narrow road that led to the Jamison home snaked for miles through the hills and hollows of what many would consider unknown land. The two-bedroom home sat deeply nestled and secured in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky.
Inside, Frank’s wife, Mary, sat at the family dinner table. Her belly protruded from her homemade dress prohibiting her from sitting at a comfortable distance. She’d birthed three wonderful children, while the fourth was less than a month away from making its arrival. Her golden hair rested snugly in a bun atop her head, just the way it did every day. Peeling potatoes, she worked intently preparing the evening meal.
“Anna, honey,” Mary said to her daughter. “Go draw the water from the well, please. And take Jake outside ‘til we finish our supper.”
“Yes, ma’am,” said Anna. With one last brush stroke to her doll’s hair, the little girl sprang from her seat opposite her mother. “Come on, Jake. Come on, boy,” she said to the Golden Retriever. Jake followed her out the door with a floppy tail wag.
Inside the home were signs of a modest living. In the kitchen, the handmade dinner table was the centerpiece, a gift from Frank to his wife on their first wedding anniversary. It had been the gathering area for many conversations over the last fourteen years. Across the room, the fireplace steadily burned. An unlit oil lamp sat on the mantel, along with the family Bible and reading spectacles. Above the front door was a plaque with the words Bless this Home inscribed into it.
Moments later, Anna returned with the kettle of water and sat it on the table.
“Thank you, dear,” Mary said.
“You’re welcome, Momma.”
“You best get washed up. Your daddy and brother’ll be along directly.”
“Yes, ma’am.”

As the sun dropped behind the horizon, Frank and Raymond made their final climb up the steep ridge. Having placed the liquor into pine crates and securing them on the back of his packhorse, Frank carefully led the animal through the dense forestry, making his way back to the family farm.
Walking along and pleased with Raymond’s willingness to learn, Frank said, “I’m proud of you, son. You did good today. Pretty soon you’ll be able to do this by yourself.”
“Hopefully I’ll be as good as you someday,” said Raymond.
“You’re already good as me.”
The boy grinned, swelled out his chest, and proudly marched alongside his father. Frank saw Raymond’s reaction and produced a smile of his own.
Although Frank felt proud of his son, his moonshining business had brought its share of heartache. The federal revenuers had wreaked havoc on the backwoods distiller—and Frank was no exception. Three years before they destroyed his operation and eliminated his only means of financial stability. That following winter, his oldest daughter, Doris, lay sick with pneumonia and fever. With his funds stripped, Frank was unable to purchase the proper medicine, and after a two-week struggle, Doris succumbed to her illness. The young girl died in the same house that she was born in only eight years before. It was then Frank Jamison vowed that no one would ever come between him and his family’s survival again.
After trekking for some time, father and son broke free of the woods that surrounded their home. Raymond spotted Jake squirming out from his favorite spot under the porch. The dog stood, stretched his stiff muscles, and casually sauntered out to greet them both.
“You go on and tell your momma and sister we’re back and I’ll tend to Sylvester,” said Frank, leading the horse around the chicken coop and into the barn.
“Yes, sir,” said Raymond.
In the corner of the barn, Frank unloaded the pine crates next to a dozen or so bales of straw. After securing Sylvester in his stall, he returned and moved the bales, one by one. He slid the last bail over, kicked away some loose straw and revealed three weather-beaten barn slats fitting firmly side by side. Bending to one knee, he removed the slats and placed the jars into a deep, dug out hole. He stacked his inventory neatly just as he’d done many times before. He returned the slats and bales to their original form and exited the barn toward his house to join his family.
“Sure smells good in here,” said Frank, walking through the door of his home.
“Momma’s cookin’ pork stew with boiled potatoes,” said Anna. She ran over to hug her father. “I been helping too.”
“You’re gonna be a good cook when you get older. Just like your momma,” said Frank.
“How’d things go out there today?” asked Mary.
Frank walked over to greet his wife.
“Not bad,” he said, as he placed his arms around her and their unborn child. “Produced about the usual, I guess.”
“Let’s hope they sell.”
“We’ll be fine, dear. I’m sure of it. I sold quite a few jars the other day. Business is good.”
After supper, Frank took refuge in his rocking chair by the small, crackling fire. He mentally observed the day and thought it was a productive one. He would have no trouble selling what he’d made this afternoon. His regulars would be around eventually looking to purchase some of what they believed to be the best moonshine in the region, and possibly in the entire state. The market was a demanding one and Frank had no worries.
Outside, a rattling car engine came up the driveway. Visitors were uncommon at the Jamison residence, so Frank sprang from his chair and grabbed the shotgun hanging above the mantel. Jake let loose a few alerting barks.
“Easy, boy,” Frank said to the dog.
“Who is it?” asked Raymond, jumping to his feet to look out the window.
“Not sure.” Frank gazed from the doorway into the darkness. As headlights advanced, he said, “Looks like John Lytle’s truck.”
John Lytle was a long-time friend of Frank and his family. He was also the Deputy Sheriff. Frank leaned his gun against the wall and walked outside. He struck a match and lit a lamp that hung from a nail on the porch.
“How are ya, Frank?” asked John, as he stepped out of his truck.
“Oh, I’m gettin’ by.” Frank walked over to greet his old friend with a firm handshake. “What brings you to my neck of the woods?”
“Had to drop in on Ms. Coburn—make sure she was gettin’ along okay. Thought I’d stop by on my way back through to see how you and Mary were doin’.”
“Come on in. She’ll be glad to see ya.”
“Sure. Okay.” John removed his hat and followed Frank inside. “Look at you. Pretty as ever,” he said to Mary. “Can’t be much longer now. About a month or so?”
“Any day now,” said Mary, placing her hands across her belly. “How you been? And how’s Eliza?”
“We’re both doin’ fine. She’s been gettin’ her preserves ready for the Indian Summer Festival. You all are comin’ I hope? I know Eliza would sure be happy to see ya.”
“As long as this young’un doesn’t decide to come between now and then—we’ll be there.” There was a hint of fatigue in Mary’s voice.
“Only the Good Lord knows the answer to that, I suppose,” said John.
“Care for a cup of coffee?” asked Frank.
“Sure,” said John, kneeling to pet Jake. “Never turn down a hot cup of coffee.”
Mary poured two cups, handing one to Frank and the other to John Lytle. After a few minutes of small talk among old friends, the Deputy finally saw his opportunity.
“Frank, you mind if we step outside and talk for a bit?”
“Sure, John.”
Raymond attempted to follow.
“You stay here, son. Me and John need to talk alone.” Raymond returned to his spot on the floor by the fire. Jake followed and flopped down beside him.
The two men stepped down off the porch and away from the house.
“What’s on your mind?” asked Frank.
“Well,” John began, and positioned his hat back on his head. “I’m really not sure how to go about tellin’ you this but…ah.”
“Go on, John,” said Frank, trying to reassure his old friend.
“Okay then. It’s the damn revenuers, Frank. They’re crackin’ down again.”
With the lamp’s light shining on his face, Frank’s expression turned harsh. “What do you mean they’re crackin’ down?”
“They’re making another sweep.”
“Keep talkin’,” said Frank.
John sighed. “In this region. They’re comin’ for your operation tomorrow. I tried to throw ‘em off, but they wasn’t havin’ it. They’re dead-set on takin’ out your still. Somebody round here must’ve tipped ’em off. But God as my witness, it wasn’t me.” John threw his right hand up declaring his oath.
Frank stood silent for a few seconds as a chill ran down his spine. He thought of his daughter, Doris.
“Frank, please do us all a favor. Don’t show up at that still. I know what it means to you, but it’ll get downright ugly if you do.”
Frank said, “So what you’re tellin’ me is to just go ahead and let them goddamn feds strip my livelihood away?”
“I know how you feel–”
“You don’t know how I feel,” Frank interrupted and his voice trembled. “You ever buried one of your babies, John? Do you know how that feels?”
With his hands in his pockets, John looked to the ground, unsure how to respond.
“You ever had to think of the right words to say to your wife as she lays over her daughter’s grave—cryin’ and beggin’ God to bring her back? What about the guilt and shame a man feels when he can’t provide for his family?”
“Is everything all right out there, dear?” asked Mary, poking her head out the door.
Frank tried to regain his composure. “Yes, honey,” he answered, switching back to his natural tone.
“Okay, I was just checkin’. If you two need anything, just yell.” She closed the door.
“Listen, Frank,” John began, “I’m not here to make life difficult for ya. I’m here ’cause you’re my friend. I don’t want anything happenin’ to you and your family. You think on it.” John opened the door on his truck, but stopped before getting in. “And for what it’s worth…I’ll still respect you and be your friend no matter what you decide.”

Frank’s mind raced with doubt as John drove away. He was unsure of what to do and realized there wasn’t much time to decide.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Now Available: BROTHERS OF THE MOUNTAIN: Heart of the Frontier

Buy at Amazon 

Heart of the Frontier is a book of seven interconnected stories that follows the lives of mountain men and brothers Henry and Lucas McCarty. Ride along as they face hostiles and adversities at every turn. Each story in this book is not only filled with extreme action and adventure, but also represents the special breed of men who were willing to risk their lives in America's western frontier in the 1820s and 1830s. 

Featured stories:
Pride of the Shawnee 
River Pirates 
Two Buffaloes 
Grizzly Rendezvous 
Blood on the Prairie 
Justice in the Valley 
Savagery of the Blackfeet

Wednesday, March 23, 2016


Available at: Amazon

Moonshiner’s Justice is a continuation of my short story Faith, Love and Moonshine: An Appalachian Tale, which I’d written about five years ago and now stands as the first chapter of this book. I’d received feedback from a few readers wishing Faith hadn’t ended where it did. They wanted more. Although the story was a standalone, I knew it wasn’t quite complete. I tweaked and revised the storyline just a bit, but no drastic changes were made. Now, five years later, Moonshiner’s Justice is born.

Description: Moonshining is a common way of life in the poverty-stricken region of eastern Kentucky. For Frank Jamison, backwoods distilling is his primary means to surviving the harsh and uneconomical time.Three years have passed since the ratification of the 18th Amendment, which banned the sale and distribution of intoxicating liquors. It was also then, in 1920, Frank had his first run-in with the federal revenuers. The encounter resulted in a temporary setback for his business, but also led to the tragic loss of his oldest daughter. Now, an insider has tipped-off the authorities and Frank is once again feeling the pressure of losing his operation. It's Frank's father, an old-time moonshiner with an itchy trigger finger, who steps in with readied guns to set matters straight and help restore the reputation of the backwoods distiller.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

The Old Writer and the Hungry Squirrels: A Short Story

This story is included in the short story collection Under the Willow Tree and Other Stories.

It was an ongoing chatter of squawks and barks that rattled Ian McAllister from his sleep. This noise woke him the same time every morning, but there was no one to blame for it except Ian. Two weeks earlier, he had nailed an empty soup can onto the outside ledge of the kitchen window and filled it with handfuls of corn. Two lively squirrels had accustomed themselves to this routine and were awaiting their daily handout.
The old man opened his eyes and looked high above to the square, wooden ceiling beams running parallel with his bed. They ran from one wall to the other, adding to the sound structure of the one room cabin.
Slowly, he swung his legs over the side of his bed and slid his bare, boney feet into his house slippers. He yawned, stretched, and stood, joints stiff and cracking.
“I’m coming, you rascals,” he said, scratching his round belly from over his nightshirt.
He grabbed his walking cane that was beside his bed and paced wearily to the kitchen cupboard. He opened the door and scooped a cupful of corn from a small burlap sack. When Ian raised the window, the squirrels leaped to the snow-covered ground and returned to the ledge after he filled the can and shut the window.
“There you go,” said Ian, looking on as if he were a proud papa.
With pleasure, the old man watched the squirrels—the large red one, which he had named Arthur, and the smaller grey, dubbed Maxwell—nibble yellow kernels between their tiny paws, standing on the window’s ledge.
What fascinating creatures, Ian thought, standing in front of the frosty glass. Lifting his gaze, he looked past the furry squirrels beyond the grey fencing that surrounded his front yard, and out to the wooded hillside. Ian marveled at the pine trees blanketed with fresh fallen snow. He loved this secluded countryside that he had called home for more than thirty years. He reveled in the wonderment of the morning, and shortly after, stepped away from the window and sidled over to the coffee pot.
It had always been these little things—the playful squirrels, the beautiful landscape—that had brought comfort and joy into Ian’s life. Such were the small pleasantries of a lonely writer, whose wife had died long ago, and who was without anyone to call a friend.
After making his coffee and pouring himself a cup, Ian ventured a few steps over to his roll-top desk. He set his cup on top, eased down in a cushiony chair, and leaned his cane against the side of the desk. The desk had been his grandmother’s and the smell of her stale pipe tobacco still permeated the old wood, which hurled him back to his youth every time he sat down to write.
The old writer pulled out his notebook, and with pen in hand, he stared down to yet another intimidating blank page. He contemplated a plot line that he had been mulling over, but found it weak and disposed of the idea.
“That’ll never work,” he said. This was his common response to any inkling of creativity that he had had in recent months. It was the mindset that had ruled his thinking much of the passing year.
Creating stories had become a struggle for Ian. He had run into nothing but disappointing dead ends. However, he had never given up. This life, the one of a writer and storyteller, was all he knew. Every day he drudged forward, hoping to revamp his creative talent which he fervently believed was lying somewhere within.
He grabbed his coffee cup, sipped, and again glanced over to the kitchen window—adjacent to his desk—to watch the squirrels devour the kernels of corn. The squirrels were the only reliable entity in Ian’s life. They brought him comfort and happiness.
Again, Ian sipped and then placed his cup on top of his desk. He returned his concentration to the vacant page of his notebook and tapped his pen mindlessly, searching for the slightest glimpse of hope.
“If only I had a muse that I could count on,” he said while twisting the end of his white mustache.
Several minutes passed and still no words or ideas came forth. He rotated his neck, trying to unbind the stiffness which was setting in faster than usual. An hour went by and then another and not a single scribbling of a sentence or word occurred.
Becoming frustrated, Ian slumped in his chair and said, “Damn you, muse! Where are you? I need you more than ever.”
With his fingertips, he massaged his head at the temples and again he glanced to the kitchen window and noticed the squirrels were gone. They had gotten their free meal and headed back to the wooded hillside.
In a small way, Ian felt used. Maybe it was loneliness causing his feeling of dismay. Maybe it was his inability to create the marvelous stories for which he was once widely known. Whichever the case, he had never felt this way about the little woodland squirrels.
“You creatures are like all the rest,” he said. “You’re no different from the agents and publishers who are constantly putting their grubby hands into my pockets.”
As Ian finished his complaining and looked again to his notebook, a discharge of knocks came from the front door of his cabin. He was not one who startled easily, but he jumped slightly and expelled a few obscenities under his breath. He grumbled and rose from his chair.
More knocks came and Ian grabbed his cane and walked across the one-room cabin. When he turned the deadbolt and opened the door, the old writer’s eyes gazed upon a being that made his bitter heart flutter and dance.
“Good afternoon, Ian,” said the visitor.
Ian stared giddily. Standing before him was the most beautiful sight he had ever seen—a woman with hair as black as the night sky and complexion equal to that of the fallen snow behind her. She wore a long, elegant red dress that sparkled in the sun’s reflection. Draped over her shoulders was a shawl fashioned from the fur of an exotic animal.
“It’s you,” he said. “What are you doing here?”
She walked through the doorway, going past him.
“My goodness,” said the woman, “someone could catch a deathly cold out there.” She rubbed her arms, as if trying to induce circulation back into her limbs. Ian shut the door behind her, and his enchantment of her soon turned to irritation.
He asked, “Why are you here, Tamara?”
The elegant woman unfastened her shawl, exposing vast cleavage and ample breasts. Ian took notice of her sexual allure. It had been years since he had witnessed such erotic splendor. From the tips of her shiny high heels to her long, straight locks, he absorbed it all with much delight.
“My, aren’t we getting touchy in our old age?” said Tamara. “Can’t a person stop by and see a dear friend whenever she wishes?”
Ian said, “I’d never realized we were such dear friends.” He turned his eyes from her enormous bosom and headed back to his desk.
“Surely you don’t mean that,” said Tamara. We’ve been friends for so many years. Don’t be so bitter, Ian.”
He said, “How am I supposed to feel? You’ve been away for a long time now.”
“Yes, I know I’ve neglected you,” she said with a voice absorbed in guilt. “But I’m here now, aren’t I?”
Ian ignored her out of spite. He grabbed his pen and thought he might write a line or two. For a moment, he had truly felt a jolt of inspiration. And at last, he did write. He jotted two brilliant sentences.
He had loved her dearly. The pain and agony grew within him each passing day.
Ian stopped writing, sat back in his chair, and stared down to the page.
“I haven’t been able to do that in months,” he said, astonished.
Tamara said, “It feels wonderful, doesn’t it, Ian—to produce your prose once again.” While she spoke she stood behind him, watching over his shoulder.
“Yes, it does. I’ve been waiting for this moment a long time.”
“I know you have,” said Tamara. “I heard your wish. That’s why I’ve returned to you. As you said, you need me. And there are plenty of wonderful stories floating around inside that magnificent mind of yours, waiting to make you a best seller once again. I can make that happen, Ian, just like before.”
Ian turned in his chair and with suspicious eyes stared up at her.
“How can I be sure you won’t leave me again? How can I be certain that I can trust a muse like you?”
“Muses do come and go, Ian. We all know that.”
“True,” said Ian. “But I don’t care for that uncertainty. I’ve lived this way for far too long. I need to know that you’ll always be there when I need you. And I’m old. I don’t have much time left.”
Tamara leaned over, pressing her large breasts on the back of Ian’s neck. She breathed heavily and seductively into the old writer’s ear. Ian’s old heart thumped in his chest.
“Now, Ian,” she softy whispered, “we’ve been through this all before. We both know what it will take so that you’re able to write your stories at will. Better yet, so that we’ll be together forever. Doesn’t that sound wonderful? Nothing has changed, Ian. My offer still stands.”
The feel of bare cleavage on his neck and the smell of Tamara’s exotic perfume sent a pleasing chill down Ian’s back.
“But why must I sign over my soul?” he asked, remembering the terms that she had introduced the year before. “There must be another way.”
The seductress sank her hands into Ian’s shoulders and neck and intricately massaged his old, tired muscles. And again she lowered herself, whispering into his other ear.
“I wish there were, Ian, but I’m afraid there isn’t. The gods of the underworld will need your immortal soul if you wish to write as you did before. That is the only way. You owe it to your fans.”
For the old writer it seemed like ages since he had published any respectable works. It had also been ages since he had received his last piece of fan mail. Ian missed that connection with his readers, the corresponding back and forth. He missed touching their lives as he had done when he was a young, prolific writer. He wanted to be the free-spirited writer from the days of old.
“And you can promise me the words will flow as freely as I please? No more struggling. No more misery?”
“Of course,” said Tamara. “I promise all that—for the rest of your days.”
Ian pulled away from the muse’s persistent pawing, grabbed his cane, and pushed up from his chair.
“I’m still not convinced,” he said, walking over to peer out the kitchen window. He hoped to catch another glimpse of his furry friends, and he wished he had not felt so bitter toward them earlier.
“How can you say that?” asked Tamara. “Wasn’t that wonderful feeling of writing a few moments ago convincing enough? Ian, you can have all that again and so much more. All you have to do is give up your soul. Hand it over and write as you’ve never written before.”
Staring out the window to the snowy hillside, Ian listened to the words of his muse. She continued her swooning and coercing. The longer she talked, the more sense she made. He was tired of this burden of being unable to write, but most of all he was heartbroken because he was unable to enjoy his craft.
Ian turned to Tamara. “Okay, I’m ready.” After a moment of silence and a deep breath, he said, “Take my soul and do with it as you wish. I don’t need it. Just give me back my will to write.”
Tamara walked over to Ian, her high heels clacking on the hardwood floor. Smiling, she placed her soft, pale hands on either side of the writer’s whiskered face and caressed gently.
“You’ve made a wise decision, Ian,” she said in a caring tone. “Your love of writing will return as will an outpouring of story ideas that will indeed touch your fans, just as you have wished.”
She pulled her hand away from his face and darted toward the front door.
“Wait. Where are you going?” asked Ian. “I thought we were going to be together forever.”
Stopping at the front door, Tamara refastened her shawl and turned to him.
“I’ll always be with you in spirit, Ian. And I’ll drop in on you from time to time. When you awake tomorrow morning, everything you’ve wished for will be as it should be.”
Tamara walked out the front door leaving a skeptical old man in her wake. Ian did not attempt to write any more that evening. Instead, he would wait until morning to see if the muse stayed true to her word.
After a night of unsettled sleep, Ian rose again to the squawking sound of the squirrels. He was glad to see they had returned.
“Here you are,” said Ian, dumping the corn in the soup can.
This time he did not admire the critters while they ate. Instead, he brewed his coffee and quickly took his seat at his desk to continue with the wonderful story he had started the day before. Relaxed and confident, he pulled out his notebook and pen.
With little effort the words and ideas streamed from Ian’s pen onto the page. He could not contain the huge grin emerging on his creased face.
“Remarkable,” he said to himself, energized as he continued to write.
After only an hour, Ian had completed an entire story. And it was not just any story; it was one of brilliance. He felt as if it were one of his best. Reading over the finished work, he basked in the joy and comfort of something he had not been able to do for a long time. Most importantly, he felt no different. He did not feel like a man who had lost his soul. He was not even certain that he had. He was however convinced of one thing: he could write again. To Ian, this was all that mattered.
Day after day, until a week had passed, Ian repeated his routine of feeding the squirrels, preparing his coffee, and writing his stories. Each story, saturated with the old writer’s style and flair, possessed a quality unlike any story of the present day. To Ian, each one appeared almost lifelike. And in true Ian McAllister fashion, each story covered his favorite subjects: chaos, death, and destruction. He had written many stories of this nature throughout the years, but none as magnificent as the ones he had churned out in the past days.
One evening while in the midst of another writing session, Ian stopped briefly to read over his work. This story was starting out to be even better than the one he had written the day before. He thought this could possibly be the greatest work to date.
His starry eyes scanned the page and again he noticed the intricacies of his writing, possessing realism unlike anything he had ever written before. It had been so long since he felt this way about his craft and he sensed his talent as a writer was improving day after day. The old writer fed from this natural high and felt Tamara had indeed held true to her word; although, he still did not feel like a soulless scribe.
While Ian wrote, Tamara, all charm and allure, again appeared at the front door wearing the same dress and shawl that she had worn on her original visit.
“I’ve noticed you’ve been a very busy man, Ian McAllister,” she said, walking into the cabin, high heels clacking on the hardwood floor.
“Oh yes. More than ever. You’re truly remarkable, Tamara. I won’t doubt you again. Thank you for all that you’ve done for me.”
The muse walked over to Ian’s desk and gently ran her hand along its top and down the side.
“I’ve come to thank you as well, Ian,” she said, admiring the craftsmanship of the wooden desk.
Perplexed, Ian said, “For what? I’ve done nothing—nothing that I know of.”
She picked up Ian’s notebook that lay on his desk.
“Your stories are changing the world, Ian—even as we speak. The gods of the underworld are extremely pleased with you.” She quickly flipped through the pages of stories.
“Please forgive me,” Ian began, “but I haven’t submitted anything to my publisher. My fans, or the rest of the world, know nothing of my stories.”
Tamara threw the notebook back on the desk and laughed.
“You really have been busy, haven’t you,” she said. “Even too busy to know what’s going on all around you.”
“What do you mean?” asked Ian.
“Turn on your television.”
“My television? Is this some sort of joke?”
“It’s not a joke. Just turn on the TV,” Tamara said again.
The old writer shuffled over to the end table by the sofa and picked up the remote to the television. Hesitantly, he aimed and pushed the power button.
When the screen’s illumination was at its fullest, Ian saw flashes of brutal chaos and destruction. This was something often showed by the news stations so it was nothing unusual for Ian. He glanced over to Tamara.
“What is it I’m supposed to be witnessing?” he asked.
“Flip to the next channel,” said Tamara, watching the screen, intently, enjoying the scenes as each played out one by one.
Ian did as she said, and again the screen displayed the same bloody suffrage.
Breaking News, the headline stated. Many Dead after Today’s Catastrophic Earthquake.
Somewhat rattled, Ian flipped to the next channel.
“Bodies burnt alive,” said the news anchor. Again, the old man changed the channel.
Every station depicted mayhem—nothing but widespread death and chaos. The old writer became uneasy and sensed something was not right, in fact, something was eerily wrong. He turned off the television and tossed the remote onto the sofa.
“What the hell is going on?” he asked.
“You’ve gotten your wish,” said Tamara, elated. “Your words have once again made a huge impact on the people of the world.”
It was then Ian understood her. All the turmoil on the television mirrored that of the stories in his notebook—the topics Ian loved to write about most: pandemonium and destruction.
“You mean I’m responsible for all of this?” He gave a nod to the television.
“I’m afraid so,” said Tamara.
Ian stood stone-faced; not wanting to believe the moment was real.
“You fooled me,” he said through a trembling voice.
“Nonsense,” said Tamara. “I’ve made you the most prolific writer in the world—just as you wished for. There was no trickery involved.”
“You are evil in the purest form,” said Ian. “How could you have allowed this to happen? Innocent people are dying!”
Tamara said nothing. Instead she walked over to a painting hanging on the cabin wall.
“For an old man you are na├»ve,” she said. She bumped the frame a little to the left, squaring it with the other pictures hanging on the wall. She turned back around. “Evil is everywhere in the world, Ian. Don’t you see that? It’s greedy people like you who spread evil. If you hadn’t bargained your soul for your precious writing career, none of the destruction would be happening right now. You’re the only one who’s to blame. Not me.”
Ian was not sure how to respond. He thought for a moment, and then stood up a little straighter and blurted out the first logical thought that came to his mind.
“Then I’ll quit writing.”
Tamara laughed. “I’m afraid it’s not that simple. You’ve made a deal with the gods of the underworld. They will force you to write your stories. And even if you try to stop, you won’t succeed. You are without a soul, Ian. You have no choice in the matter.”
Ian was in disbelief. He had always been a gentle, caring man. He had never wished any harm on anyone. He had always loved Mother Nature and the woodland creatures, and he respected his fellow man. He had no idea that one day his words would lead to worldly devastation.
Walking to the front door to leave, Tamara said, “I hope you understand this has nothing to do with you personally. Good and evil have always existed in the world, Ian, and it’s always been a balancing act between the two. I hope you understand. And I want to thank you for your contribution.” She walked out, shutting the door behind her. The old writer dropped his cane and quickly walked over to turn the deadbolt.
Distraught, Ian nervously ran his fingers through his white hair. He walked to the kitchen cupboard, pulled from it a bottle of whiskey and a glass, and unscrewed the lid from the bottle. With his shaking hand, he poured a generous shot into his glass and gulped it. He poured another and drank again. Ian tried not to think of his stories but was unable to avoid them.
With every attempt to sway his mind, Ian found himself steering back to his latest story. Ian grabbed the bottle of whiskey and his glass and made his way back over to his writing station. After sitting, he poured another, this time filling the glass to the top. He took a large gulp and then placed his glass where his coffee cup normally sat. He opened his notebook and with pen in hand he began to write.
Even with concentrated effort, Ian was unable to stop himself from writing and so he eventually gave up and let the muse’s influence prevail. Subconsciously, he was aware that the story was of pure evil, although he did not mind. It was the writing, the act of creating, the act of producing art, something that he had missed for far too long, that took over his being. He had always loved and valued the art form, and did so as he scribbled out the words in his notebook. But at the same time he loathed it as he never had before.
On and on, into the early hours of the morning, he wrote with nothing holding him back. Finally, Ian stopped and looked down to his words when a welling tear broke from his eyelid, rolled down his whiskered cheek, and splashed onto the page of his notebook. He wrote one final sentence, scooted from his desk, and made his way to the bedroom area of the cabin.
It was an hour later when the sun started rising above the wooded hillside, just past the grey fencing that surrounded Ian’s front yard, that the frolicking squirrels were already at the window’s ledge, wanting their morning ration of corn. For a solid half hour they squawked, barked, and played, trying to capture the attention of the one who had been feeding them regularly for the last couple of weeks. Even with the squirrels’ playful persistence, the one who filled the soup can did not come to the window this time.
Through the frosty window, past the old, roll-top desk, a shadowy figure gently swayed from one of the square, wooden ceiling beams of the log cabin. Ian McAllister’s lifeless body hung suspended by a stretched rope that had elongated his neck to unnatural proportions. No more would he hurt anyone else. No more would this caring man have to worry about wreaking havoc on the world with his words. Ian McAllister had written his last story.
On the desk with the half-filled bottle of whiskey and empty glass, sat Ian’s notebook, and on the bottom of the last page of his final story was his final request:
God, forgive me.
And someone please feed my squirrels.