RPG Digest

November 2019


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Thanks to all these talented writers who contribute to every issue of RPG Digest with such enthusiasm. 






Thanksgiving Day, Past and Present by Laura Alston. 3

It Is Better to Be Rich and Healthy than it is to Be Poor and Sick by E. B. Alston. 3

Contemplating a Leaf by Sybil Austin Skakle. 5

Mark Twain, an American Writer, Humorist, and Lecturer by Rita Berman. 5

Natters of a Nomad by Peggy Lovelace Ellis. 8

My First Best Friend by Sybil Austin Skakle. 9

A Rainy Night in Autumn by Marry Williams. 11

The River Rocks by Howard A. Goodman. 12

Mahjong by Diana Goldsmith. 15

Thanksgiving 1993 by Sybil Austin Skakle. 16

Life in the Universe by Randy Bittle. 17

It’s Different Now by Tim Whealton. 18

The Thong is Ended by E. B. Alston. 19

Avicenna-Prince of Physicians by Dr. O. Cameron Gruner. 21

My Secular Immortality by Howard A. Goodman. 22

Thanksgiving in Moccasin Gap by Brad Carver. 23

Did I Read That Sign Right?. 23

Rex by E. B. Alston. 25

Hammer Spade and the Inca Curse – Serialized book be E. B. Alston. 27

Quantum computing-Schrodinger's Cheetah - From the Economist 33

Take Your Sons Hunting by E. B. Alston. 35

From the Kitchen of P. L. Almanza. 37

A High Plains Christmas by E. B. Alston. 39

Contributors. 51




Thanksgiving Day, Past and Present

 Laura Alston


The toddler sat expectantly in her high chair.

She noticed a festive air that she did not understand.

The smells in the room were so very enticing.

Someone called out “Happy Thanksgiving!”

A few years later she was an active seven-year old.

She now understood that Thanksgiving Day is special.

She got lots of hugs and kisses, and the food was good.

The meal over, she ran and played games with cousins.

She grew into a lovely and intelligent teenager.

She really looked forward to Thanksgiving Day,

For she would see her family and friends there

And would laugh and dance with other teenagers.

As a young adult, she still was filled with anticipation,

For she could contribute a dish to the Thanksgiving meal.

Afterwards, she helped remove plates from the table,

And she willingly helped with clean-up in the kitchen.

Now she sits at the head of the table at Thanksgiving.

Her eyes are dim and cloudy as she looks at loved ones.

With head bowed and arthritic hands folded in prayer,

She gives thanks for Thanksgiving Day, past and present.


It Is Better to Be Rich and Healthy than it is to Be Poor and Sick

E. B. Alston


"No kidding!" you say. I just wrote something that is obvious to everybody except politicians, academics, single-issue busybodies and newspaper reporters. Most of what we see in news headlines today falls in the same category. "Study: U. S. Cigarette Pack Warnings Ineffective."

Except for those busybodies who insisted on them, who actually thought they would keep a single person from smoking? Can you name one person who stopped smoking because of those warnings?

When we are bombarded day after day with useless warnings that bicycles are unstable, that guns are dangerous, that you shouldn’t drink gasoline or subject it to open flame, that the soft top on a Jeep Wrangler could be punctured in a rollover, you get immune. Why are they wasting ours, and their, time?

Think of the money this futility costs. Nobody is that stupid. It’s just that in our lawyer infested environment it’s an opportunity to make money on our own carelessness. In other words, its just plain old fashioned personal greed.

A few years ago, the results of a fifty-year UNC study about how intelligence levels affected personal success came out. Guess what? Those with high intelligence made more money and had better jobs. The pretty girls in the study got more dates, too. They didn’t mention that, but you and I know it’s true.

Wonder what that study cost?

Is life so boring that we have to manufacture things to worry about and endlessly repeat stuff everybody already knows? I suppose these last few weeks of dry, hot weather are due to global warming and the ozone hole over Antarctica.

I’m so old that I remember in the 1960s when the "Chicken Littles" worried about the nuclear winter for the very same reasons they now predict the global warming catastrophe. They were predicting ice sheets over North Carolina by the end of the century. You can use statistics to prove, or disprove, anything and there is no information so simple that cannot be made unintelligible in a graph.

I don’t believe anything I read in the newspaper or see on television. If the evening news reported that West Virginia was a mountainous state and I needed to know that it was true but didn’t have corroboration from reliable source, I’d have to go check myself.

Why does anybody with a brain pay any attention to this silliness? And, the bigger question, why do the people who dispense this garbage think it’s important? I’ll tell you why. They are paid to do it.

They are making the very idea of civilization irrelevant and embarrassing. We gave up hunting and gathering for this?

Back when folks had and used their brains, they wrote about things like Kant’s twelve categories; unity and plurality, totality, reality, negation, limitation, cause and effect, existence and non-existence, contingency and necessity. Useful discussions about what life is about! All of us are briefly alive and then we are durably dead.

Why are we wasting our time with headlines like "Putting Teenage Boys and Girls Together Causes Sexual Tension?"

Gee, I didn’t know that. Thanks for telling me.

Jay Leno has a book about headlines such as this. Here are a few doozies.

"Dead man told to get back to work"

"Liquor Sales Dip Blamed on Less Drinking"

"Researchers call murder a public threat."

"Living together linked to divorce"

"Boys cause as many pregnancies as girls"

"Chitlin’ truck loses load in Climax"

"Trees can break wind"

"Family catches fire just in time, chief says."

And best of all, "Man admits killing violated probation"

When my local paper has a headline about a car crash involving a SUV in Seattle, it tells me two things. One is there is no interesting, politically correct local news to print. The other is they are both unimaginative and lazy.

As far as the hot button issues de jour go, they print breathless headlines forecasting imminent doom for mankind. It’s always a global catastrophe; never "a few people might get sick for a few days."

Any moral argument is compromised when you disrespect the truth by lying or exaggerating to advance your cause, no matter how moral you think it is.

It is a classic case of using immoral means in pursuit of supposedly worthy ends. That’s how Hitler, Stalin and Mao justified their horrors. They did it for the good of the country. It is important not to cook data or hype the role of some current hot-button bugaboo in order to advance your pet cause.

Our duty is to understand moral truth and speak it in, and out of, season. And if you’re going to put it on the air or in the newspaper, please tell us something that we don’t already know!



Contemplating a Leaf

Sybil Austin Skakle


Green and slender

Graceful and small

What good are you

Plucked from a bush?

My instructions are

To be present with God

As I observe you.

Thicker than a rose leaf

Not shiny, not dull

Longer than the rose leaf

You’ve a subtle aroma

Designed by God

for some purpose

leaf and I are alike

Before I am harvested

I hope to add beauty

and provide oxygen

for the lives of others

“Yes, I love you Lord!”

Where are the sheep

I am to feed?



Mark Twain, an American Writer, Humorist, and Lecturer

By Rita Berman.


Samuel Langhorne Clements, better known by his pen name, Mark Twain, was born November 30, 1835 in Florida, Missouri, shortly after the appearance of Halley’s Comet. He predicted that he would “go out with it” as well. He died April 21, 1910, in Redding, Connecticut, the day after the comet returned.

After giving public lectures on his travel experiences, Twain was as popular as a lecturer second only to that of Charles Dickens. He had received international fame for his travel narratives, especially The Innocents Abroad, (1869), Roughin it, (1872) and Life on the Mississippi (1883).

Twain was the sixth of seven children born to Jane and John Marshall Clemens and was raised in Hannibal, Missouri, which he later used as the setting for his novels, Tom Sawyer, and Huckleberry Finn. (1884). His father was an attorney and judge who died of pneumonia in 1847 when Twain was 11. The financial stability of the family had deteriorated before then, for they had to take in boarders, and even sell their furniture.

The next year Twain left school after the fifth grade to become a printer’s apprentice. In 1851 he began working as a typesetter, contributing articles and humorous sketches to the Hannibal Journal, a newspaper that his brother Orion owned. He later became a riverboat pilot on the Mississippi River before heading west to join Orion in Nevada.

His lack of success in mining led him to turn to journalism. His first success as a writer was when his humorous tale, “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” was published on November 18, 1865 in the New York weekly The Saturday Press. A year later he traveled to the Sandwich Islands (now Hawaii) as a reporter for the Sacramento Union. The letters he wrote to the Union were popular in 1861, became the basis for his first lectures, and were published as a book in 1947. 

In 1867, he took a four-month’s excursion, funded by the San Francisco Alta California newspaper, to the Mediterranean that was billed as “To the Holy Land, Egypt, the Crimea, Greece, and Intermediate Points of Interest”. The chartered steamship Quaker City, carried some 150 passengers. On the way home they visited Bermuda.

It was on this trip that Twain met fellow passenger Charles Langdon, who showed him a picture of his sister Olivia. Twain later claimed to have fallen in love at first sight.  He and Olivia corresponded throughout 1868. She rejected his first proposal, but in February 1870 they were married in Elmira, New York.

While on the excursion Twain wrote some 50 letters for the Alta and six for the New York Tribune describing his observations. He later added more material and published his account as The Innocents Abroad (1869) and it was a great success.  

Almost sixty years ago I purchased a copy of the book from Foyles Book Store in London. His description of visiting the Pyramids of Egypt in which he wrote that “on looking at the Sphinx and hearing, the familiar clink of a hammer, he understood the case at once - a relic-hunter had crawled onto the jaw of the Sphinx and was trying to break a specimen from it,” foretold the damage tourists do.    

The Innocents Abroad is worthwhile reading even now although the sights he saw have changed greatly since Twain’s time.

Some of his writing reflects the intensely racist attitudes common to his place and time, most evident in his stories like The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn that some school systems have banned.   

Twain and his family moved to Europe in June 1891 due to health problems. They spent years in France, Germany, and Italy visiting the European baths, as well as England and Austria.

In July 1895 Twain began a year-long, around the world lecture tour that took him to British Columbia, Canada, England, and Germany, and across the Pacific Ocean.  He went to Fiji, Australia, New Zealand, Sri Lanka, India, and South Africa. He later traveled to Montreal and Canada to secure Canadian and British copyrights for his books.

He went through a period of deep depression from 1896 when his daughter Susy died of meningitis. She was 24 years old.  Her writing are included in the 100th Anniversary edition of Twain’s autobiography, which I read recently.  This autobiography was released in instalments in the North American Review, the first chapter being published September 7, 1906.  It was Twain’s opinion that “biographies are but the clothes and buttons of the man. The biography of the man himself cannot be written.”

In his introduction he wrote that his experiences as an author began almost 40 years before, early in 1867. Before he commenced writing it Twain wrote he intended that his autobiography should become a model for all future autobiographies when it is published after his death. “It shall be admired because of its form and method – whereby the past and the present are constantly brought face to face, resulting in contrasts which newly fire up the interest all along.”  No chronological order followed so it was difficult to trace the development of his life. In Chapter 3 he was remembering back to 1849 when he was 14 years old.

He explained that his autobiography does not “select from his life its showy episodes, but deals mainly in the common experiences which go to make up the life of the average human being, because these episodes are of a sort which he is familiar with in his own life.”

However we do learn much about Twain himself as viewed by his daughter Susy who from the age of thirteen commenced writing a biography of him.  From October 19, 1906 the chapters of his autobiography include Susy’s observations and his recollections of her. He notes she began it in 1885 when he was in his fiftieth and she just entering the fourteenth of hers.

She began by writing “We are a very happy family. We consist of Papa, Mamma, Jean, Clara and me.  It is papa I am writing about and I shall have no trouble in not knowing what to say about him, as he is a very striking character.”

Throughout his book he reflects on Susy and includes her comments without changing the spelling or content.  They are delightful. Written honestly and from her perspective.  She writes: “his appearance has been described many times, but very incorrectly.  He has beautiful gray hair, not any too thick or any too long, but just right, a Roman nose, which greatly improves the beauty of his features; kind blue eyes and a small mustache. He has a wonderfully shaped head and profile.”

“His favorite game is billiards,” she said, “and when he is tired and wishes to rest himself he stays up all night and play billiards, it seems to rest his head.  He smoked a great deal, almost incessantly. He has the mind of an author exactly, some of the simplest things he can’t understand.” 

February 12, 1886 was the last entry that Twain included of Susy’s biography. As she lived another 10 years one can only suppose she had stopped writing about her father.  Yet twenty years after she wrote about him he was still reacting and responding to her comments.

Twain described his daily activities and people he meets in great detail, in haphazard fashion, towards the end he was recalling events that took place in 1845, and dictating them in 1906.  There is no mention of his other daughters; Clara who lived from 1874-1962 or Jean 1880-1909. The last entry in his autobiography was dictated October 3, 1907 about raising money by selling a dog that didn’t belong to him.

Novels he wrote include The Prince and the Pauper (1881), A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, (1889) and The Mysterious Stranger (1916) published posthumous. In addition to the four published Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn books he left numerous chapters about them unfinished.

Wikipedia has lists of many other novels, short stories, short story collections, essay collections, non-fiction, and various writings that Twain published from 1865 onwards. The most recent posthumous published book in 1996 was The Bible According to Mark Twain.



Natters of a Nomad

Peggy Lovelace Ellis


The Lorelei sits on a 433 feet high rock above the Rhine River at the village of St. Goar. The statue itself is about 16 feet high and sits in the area’s natural beauty, surrounded by sweeping, hillside vineyards and seated in a picture-perfect location that offers views of the winding river.

The name comes from the old German words lureln, Rhine dialect for “murmuring,” and the Celtic term ley “rock.” The translation of the name would therefore be “murmuring rock.” The heavy currents, and a small waterfall in the area (still visible in the early 19th century) created a murmuring sound, and this, combined with the special echo the rock produces, acts as an amplifier, and gives the rock its name. The murmuring is hard to hear today because of urbanization.

Legend has it Lorelei is the reason so many ships have sunk on the stretch of river known as the Rhine Gorge. The reality is this is one of the most dangerous stretches of river to navigate.

The 16-feet Lorelei statue, created in bronze by Natascha Alexandrova in 1983, quickly became a tourist attraction itself. Our onboard historian only briefly mentioned the sculptor. Although I found some information about her, I didn’t find any reference of why she sculpted Lorelei, who requested it (if anyone), or under what circumstances it sits on this rock.

Let’s ignore the mundane explanation! Folklore and legends are much more interesting. The rock and the murmur it creates have inspired various tales.

The tales of a woman named Lorelei in the Rhine River date back several centuries. As the legend goes, in the narrowest and deepest point of the Rhine there once was a woman of such beauty that she would cause sailors to wreck their ships as they sailed the dangerous currents along the river’s jagged shorelines.

Was it the sight of her brushing her long, blonde hair? Were sailors distracted because she lay sunbathing along the river’s edge? Or after her own lover betrayed her, was Lorelei a siren who intentionally lured bewitched sailors to their doom by singing the loveliest song they had ever heard? Each version of the legend has earned a place in Rhine Valley lore.

I relate here the story we heard from our onboard historian.

When the rocks in the Rhine Valley glowed in the evening sun, or when the rugged cliffs were reflected by the moonlight in the swirling waters of the river, a slight figure could sometimes be seen on the hilltop and a mysterious voice could be heard echoing through the rocky landscape. It belonged to the enchanting Lorelei. The hearts of countless men beat faster and trembled with delight. Sailors would sink into the waves and their bodies were never found.

Her reputation spread throughout the land until it reached a wealthy young man who left his royal palace intent upon winning her. At sunset, he and his followers reached the gorge and, spellbound by the wondrous singing, they saw her figure on the cliff. Rather than wait for landing the boat, he jumped into the river, and with the cry of ‘Lorelei!’ he sank into the water, never to be seen again.

His father, in an attempt to revenge the death of his son, confronted Lorelei upon which, she threw her pearl necklaces, one by one, into the water. They rose out of the water as high as the cliff top and carried her away into the evening light. Lorelei was never seen again, but an echo sometimes still haunts people standing at the rock.

Thus, the legend of unrequited love became the substance of many artistic endeavors.


For the record, I kept my husband inside the boat where he couldn’t hear the siren’s murmuring.


§ § §


I turn now to another famous statue overlooking the Middle Rhine. Germania is the name associated with what is officially the Niederwald statue.

The Niederwald is a broad hill on the bank of the Rhine. Dense forests of oak and beech cover the summit, and terraced vineyards cover the sides. The 32-ton, heavy bronze monument stands at the edge of the forest, on the crest of the hill above Rüdesheim.

The monument commemorates the founding of the Unification of Germany after the end of the Franco-Prussian War (July, 1870-January [?] May [?]1871). Kaiser Wilhelm I laid the first stone on September 16, 1871 with inauguration on September 28 1883. The sculptor was Johannes Schilling. The 125 feet tall monument represents the union of all Germans.

There is debate on dates pertaining to the monument. Considering the size and detailed sculpting of the monument, two years seems too short a time to build. However, I give the information as related by our historian.

The central figure is the 34 feet tall Germania figure, holding the recovered crown of the emperor in the right hand and, in the left, the Imperial Sword.

Beneath Germania is a large relief that shows emperor William I riding a horse with nobility, the army commanders and soldiers. The relief has the lyrics of “Watch on the Rhine” engraved. The peace statue is on the left side of the monument and the war statue is on the right.

The monument's main inscription is on the pedestal of the Germania statue: In memory of the unanimous victorious uprising of the German People and of the reinstitution of the German Empire 1870-1871.

Others on the cruise described Germania as beautiful. I believe awe-inspiring is a better description. Overall, she reminds me of the Statue of Liberty.

Next month, I discuss the primary reason many people visit Europe in December: Christmas markets.


My First Best Friend

Sybil Austin Skakle


Marian Burrus, born April 1926, four months after I took possession of the ground she and I would roam, was my life-long friend.

My mother had a new baby, my youngest sister, Cecilia Ramona, born 1930. Marian, youngest in her family, had a sickly mother. Truly, Marian and I lacked the supervision we might have otherwise had. Once my mother arranged for us to sit in on first grade, which must have been an effort of hers to keep two adventurous, pre-school, little girls safely occupied.

We decided to take a bath in the wash house, which was behind our house. The commotion caused when someone discovered two naked little girls confused me. Marian was taken home immediately, by one of her family. 

Our fathers had stores cattycorner from one another in the middle of Hatteras Village. Once Marian brought over a whole box of bubble gum to share with me, because there were picture cards on each piece, which we secreted in one of our outhouse, next to the coal bin, which sat under the living room double windows. Discovered, we were in another crisis. 

Marian and I explored the whole village.  One of my earliest memories is our going to Captain Homer Styron’s home, situated on Rollinson Creek, to visit Mrs. Anges. We expected that she would offer us molasses cookies, as she had once before. 

Beverly O’Neal lighted matches and the Sears, Roebuck catalogue and burned down the family privy and burned himself. Marian and I gathered flowers from somewhere and took them to him. When Beverly saw them, he said, “I’m not going to die!”

When Viola Peele’s new baby, Irish, named after his Willis grandfather, arrived, we thought it our duty to visit. Viola was so lovely and welcoming. We returned again and again. Her boys, Keith or Boyd, were not home; were probably at the dock with their dad, Frazier, and other village boys.

We built tents, and played house; began several business ventures: a tea room without walls, featuring green yaupon tea; a beauty parlor in a room on the front of the school building, which sat across the road from our house. The only reason we could use it, rent free, was due to Ms. Vera Robinson, employed by Worker’s Project Association, begun as the New Deal by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Miz Vera kept a small library in one of the school rooms that summer and allowed us use of a vacant room on the front of the old school house. No one wanted to buy frogs Marian spotted and I caught and put in the empty, round wooden, cheddar cheese box from Daddy’s store.

Our store was located beneath the outdoor steps on the east side of the building, which went up to a porch above Daddy’s store porch. We had to crawl on our hands and knees to enter it; knew nothing about profit and loss. We bought a pack of gum for a nickel and sold each of the 5 sticks for a penny. 

Every building on the premises, our oak trees, and the cedar trees in front of the Burrus’ white house, next to her father’s store, challenged us. Brand new WPA privies blossomed in the back yard behind Daddy’s store one year. We enjoyed them. Corky Burrus and I sat in one talking about life, smelling the fresh white pine wood.

Marian and I went to church together; began regular school together. When her father sold their home to Miss Maude O’Neal and moved to Buxton, we still visited back and forth. Her brother Bill courted my cousin Minnie Margaret, while Marian waited to be picked up to go back to Buxton at our house.

During the World War II years, 1941- 45, she persuaded me that she and I should dress alike. Mrs. Jean Austin, an amazing seamstress, stitched identical dresses for us: one, a pink, print, seersucker, dress with ruffles on either side from the shoulders to the waist. Marian had one of the service guys we knew to get dungarees for us.

Marian graduated from Buxton High School. Her mother, Lucy died. Marian went to live with her oldest sister Grace and husband Henry Bland in Florida and packed parachutes for war effort; was able to acquire silk for blouses for us.

She came home from Florida, December 1944, to be present for my expected marriage. That did not happen. I had received a dear Jane letter. She did not go back to Florida. She was my comforting companion. When Amasa Quidley of Buxton, stationed at Creeds Hill Coast Guard station, and I began dating, Marian and Mace and I were a threesome. He told me that the guys teased him for having to have a chaperone.

She married Bruce Austin, January 1947 and Don and I married the next month. Our first children, her daughter Harriet and my son Eddie, are close in age. We enjoyed our visits when I went to Hatteras. She never visited me in Chapel Hill. I met her in Winston-Salem, when her youngest, a son, lived there.

Dementia beset her. The last time I visited, her son Bruce was with her. Marian sat across the room. She said, “She sounds like Sybil!”

Marian Burrus Austin, 87, of Hatteras NC, passed away peacefully February 21, 2014. I had attended her 86th birthday party at Hatteras, but was not there for her funeral. She knew I wanted to be. We were friends for all those years and forever.


A Rainy Night in Autumn

Marry Williamson


Late October, early November. Autumn, season of fruitful mellowness, Michaelmass daisies and the sound of leaf blowers. Halloween and Trick or Treat (an activity imported from America) and Britain’s own Guy Fawkes night round the corner.

Remember, remember the fifth of November. This morning she had almost tripped over two kids pushing an old pram with a dummy dressed as Guy Fawkes.  “Penny for the guy, miss”. 

Chloe had dropped a pound in their box.  ‘That is inflation for you’ she thought.

She wondered how much a box of fireworks cost these days. As for mellowness, northing mellow today. It had bucketed down from 8 o’clock this morning with high winds that send the leaves blowing through the streets. Fruitful, yes maybe, going by the boxes of apples left by the side of the roads with ‘help yourselves’ signs.

The invitation had come in the post on thick embossed paper. Very quaint and lovely old fashioned in this day and age of texts and email. An invitation to Molly and Brian’s wedding on 2 November in Chichester. Chloe remembered Molly’s parents moving to West Sussex. Pity it was such a long way from Bristol.

She had phoned her friend Maggie who lived in Manchester, even further away. Maggie had also received an invitation. “in the post, darling, on posh thick card”.

Maggie was adamant that they should go. “A perfect opportunity to meet up. There must be a nice hotel or B & B in Chichester. It is quite a biggish place.”

So, here she was, driving down to Chichester on a foul, dark, wet Friday night. She had left the busy streets of Bristol behind in a drizzle and the weather had steadily worsened. Her windscreen wipers were having a tough time coping with the constant downpour.

About 30 miles from Chichester she realised that she has taken a wrong turning. At the same time she sees the girl standing by the edge of the road. Although she does not like stopping for strangers Chloe finds that she cannot ignore this hitchhiker on such a terrible evening.

The girl opens the passenger door even before she stops the car and sides into the seat. In the light of the courtesy lamp Chloe realises that it is not a girl at all but a young man. He has long hair made lank and straggly by the rain and is wearing a long black coat.  He is very pale.

She moves away from the kerb.  “Where to” she asks “or first of all, where are we? I got lost. I am supposed to be on the road to Chichester”.

“I don’t know, but Chichester will do”, the young man says.

His voice sounds hollow as if he is speaking on an hands-free phone with his head in a bucket. Just then a sign looms up and through the water that is gushing along the windscreen and the steady swooshing of the wiper blades she can just make it out: ‘Chichester - 25 miles. Not too far wrong then, she thinks.

She glances at the young man.  He is slumped in the passenger seat, staring straight ahead.

“I am Chloe”, she breaks the silence, “and you are?”.

There is a long pause and she thinks he has not heard when he says with that strange echoing voice: “Steve, Steve will do”. 

Chloe is getting anxious.  What a strange boy.  She is sure he is not telling her his real name. And she also realises he does not care where he is going.

They drive along a few miles in silence when he suddenly says: “Here. Turn off here.”

He speaks with such authority that she obeys without thinking, indicates and turns into a very narrow and very dark lane.

Then she comes to her senses. “What the hell. Where are we going?”

He sits up and says: “Chichester. Short cut”. 

Chloe looks at the youth.  She is now getting seriously scared.  He just said that he did not know where they were. She drives along this dark, dark lane. Not a single house, cottage, hovel, barn. Not a sign of life.  Only utter, utter darkness.  Shapes that look like trees on one side and a hedgerow on the other. It does not look that there is much traffic that uses this lane. There is grass growing in the middle and the road is full of potholes. The youth has slumped down again in his seat and is staring straight ahead. They bump along a little while longer until they come to a crossroad. No signpost.  Nothing to indicate where they are. 

Chloe stops the car and turns to the youth. “Now where”.

Without looking up he says: “straight ahead”.

“Really? she thinks but she continues straight on. After another mile they suddenly come upon a well lit road and a sign that reads: ‘Chichester - 5 miles. 

Chloe heaves a big sigh of relief.  She turns to the youth with a big smile. “You were dead…..” right she wants to say. But the seat is empty. ‘Dead’ hovers in her mind.

An hour later as she sits in the cosy warm bar of the Nags Head, where Maggie has booked them in for the weekend, sipping a welcome glass of wine.

Her friend says: “You made good time. I hope you did not take the short cut through the fields. Sometime in the seventies a hippy hitchhiker got killed there. Stoned out of his mind. He just stepped off the edge of the road right in front of a car. Apparently he roams that lane forever looking for his killer. So they say. Ha, ha. Chloe?

Chloe, what is wrong, you are not laughing”.



The River Rocks

Fiction by Howard A. Goodman


He was seated in a chair on the front porch of his townhome, gazing hypnotically at the arrangement of the bed of river rocks. The laborers had just finishing placing them in the channel that served as a divider between the front edge of the porch and the concrete walkway.

For years, he’d attempted to grow various ground-hugging plantings in the channel. But none of them had ever taken, not even the species their builder had planted. Too hot in the mornings for this one; too shady in the afternoons for that one. Not enough rain. Too much rain.

Only river rock promised to put an end to the issue once and for all. River rocks required no watering, no pruning, no fertilizing, no maintenance of any kind. He liked that. The rocks ranged in shape from oblong to squarish, two to four inches in overall size, their color matte charcoal.

All were smooth, their corners rounded from decades of being submerged in the bed of some river, its current causing them to slowly abrade away their acute edges. Nature’s own rock tumbler. He reflected on what an attractive solution it was to switch from doomed plantings to virtually indestructible minerals.

As he awakened from his pleasant afternoon stupor, he noticed that his eyes, together with the assistance of his brain, had latched onto a particular pair of rocks, from his perspective one slightly behind the other. The one in front resembled the shape of a man’s shaven head.

There was a definite difference between the left and right sides, one resembling the back of the man’s head and the other definitely the profile of his face. The rock behind this one provided the man’s nose. Suddenly, he realized this pair of rocks represented the head and face of someone he knew… had known.

Bruce! A former colleague, a fellow member of his work team, until the project got cancelled and the client disbanded the team. That’s who it was. Oh, what was his last name? He pondered a long moment. Prang. No, Preng! That’s it. Bruce Preng.

Over the nearly three years since the project had concluded and was not slated for extension, he had thought about certain members of his work team of eight, nearly evenly divided between the two genders. His reflections favored those he had worked closest with: David, Jon, Susan. And Tammy. He thought about them often.

All were contract employees, as was he, easily disposable by the client. He wondered where they were now, whether they were still working, what they were up to. At first his inner circle had remained in touch, mostly through email. But after the first year following the project’s termination, their communications began to grow sparse.

He had not given even a shard of thought about Bruce. He twisted in his chair and began slowly and painfully to allow himself to recall the reason why. An incident that he had witnessed…one involving Bruce. And Tammy.


Tammy and Bruce had shared a large cube, with Bruce’s desk facing the windows at the front of the work space, and Tammy’s facing toward the back. His own cube, which he shared with David, was situated on the opposite side of the office space, and the direction of his desk afforded him a skewed yet nearly open view of Tammy and Bruce’s cube.

One morning he noticed that Tammy—tall, shapely, a head turner—upon entering the office space was not her typical perpetually bubbly self. Clearly, something appeared to be eating at her.

She said not a word of greeting as she passed the rows of cubicles, instead taking her seat, casting her purse aside, and sulking as she waited for her PC to boot up. As the workday advanced toward mid-morning he observed Tammy’s mood seemed to grow even darker.

At that point, his impulse was to reach out to Tammy, to ask her what’s wrong, if there was anything he could do for her. He certainly had the time, and the inclination. But at the same time his long ingrained sense of “office etiquette” raised an open hand, reminding him it would not be wise to insert himself into her situation, that Tammy was no more than a co-worker, that any personal situation of hers was none of his business. That in this corporate environment he needed to remain at arm’s length.

But deep inside, another hand was being raised, one that shouted he needed to come clean with himself. Like on the first day of this assignment, during the orientation session, when he had laid eyes on Tammy for the very first time and immediately taken a special liking to her. By the end of the second month he found he could no longer keep his special liking a secret, that he was bursting to share it with Tammy. He was ready to ask Tammy out to dinner.

Just before lunch his attention was again drawn to the cube shared by Tammy and Bruce. Bruce was out of his chair, now standing directly behind Tammy, still seated in hers. It was clear Bruce had invaded Tammy’s personal space, ostensibly to offer her a few words of empathy. But Bruce didn’t stop with that.

Suddenly, to his dismay he watched as Bruce began to lay his hands on Tammy, as though he were cradling a large doll or stuffed animal between the palms of his hands. Only the stuffed animal between Bruce’s palms was Tammy’s bare forearm.

And he thought: What the fuck! Does that sleazeball realize what he’s doing? Does Tammy? Why doesn’t she tell Bruce to back away? Can any of the others see what’s going on? For Chrissakes, Bruce has a law degree. He of all people should know this could be interpreted as harassment in the workplace.

Fueled for confrontation, he started to rise from his chair, abandoning his own work, prepared to face Bruce man-to-man, to remind him that what he was doing to Tammy was totally inappropriate. Now on his feet he took two steps toward the shared cube, emotionally prepared to tell Bruce to back away from Tammy. To fuck off!

But his third step twisted him in a direction opposite his target, facing toward the back of the office space along the aisle leading to the entrance door. He continued down the aisle, exited through the door, taking an elevator one flight up to the lobby.

Alone on one of the many couches he continued to fume over Bruce’s attempt to hone in on Tammy. By his estimate Bruce was barely five and a half feet tall, his head completely shaven. His abdomen protruded. Certainly no Adonis. But even at six feet neither was he. It was twenty minutes before he was able to calm himself down and return to his cube.    


Eventually, his contemplations reunited him with the same explosive mix of disgust and jealousy he’d felt while actually witnessing the incident. He stood up abruptly from the chair, ambling several steps forward toward the channel of river rocks.

He fumed. When he could stand it no longer, he snorted deeply, then opened his mouth. “Fuck you, Bruce!”

He raised his right foot, then stomped down on the pair of rocks that had formed the uncanny likeness to his fellow team member. The rock that had served as Bruce’s nose jumped a few spaces over. The one his mind had perceived as Bruce’s head remained in place but rotated to a completely unrecognizable orientation. None of the other rocks in the channel were disturbed.

He stooped down and culled the two offending rocks from the herd, clutching them in the palm of his hand, intent on never allowing them to return to the rock bed. He approached the front door, prepared to toss them in the trash cart in the garage. By the following Tuesday they’d be gone forever.

Suddenly he twisted away from the door, stepping back over to his chair, tranquil now, smiling to himself. After nearly three years he could finally scratch this one from his mental list of unfinished business.

Yet once seated again he found himself gazing right back at the bed of river rocks, scanning, searching, wishing his eyes and brain would join forces just one more time to fixate on another pair of rocks. Only this time he prayed the likeness they’d deliver to him would be Tammy’s.




Diana Goldsmith


Mahjong is a tile game that originated in China.Researchers say that the game originated in the late 19th century in the provinces of Kiangsu, Anhwei and Chekiang (near Shanghai) and link the traditional rules of Mahjong to the popular game Mah-tiae (“Hanging Horse”) as the game uses a similar tile set.

The history of Mahjong is a much debated topic among game enthusiasts. Some people claim that the game's history dates back 2,500 years while others oppose this and claim the game was invented in the 18th or 19th century because there are no historical records available about the game before the 19th century.

The story behind the inception and distribution of Mahjong is backed by mythologies rather than scientific evidence and it is said that Confucius developed the game. According to this story, during the rule of King of Wu a beautiful woman lived in his court in isolation. When boredom started killing her, she started carving domino shaped figures from ivory and bamboo. Once she finished with the figures, she invited her maids to play the game. Later Confucius developed this game with more shapes and new rules.

Mahjong roughly translates to Chattering Sparrow and people who back the story claim the game got this name because Confucius liked birds. The story goes on saying that the game was exclusively reserved for royal class and it was against the law for ordinary citizens to play the game.

Researchers say that Mahjong might have got inspired from Dominoes and some ancient card games played in China. There are evidences that show these games were played in China during the 10th and 11th century.

However researchers have a clearer picture about the place Mahjong probably originated. Researchers suggest that the places of origin are more likely Shanghai, Kiangsu and Anhwei because no records of the game were found from any other part of China till 1900s.

Chances are high that the merchants in West propagated the story of Confucius to exploit their customers once the game was introduced to America and other places.

For the game you have rectangular tiles. These were originally made of bone, possibly ivory. Now they are plastic.The overall number varies according to which version you adhere to.

The group to which I belong use rules written by Max Robertson.

To start the game one has four players. We sit around a table covered with a soft material cloth so that the tiles can slide . Each person has a wooden rack to hold the tiles. There is a ledge at the top so some tiles can be seen but those below will be hidden from other players.

Before commencing the game, the wall is built of thirty six tiles in two rows laid horizontally on each side these fit into each other do there are no gaps. It represents the Great Wall of China and supposedly keeps out the devil! Each player in an anti-clockwise direction, throws two dice totaling the face value- the highest becomes the East wind. The player on their right is South wind, then the West wind and finally the North wind. The East wind throws the dice to count round the wall.

When he reaches the total thrown, that person counts the total from the right side of the wall and breaks the wall. Each person in turn takes four tiles from that wall until they each have 13 tiles and the game really starts. Each player has to look at his rack of tiles and decide which ones to keep and which ones to throw away in subsequent turns.

The white or cream tiles have beautiful designs on them drawn in black red and green. These all have meanings. There are three suits, namely characters, bamboo and circles plus four wind tiles and three dragon ones, white red and green.

The idea of the game is to be the first to get a Mahjong. There are various ways of doing this. It is done by having three tiles of all the same value known as a "pung" or four tiles known as a kong. Sometimes you can collect pairs. You can also get runs of a sequence of three tiles called a chow. Depending on which rules you use the hands have wonderful names such as Gertie's garter, double and triple knitting, wriggly snake, and dragonfly.

I think that Mahjong took off in the twenties onwards when couples met to have bridge rubbers or to play Mahjong. Perhaps because there wasn't all the multimedia we have today. It is good as it keeps you on your toes and to get those ' little grey cells' working as Hercule Poirot would say!



Thanksgiving 1993

Sybil Austin Skakle


Burdened by grief, O Lord, I railed in your face.

Lonely and angry, rushed into marriage again. 

When our prayers failed to produce unity, and

He left, I was angry with you both.

Intent on doing it my way, I followed my 

Obstinate course, not waiting to know your will.

In spite of my defiance, you were merciful-

Gave me gentle, loving Lee for nine months.

My grateful spirit revived from sorrow-

Your love, grace and mercy filled my heart

You replaced regret with strength. Then 

Contrite, I laid my brokenness at your feet.

Thank you, O God, for patiently gathering

All the pieces to create my life anew,

When cancer took Lee’s life from me.

Those durable, colored pieces 

Fitted together by your mercy and love.

Made a lovelier vessel for you to use 

  To comfort and bless others whom you love.

Alleluia! Alleluia!



The secret of staying young is to live honestly, eat slowly, and lie about your age. Lucille Ball


Life in the Universe

Randy Bittle


Human life is extraordinarily rare and valuable.  Middle East militants and suicidal mass murderers in the USA lack appreciation for the significance of every single person’s life.  Each one is full of meaningful thoughts and feelings regarding people and objects in the person’s surrounding environment.  Physical and emotional abuse extends planet-wide in the course of day to day living, and misery abounds.  Earth is no paradise.  You can improve yourself and better the circumstances of other individuals, however, with a little effort.

How is life possible?  Not just simple organisms, but sophisticated life that is capable of contemplating everything in existence, including itself.  Admittedly, understanding can be difficult and murky at times, but some people do comprehend aspects of reality if they try.  What makes this wonderful conscious, sentient experience viable in a predominantly barren universe?  Why life exists is sketchy and vague, but what life is can be understood.

Stable matter consists of three basic particles—electrons, protons, and neutrons.  Four forces govern the interactions of these particles—the strong and weak nuclear forces, electromagnetism, and gravity.  That’s it.  The physics of these particles and forces describe everything we see, hear, taste, smell, and touch.

Gravity caused mostly hydrogen, a little helium, and traces of lithium to coagulate into the first stars.  Under the pressure of gravity and in accordance with the laws of physics regulating particles and forces, heavier atoms were synthesized inside these original stars.  The heaviest and most complex atoms were generated when some early stars eventually collapsed into small black holes in a process called a stellar supernova.  The sun is a second-generation star.  Our solar system consists of atomic elements created in a previous supernova, without which life as we know it would not be possible.

The electron shell valence model of chemistry describes how atomic elements combine to form molecules.  Biology is the science of how molecules combine to form living cells, the building blocks of more elaborate life forms.  Remember, all atoms, molecules, and living cells are just electrons, protons, and neutrons in various configurations.

Complicated living organisms must consume energy to fuel the electrochemical processes involved in being alive.  Humans eat food, composed of other animals or plants, to provide energy for molecular and cellular functions necessary to sustain life.  As best we know, human consciousness is a poorly understood subtle side effect of physiological brain activity.  Language gives us the ability to codify and manipulate thoughts and feelings in our daily lives.  Through language and mathematics, we formulate and communicate ideas concerning the world and universe in which we live.

Considering the unlikely odds that conscious life exists in this vast, mostly desolate universe, I do not comprehend how little some people value others around them.  Try to understand the rare and fragile beings we are.  Be kind and treat your friends, relatives, and strangers with dignity.  Individual people are here for such a short time relative to cosmological frames of reference.  Don’t waste your limited time on hatred and misery.


From November 2013



“Dinner at the Huntercombes possessed only two dramatic features. The wine was a farce and the food a tragedy.” Anthony Powell


It’s Different Now

Tim Whealton


Thanksgiving was always my favorite holiday. Christmas was good but it seemed to stress out everybody. I always worried that someone would feel slighted or unhappy with their present. Especially the children that already had more than Walmart. But Thanksgiving was just food, family and lots of stories.

The day would start out with the annual fight with my wife Paula about the yeast rolls. She wanted then small like a bird’s egg and I wanted them the size of a hounds head. It wasn’t a real fight but if you didn’t know you might think so. Lots of smart remarks and threats. Before she died she admitted that she hated yeast rolls because she couldn’t make them.

The menu would always include some type of wild game in honor of the Pilgrims. Usually my Pilgrim Pie recipe that had some combination of squirrel, pheasant and rabbit or whatever was available. Had to make do with two raccoons one year. Of course we had turkey and ham and every vegetable. Some of the better guests would bring their favorite side dish. My sister in law Shirley would bring some of the best. Her pineapple casserole would make a fat boy cry.

Our guest list would be anybody who wanted to come and the extended family regulars. My father in law, Jack was usually early. He had been in Japan one month after Hiroshima was bombed, prison guard for 25 years and ran the Jones County liquor store. Lots of stories but his job at the time was servicing rental toilets. Seemed that brought on a lot of stories by itself. He would usually save the good part for when we all gathered after the blessing and started to eat. I remember one story that started just as I poured on the gravy.

He said Tim, I was out at the women’s prison and had to pump out one that I missed the week before. It was in the sun and I think it was bubbling. The pump got clogged and I had to backwash it. When it finally cleared it blew out a wad of tampons big as a basketball and hit me in the chest. It was soaked with s#$% and blue stuff we put in the bottom, I looked like a smurf!

Most years I would bring over my Aunt Myrt to give her some time to work on her people skills. She said she didn’t like everybody. Truth was she didn’t like anybody but me. My mother was afraid she would die early because she was 45 when I was born so she got Myrt to keep me some as a baby. Mama knew psychology and since Myrt couldn’t have children she knew she would bond with me and love me for life. It worked but only for me. When my brother who everybody loves got up for seconds Myrt would say “look, he is fat as a pig and going back for more!” My brother would quietly put his plate in the sink and go outside for fresh air. (Told you he was nice!)

Usually about then a fight would break out between the teenagers over a piece of chicken skin or something less important and Paula would have to intervene with whatever was handy to beat grown young’uns. Most of the guests were too full to do more than roll back in the chairs and talk about the people that weren’t there.

Yes sir, I miss those good times. Oh yes we still cook and have fun at Thanksgiving but it isn’t the same. Most of the guest list are now residents of Heaven and probably telling the same story I am but to a different crowd. Granddaddy Jack, BeeBop (my mother in law), Aunt Myrt and Shirley are gone. My wife Paula died in 2014. It changed my life permanently in more ways than I ever thought it could.

Those bad teenagers have grown up to be some of the best people and parents I have known. The things I worried about most never happened, the things I never thought could happen did. What have I learned? That I know very little and control nothing. I also learned to enjoy what you have and be thankful for it while you have it.

I always knew there was a God but I thought there were so many things that I wanted to get that God didn’t want me to have. Well say hello to Mr. Slow Learner! Now I know that if I could have just opened my eyes to all the wonderful things in my life I could have enjoyed those years so much more.

It’s different now. I have a wife that I love dearly. It doesn’t mean that I don’t miss Paula. Instead of a living with a sense of loss I live with thankfulness that I had Paula for 23 years. As a matter of fact I live every day with thankfulness for health, great friends, family and opportunities. Yes, every single day I’m thankful. My wife Rhonda has supplied me with another bunch of in laws. Talk about a sweet deal, I got two grown sons with beautiful wives and children, two brother in laws with grown children and families and a mother in law that cooks and teaches Sunday School!

Yes Sir, It is different at Thanksgiving now, but the biggest change is me. Maybe they will let me bake a pilgrim pie.


 The Thong is Ended

By E. B. Alston


A telephone equipment salesman, traveling from Dallas, Texas, to Moab, Utah, had the sniffles when he left home. By the time he made it to New Mexico, he had a terrible cold, coughing, nasal congestion and that awful achy feeling you get. He stopped twice in New Mexico to buy over-the-counter remedies for his cold but nothing helped. He stopped at an emergency room in Shiprock, New Mexico and got a prescription. That didn’t seem to help either. The farther he got from home, the worse he felt. It was a long way from Dallas, Texas to Moab, Utah.

When he crossed into the northeastern tip of Arizona he stopped at a place called Teec Nos Pos, which was close to the Navaho reservation. Just off the main highway, he saw a Navaho souvenir shop and convenience store. He thought a candy bar might make him feel better so, after he gassed up, he bought a 7-Up and a Mars candy bar.

While he ate his candy bar and drank his 7-Up, he wandered into the souvenir shop. It had the usual Indian related tourist merchandise. He looked at some of it and saw that quite a bit had been manufactured in China.

Over in one corner, he saw some craft items that looked authentic. While he was examining a flint arrowhead, an old Indian approached him.

“Can I help you, sir?” he asked.

“No, thank you. I was taking a rest break and thought I’d look at what you had.”

“It sounds like you have a cold.”

“Yeah. I came down with it yesterday.”

“It is bad to be sick when you’re on the road.”

“You can say that again.”

“Have you taken anything?”

“Just some over-the-counter stuff. And I got a prescription decongestant at the emergency room in Shiprock.”

“You sound terrible.”

“I feel terrible.”

Then the salesman had a thought. “How do Indians treat colds?”

“About the same way you do.”

The salesman was disappointed. “If you went to your medicine man, what would he recommend?”

“I am a medicine man.”

“What’s your name?”

“Lamont Willie.”

That had an odd ring to it but it didn’t sound very “Indian” to the salesman. “Don’t you have some kind of old fashioned stuff laying around that your grandpa used?”

“Yeah, I do have some old stuff in the back but we don’t sell it anymore.”

“What is it?”

“I’ll get one to show you.”

The Indian disappeared behind a bead curtain and emerged a few seconds later carrying what looked like an ordinary leather shoestring with knots tied every couple of inches. He handed it to the salesman.

“This is a medicinal thong. It has seven knots on it. Grandpa told his patients to chew one knot a day for seven days. By then their cold would be cured.”

“What’s the medicine?”

“Each knot is soaked in some kind of medicinal herbs. I think there’s peyote in it too.”

“How much?” the salesman asked.

The Indian was astonished. “You want to buy it?”

“Yeah. None of this modern junk does any good.”

“I guess a buck.”

The salesman handed him a dollar.

“Don’t chew it and drive.”

“Why not?”

“I said I thought there was peyote in it.”

“Oh. Okay.”



Ten days later, the salesman stopped in the store on his way back to Dallas. He went into the curio shop. The old Indian medicine man was behind the counter. He recognized the salesman.

“You’re the guy that bought the medicinal thong, aren’t you?”

“Yeah,” the salesman croaked.

“You didn’t get well?”

“I’m worse.”

“Did you chew a knot a day like I said?”

The salesman nodded.

“So,” the old Indian said while thoughtfully stroking his chin. “The thong is ended, but the malady lingers on.”



I leave this rule for others when I'm dead, Be always sure you're right, then go ahead. Davy Crockett


Avicenna-Prince of Physicians

Translated from the Latin by the British physician, Dr. O. Cameron Gruner


 In Unani Medicine, the name of Hakim Ibn Sina, known to the West as Avicenna, towers head and shoulders above all others.  Whereas Hippocrates is called the Father of Medicine, Avicenna has been called the Father of Modern Medicine.  He is also called the Prince of Physicians.

Avicenna was born in 980 A.D. near Bokhara, an ancient center of culture and learning in Persia.  As a child, Avicenna showed a prodigious intellect.  By age ten, he had committed the entire Koran to memory.  While still in his teens, Avicenna had learned all there was to learn from the scholars of Bokhara, and had mastered the art of medicine. 
     When Avicenna was only twenty-one, his father died.  This traumatic event, coupled with the great political turmoil of the time, sent Avicenna on a period of constant wandering.  He finally found refuge in the court of a prince in Hamdan, Persia, but even this wasn't enough to protect Avicenna from the whirlwind of political intrigue that surrounded him.  He was even jailed on one occasion.

But Avicenna's intellectual powers were so great that even these trials and hardships couldn't deter him from his creative work as a physician and scholar.  Writing mainly from memory, Avicenna penned hundreds of works on just about every area of knowledge - physics, mathematics, economics, chemistry, natural history, religion, philosophy, music and, of course, medicine.

Of these, two works are the most famous: The first is Kitab al-Shifa, or The Book of Healing.  In it, Avicenna relates the principles of medicine to those of other sciences, like logic, geometry, psychology, astronomy, mathematics, music and metaphysics.  According to Avicenna, any diagnosis of an illness was faulty and incomplete unless all aspects of the patient's life had been taken into consideration.

A devoted student of Aristotle, Avicenna had certain bold and original ideas on philosophy and theology that were way ahead of his time.  The conservative Islamic theologians of his day considered many of his religious ideas to be misguided, if not downright blasphemous.

Avicenna's most famous and influential work is his monumental treatise in five volumes, al-Qanun fi al-Tibb, or The Canon of Medicine.  Encyclopedia Britannica has called it the single most important book in the history of medicine, East or West.  For centuries, Avicenna's Canon was a standard textbook in many European medical schools.  Even today, it is the standard reference manual for practitioners of Unani Medicine.

While basing his medical system on the humoral and vitalistic concepts of Hippocrates and Galen, Avicenna, in writing his Canon, took a universal perspective, collecting, distilling and synthesizing all the medical knowledge that existed at his time.  Avicenna had traveled, read and studied widely on several different medical systems - Greek, Egyptian, Persian, Hindu, Tibetan and Chinese - and came to the conclusion that, beyond their superficial differences, they all dealt with the same common themes and clinical realities.  They all had concepts of qualities and temperament, vital fluids or humors, vital energy or the Life Force, and similar principles of bodily structure and function, or anatomy and physiology. 
     The sheer pervasiveness of the Canon's influence cannot be overestimated.  Even some alleged folk remedies of rural Afro-Americans have been traced back to medicinal recipes from Avicenna's Canon.  Subsequent generations of Unani physicians, taking inspiration from the Canon, have developed new medical techniques and treatments, and have made advances in pharmacology and drug preparation.  The natural healing principles in the Canon have also been studied by Samuel Hahnemann, founder of homeopathy, and Father Sebastian Kneipp, the founder of naturopathy. 


Editor’s Note: My favorite line from Avicenna is his comment about a writer’s soul being ferried by Charon across the River Styx to the kingdom of Hades.  He said, “Cast off those endless sentences and balanced clauses, or the boat will surely sink.”   



My Secular Immortality

Philosophical Concept by Howard A. Goodman


I am about to put the wraps on and publish my next work of fiction, “Grown Men in Love,”  a collection of a dozen love stories about seasoned men who have learned quite well to place their women ahead of their own egos. For the past several months, including this one, thanks to Gene Alston and the RPG Digest I have had a truly excellent vehicle for sharing some of these short stories with you.

For me, “Grown Men in Love” will be the third major project I have conceived and created within the realm of fiction, and the fourth if I include my work of prescriptive nonfiction, “Rx for Finding Work Again.” Another significant work of fiction, to which I have assigned a working title of “Killing Richard,” remains behind the curtains, unpublished because I feel that now is simply not the right time.

As I have come to see it, my collective contributions to the written word fall under a sort of philosophical concept I have observed over many years, and to which I have given the name, “Secular Immortality” (Lay Immortality if you prefer). Simply put, the concept of Secular Immortality is independent of any religious or faith-based beliefs. It is, rather, a comforting state of mind one attains once they have achieved one or more original works of art.

Such creations are not limited to the written word and can just as easily lie within other recognized subcategories of The Arts, namely Music Composition and Performance, Visual Arts, Sculpting, etc., depending upon one’s individual talents. For my paternal grandfather, it was family poetry, written in broken English on a yellow legal pad. With my father, it was painting and sculpting. I should point out here that Secular Immortality is also independent of what you do to earn a living (unless of course your living derives from being an artist). Likewise, it is not related to your status in life. Rather, it has to do with the product of your attempts to apply your unique skills and innate talents.

As a byproduct of conceiving and sharing my creations, I’ve come to no longer fear the inevitability of death, because I know that when it is time for me to leave this earthly existence my contributions to The Arts will remain here to continue to speak for me, to remind others that I existed, to reveal something of who I was. In other words, I will know that during my mortal lifetime I have demonstrated that I’ve truly amounted to something and my existence will not easily be erased following my passing. How reassuring it is to know you have succeeded in attaining a form of immortality before you leave this earth.

And so, dear fellow writers, by virtue of your repeated contributions to The RPG Digest and other venues, rejoice in this fact: because you have memorialized your labors within the art of the written word and shared them with humankind, you, too, have therefore each attained, as have I, a Secular Immortality of your own.



Thanksgiving in Moccasin Gap

November 2009

Brad Carver


         I can only imagine how the first Thanksgiving in Moccasin Gap was; the Indians coming over to have dinner with the Moccasin Gap Pilgrims. They had to be sitting around the table and wondering, “How did we lose our land to these idiots?” We don’t have pumpkins in Moccasin Gap, but we do have Uncle Harvey who paints his face orange every year. We don’t have to carve out the teeth either. Uncle Harvey only has three teeth to begin with.

            We’re sort of slow around these parts, too. Thanksgiving doesn’t come until June of the next year. I came from a poor family so we couldn’t afford a turkey. My mother stuffed a crow with sawdust. It tasted pretty good. After a couple of shots of moonshine, it tasted great. Everything tasted great after a couple of shots of moonshine. Come to think of it, moonshine is how the Indians lost their land to the Pilgrims. A stuffed cockroach tastes good after moonshine.

            Aunt Pearl always came over on Thanksgiving. I don’t want to say she’s big, but – alright, I’ll say it, she’s big. She’s so big she has her own zip code. She’s so big other people rotate around her. We try to eat as much as possible before Aunt Pearl gets here, because when she’s finished, there is nothing left for anyone else.

            Mother could never make decent cranberry sauce. Every year, we had to carve it with a chainsaw. My mother was such a bad cook the flies chipped in to buy a screen door. I think this year I’m just going to McDonald’s for Thanksgiving. Even their fattening, unhealthy crap is better than my mom’s cooking. I don’t think you should have to cut gravy with a knife.

            What am I thankful for this year? I’m thankful I have two healthy and beautiful boys. I’m thankful I have a beautiful and healthy wife who looks great in leotards. She looks great out of them, too. I’m thankful I don’t have to eat Mom’s cooking anymore. She passed away years ago, apparently from eating her own cooking. I’m glad that at sixty years old I don’t need Rogaine, Lipitor or Viagra. Everything still works fine here. I’m thankful I don’t work for a living because when you do what you love, you never work.

            If I live through one more Thanksgiving I’ll write another column. If I don’t, it was nice knowing you and ya’ll come visit us here in Moccasin Gap, now, you hear?



Did I Read That Sign Right?



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In a Laundromat:


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In a London department store: BARGAIN BASEMENT UPSTAIRS...

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In an office:


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In an office:


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Outside a second-hand shop:


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Notice in health food shop window: CLOSED DUE TO ILLNESS...

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Spotted in a safari park: ELEPHANTS, PLEASE STAY IN YOUR CAR.

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Seen during a conference:


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Proofreading is a dying art, wouldn't you say?

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Man Kills Self Before Shooting Wife And Daughter


(This one was caught in the SGV Tribune the other day and they called the Editorial Room and asked who wrote this. It took two or three readings before the editor realized that what he was reading was impossible!!! They put in a correction the next day.)

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Something Went Wrong in Jet Crash, Expert Says: Really? Ya' think?

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Police Begin Campaign to Run Down Jaywalkers: Now that's taking things a bit far!

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Panda Mating Fails; Veterinarian Takes Over: What a guy!   
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Miners Refuse to Work after Death: No-good-for-nothing' lazy so-and-so's!

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Juvenile Court to Try Shooting Defendant: See if that works better than a fair trial!

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War Dims Hope for Peace: I can see where it might have that effect!

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If Strike Isn't Settled Quickly, It May Last Awhile: Ya' think?!

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Cold Wave Linked to Temperatures: Who would have thought!

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Enfield ( London ) Couple Slain; Police Suspect Homicide: They may be on to something!

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Red Tape Holds Up New Bridges: You mean there's something stronger than duct tape?   
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Man Struck By Lightning: Faces Battery Charge: He probably IS the battery charge!

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New Study of Obesity Looks for Larger Test Group: Weren't they fat enough?!

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Astronaut Takes Blame for Gas in Spacecraft: That's what he gets for eating those beans!

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Kids Make Nutritious Snacks: Do they taste like chicken?

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Local High School Dropouts Cut in Half: Chainsaw Massacre all over again!

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Hospitals are Sued by 7 Foot Doctors: Boy, are they tall!

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And the winner is... Typhoon Rips Through Cemetery; Hundreds Dead.



E. B. Alston


In late summer of 1994, my minister, Chris Hill, told me about a man in Surl, North Carolina, who had a trained bird dog that needed a new home. Dave Lunsford was in his eighties and health problems prevented him from quail hunting. He felt bad about not being able to hunt his dog anymore.

I was a little short of bird dog talent at the time. My ace dog, Zak, had died suddenly and his replacement was only five months old. Surl was about six miles from Timberlake so Chris and I paid Mr. Lunsford a visit.

Dave was a nice guy who had had a couple of serious operations and at the time was recovering from cancer. He took us out to the kennel to meet Rex.

Rex was the fattest bird dog I had ever seen. He actually looked like a pig with a dog’s head and a long tail. Dave told us that Rex ate with him and his wife. Whatever they had, his wife fixed a plate of the same for Rex. It showed.

Dave let Rex out of the kennel and we walked to a nearby field where Rex demonstrated that he was a trained quail dog and knew what to do. It was weird looking at this thing that looked like a pig running around the edge of a field acting like a bird dog.

I asked Dave how old Rex was. Dave had no idea but thought he had got Rex around 1978. I remarked that he didn’t look like he was sixteen years old.

I guess I passed the test because Dave offered Rex to me on the condition that I let his wife come and visit the dog once in a while. He said that his wife loved Rex and, although she agreed that it was best for the dog, she hated to see him go. So that hot August afternoon, I became the owner of a fat English pointer.

Mrs. Lunsford came out to tell Rex, goodbye. She hugged him and cried. She went inside the house before I drove off.

I took Rex home and put him in the kennel with a self-feeder. No more sausage and gravy biscuit breakfasts for Rex and no more plate loads of pork chop suppers either. Rex went on a diet.

He had a stolid temperament and never acted like he regretted the change. A couple of months later when Mrs. Lunsford came to visit, Rex was down to a fairly solid seventy pounds, big for a pointer but he actually looked good.

Her visit was very touching. She sat with Rex on the steps of my deck with her arm around his neck telling him how much she missed him. She cried when she left.

Hunting season came and Rex proved early that he knew about quail hunting. He was a powerful runner and an excellent retriever. Dave had trained him well. Between the holidays my friend, Ronnie Perkinson from Norlina, and I decided to go to Bladenboro to hunt on a friend’s farm.

Ronnie had one of Zak’s offspring. The genes didn’t follow because Ronnie’s dog was not a disciplined hunter. His normal pattern was to chase deer for a couple of hours before he hunted with us. He was a good dog after he got the deer out of his system.

Bird dogs chasing deer is about the most useless activity one can imagine. They don’t bark. You have no idea which direction they are going. They also have enough stamina to chase the deer two counties away before they tire, or get bored of the chase. A good English pointer in his prime can hunt hard all day in rough terrain and underbrush.

The really goofy thing is if the deer were smart enough to simply stop running and stand still, the bird dog would…point. That’s a scene straight out of a Far Side cartoon. A twelve point buck standing motionless looking bewildered at a bird dog on point!

Anyway, while Ronnie’s dog chased deer, he and Rex and I hunted. Rex found a good-sized covey, pointed and retrieved the quail that Ronnie and I knocked down. While we were looking for singles, Rex pointed close to Ronnie. I told him to go ahead and flush the bird while I watched. I knew Ronnie wouldn’t miss. The bird flushed and flew to my right ahead of me. Ronnie knocked it down and Rex went to make the retrieve. When Rex picked up the bird he started to bring it to me.

Ronnie yelled, “Rex, I shot that bird. Bring it to me!”

Rex turned and took it straight to Ronnie. Ronnie knew that Rex was a free dog to me but offered $500.00 on the spot for him. He threw in his new aluminum dog box. He even offered me his dog, which was still chasing deer, to sweeten the deal.

Those of you who hunt quail know that a real bird hunter never lets a good dog go for any amount of money. Besides, I had this deal with the Lunsfords.

Every couple of months or so, I’d call Mrs. Lunsford and ask, “Would you like to see a real pretty bird dog?”

She always replied, “Oh yes, I’d love to!”

The scenes of their reunions were like Norman Rockwell paintings. I have lived a rich life.


Hammer Spade and the Inca Curse


Chapter Twenty-Six


It was a week and four days before I got a call from the control center.

“They found him.”

“Great!” I said. “Is he where we can get to him?”

“It will be tough. He’s in an isolated part of Machu Picchu called Wayna Picchu.”

“Did they get the coordinates?”

hsic cover.jpg“Yes; they are 13° 09’ 41.76” south latitude, 72° 32’ 51.82” west longitude. He has guards posted on the trail a mile below him.”

“What’s the elevation?”

“2240 meters.”

“How many surveillance aircraft did they use to find him?”

“They used the satellite.”

“Okay, we’ll look it up on Google. We’ll need a helicopter.”

“I can arrange that. Let me know when you’re ready.”


I called a meeting and made my announcement after everybody stopped talking. They brightened up because they were sick of twiddling their thumbs. We looked up the coordinates on Google using the big screen. It was the most rugged mountain terrain I had ever seen.

Dave whistled. “It would be easier to get him on Mars.”

“No it’s not,” Hart disagreed. “He’s human. He walked in. Roscoe and I can sneak in and pop him one night when he’s asleep.”

Roscoe disagreed. “Naw, we can’t. That ain’t what Maggie would do. We need to do this one the way Maggie would, with a rifle, from long range.”

Dave nodded in agreement. “Roscoe’s right,” he growled. “Like the sign says at Quantico, ‘Death from Afar’.”

I looked at Isabela. She nodded. We agreed with Roscoe on this one.

“Yeah,” Hart said. “I can see your point. Maybe we owe it to her memory to do this the way she would. I’ll buy into that.”

“Okay,” I said. “Here’s what we have to do. We’ll go in by helicopter. Dave, you and Isabela use Google to find a place within reasonable rifle range. Then find where we can land unobserved, with a flat spot big enough to camp on. It has to be within walking distance of the place we’ll shoot from.

“The trail is guarded. Hart, you and Roscoe will prevent the guards from attacking us. Locate a spot where you can do that.”

“Can’t we just shoot them?” Hart asked.

“Only in self-defense if they come after us. Fuente is our only approved target.”

“When we get in place, Dave and I will be on our rifles. We’ll have identical zeroes. The winds up there are very tricky. Dave will shoot first. Isabela, I want you on the spotting scope to watch Dave’s shot. If Dave misses, you will tell me where his bullet impacted so I can correct.”

I paused and looked at Hart and Roscoe. “We cannot allow him to get away. If both of us miss, it’s up to you two to nail him.”

Nobody said anything.

“This is for keeps,” I said. “We can’t let him get away,” I repeated.

“Okay,” Hart said. The rest of them nodded in agreement.

“Don and I will make a list of gear we need to take. The rest of you get to work. Dave, when you and Isabela locate where we’ll land and shoot, get high altitude ballistics tables and plot our zeroes.”

“We’ll be shooting downhill, won’t we?”

“I presume so,” I said. “Look up the meteorological data to find out which way the prevailing winds blow this time of year.”

“What increments on the zeroes?”

“Every twenty-five yards.”

“What is the name of this place he’s hiding?” Hart asked.

“Wayna Picchu,” I replied.

Everybody was enthused. We were going to shoot a man to death. Napoleon was right when he said, “There is a macabre thrill in combat.”



They dropped us off an hour before dusk on a spot not much bigger than a carport, in the most forbidding and awe inspiring terrain I had ever seen. To think that this was the capital of the Incan Empire boggles the mind. They didn’t have helicopters or even horses.

We slept in the open, without a tent and ate MREs. As soon as the eastern sky lightened enough to see the trail the next morning, Hart and Roscoe moved out to their position. In addition to sidearms, they took shotguns.

We had to stop several times to catch our breath on our way to the spot that overlooked Wayna Picchu. It was ten by the time we were in position. I was glad it wasn’t at the same elevation where Lady Margot met Dan Allen on a day that seemed like eons ago.

The view was magnificent. We were in Margot’s world now, her favorite place, where the world could go mad and she could be alone in these heights and isolated, far from the madness below. Roscoe had been right. We had to do this her way.

Dave found Fuent’s tent when he glassed the place where he was supposed to be. He was not out where we could see him. Either he was still asleep or he had moved during the night.

I helped Isabela set up the spotting scope. I showed her how to read ripples made by wind at different ranges by adjusting the focus. I realized quickly that every irregularity in the terrain changed the direction of the wind.

Dave measured the range to be 745 yards. We adjusted both rifle scopes for a no-wind zero at that range.

“What’s the down angle?” Dave asked.

“Maybe twelve degrees,” I estimated. “Worth maybe a minute and a half.”

We re-adjusted the scopes down six clicks.

“Dave, look through the spotting scope and tell me what you think we ought to adjust.”

Dave spent a long time studying the wind before he threw up his hands. “I don’t know, Hammer. It’s blowing in every direction but south. You look at it.”

I spent a few minutes coming to the same conclusion. Isabela asked me to show her what we were looking at. I focused the spotting scope on a spot halfway to the target and moved back for her to look.

“If it was blowing that way all the way to the target,” I told her, “we would adjust right seven minutes on the rifle scopes.”

“What does seven minutes of adjustment to the right do?” she asked.

“At this range, it moves the bullet impact at the target fifty-two inches to the right.”

“Oh,” she said. “I get it. So you’re saying if the wind was blowing in the opposite direction half the distance to the target, you wouldn’t adjust at all.”

“That’s correct,” Dave said. “And if the wind blows at 45 degrees, the path of the bullet is deflected by half that amount.”

“Now, I really admire Lady Margot,” Isabela said. “There is so much to know.”

Dave and I got into position with Dave to my right.

“Isabela, the plan is for Dave to shoot first. You watch the trace of his bullet. If he misses, tell me how many inches I have to correct my sights. I’ll hold off that amount and shoot. Watch my trace and if I miss, tell Dave how many inches I missed and he’ll take another shot. If the first shot misses, Fuente is going to move. You have to keep track of him. Dave and I will alternate shots using your guidance until we get him or run out of ammunition.”

Just before noon, Isabela saw movement below. I looked through the riflescope and saw Fuente come out of the tent and stand up. He stood beside an ancient, well-constructed rock wall between two rectangular window openings facing away from us. He looked around, first out the left window, and then in our direction. We were too far away to see without a telescope. He reached down and picked up a half full wine bottle and took a long swig. Then he took a seat to the left of the window in a camp chair facing us. He yawned, scratched himself and took another long swig from the bottle. He looked as if he was already intoxicated the way his head wobbled.

“Wind check, Isabela.”

She took a long time studying the wind currents before she said, “Dave, count up four stones from the windowsill on the right side of the window. Shoot at the joint between that stone and the one on its right.”

I thought that was high and right, but in high power rifle shooting you always do what your coach says.

“Here goes,” Dave said. Then he squeezed the trigger on his rifle.

I watched the trace of the bullet through my scope. The wind blew the bullet down, then left, then high and at the three hundred yard line, it looked as if it would hit the spot Dave was aiming at. Then, as it approached Fuente, the bullet turned left and slightly down until it looked as if it might strike his right foot. The last hundred yards, it stopped dropping.

The bullet struck inside Fuente’s right thigh about half-way between his crotch and his knee. It continued on through his right hip, spattering blood, tissue and bone fragments on the rock wall behind him. A spurt of blood erupted from his leg with such force that it squirted over his left leg onto the ground. I watched it squirt with every heartbeat. He tried desperately to stop the blood gushing from the wound, even trying to stuff his left fist over the wound to slow the flow. Ninety seconds after the bullet’s strike, Raúl Fuente tumbled forward out of the chair and lay still in a puddle of blood.  

“Good shot, Dave,” I said. Then I added, “Excellent wind call, Isabela.”

Isabela said a quiet, “Thank you.”

I glanced at her. She was staring off into the distance. I should have warned her about what happens when a high velocity bullet strikes a man. You never forget it. And you never get used to it.

Isabela folded the tripod of the scope, slipped on her pack, shouldered the spotting scope and started back down the trail.

I called Roscoe. “It’s finished. Head back to the pickup point.”

Then I called the Control Center.

“It’s done. Pick us up in three hours.”

“Will do,” the voice on the other end said.

Dave and I put on our packs, slung our rifles and followed Isabela down the trail. 

Lady Margot Fisher had been avenged.




I called a meeting of all the agents in the Iquique facility the next morning to announce that the operation was finished and we were closing down. The specialists, who were badly needed elsewhere, were to shut down and pack their equipment for deployment to their next assignment. The Royal Marine guard, Sally and I would be the last to leave.

I sent Hart and Roscoe to close the office in Cochabamba. Don needed to get back to his tree farm so I agreed to release him after I finished writing my report on the operation.

 Isabela and Dave were anxious to leave so I released them first. Dave would fly to Bogotá with Isabela to visit Jack on his way home where Wubesh waited in his log cabin overlooking the New River.

I was working late in my office the night before Isabela was to leave when she came inside and closed the door.

“Are you excited about finishing this case?” she asked.

“Not excited, but I am glad it’s finally over.”

“I am, too, in a way.”

“I want to visit Jack as soon as I can get away from here.”

“I’ll tell him you’re coming when I see him.”

“Tell him for me that he missed out on the tough part.”

She smiled. “I will.” Then she asked, “May I change the subject?”


“Is it okay for me to say something about our earlier conversation about Alonia?”

“Say anything you like,” I replied. “You’re a thoughtful woman. I admire that.”

“Admire?” she mused and was quiet.

“You can tell me anything, Isabela. I can take criticism.”

“I’ve changed my mind about you and Alonia.”

“In what way?”

“I watched you two when you were together and you are definitely not in her thrall.”

I laughed. “So you don’t think Alonia has cast a spell on me?”

She smiled that little secretive smile Isabela has when she’s hiding something. “If anybody’s under a spell, it’s Alonia.”

“I doubt that. Alonia has been around.”

“I saw that you two were relaxed together the time she was with us during the last few weeks. I still think she’s got a huge crush on you but it’s evident that she respects you too.”

“The respect goes both ways.”

“I know. But you’re the catalyst in the relationship.”

“I’m not sure about that. But I don’t analyze my personal relationships.”

“That’s because you’re a man. That’s the man in you. Before you came into her life, I think Alonia attracted two types of men.”


“Yes. She attracted lovesick fools who fell at her feet promising to be her slave forever.”

“And the other type?”

“She attracted rich and powerful men looking for a trophy woman to make them feel even more powerful and important.”

“There was a third type.”

“I missed one?” She laughed. “Pray tell me about the third type.”

“A religious nut who wanted to reform her.” I paused. “That’s not quite correct. It never got to that point because he and his cousin were after her money.”

“I bet that was exciting. Was he one of her husbands?”

“The last one.”

“That must have been a huge farce.”

“He never consummated their marriage.”

Isabela’s jaw dropped and she put her hand to her mouth. “You are kidding!”

“It’s the truth. I thought it was pretty remarkable myself when she told me.”

“I’d like to hear more about that one.”

“Alonia would not appreciate me giving that out.”

“I bet she wouldn’t,” she giggled, then rose to leave. “I’ll miss you, Hammer,” she said.

Isabela’s eyes were very expressive and I knew that she wasn’t just saying it because she thought it was the right thing to say.

After she opened the door to leave, she paused and looked back. “The Inca legends say that the gods live many lives, but they allowed humans to have only one life. When I first heard it, I thought how boring it must be to have many lives. Now I’m not so sure. It might be nice to have another existence where things you wish for could come true.”



The next morning I drove Isabela and Dave to the airport.

In the line to security, Isabela hung back and let Dave get ahead of her.

“I meant it last night when I said I’d miss you,” she said.

“Same here,” I replied. “I’ll miss you too. You are a very accomplished secret agent.”

“Jack said I was a natural.”

I laughed, “Jack says that to a lot of women.”

She gave me a secretive smile and replied, “I know Jack well, but in my case, he wasn’t putting me on.”

“I guess not. I agree with him. Have a safe trip.”

“I can’t wait to take my son into my arms. It seems like ages since I saw him last.”

“He’s probably grown and changed since you left.”

“My husband said he’s a lot more assertive than when came here.”

“They grow up fast.”

“Don’t forget about Oscar,” she reminded me.

“Alonia’s place is not far from Santiago. We’ll visit him when we go there. Alonia has offered to let him stay there to recuperate after he gets out of the hospital.”

“That’s very kind her.”

“She offered to do it. I didn’t ask her.”

“Are you really going to marry Alonia?”

“Probably. We haven’t sat down and talked about it. Alonia just assumes that we will get married sometime.”

“And you?”

“I assume that we will too.”

“Invite me to the wedding,” she paused. “If it happens.”

“I’ll see to that.”

“Hammer….” A sad expression crossed her face, as if what she wanted to was difficult.

“You can tell me anything, Isabela.”

“Do you remember when you told us how you replayed Lady Margot’s death over and over in your mind hoping it would turn out differently?”


“When I get back home in my familiar routine, and I have a moment to reflect, or when I wake up in the middle of the night because I can’t sleep, I’ll wish this had turned out differently. I’ll replay the time I’ve had with you and I’ll try to make it come out so it would be me and you, instead of you and Alonia. Then I’ll remember that I have a duty to my devoted husband and I also have a son to raise. But, I want you to know that I’ll always remember you.”

She looked at the time. “I better get moving.” She put her arms around my neck and kissed me. “Bye Hammer. Take care of yourself.”

“Goodbye Isabela.”

She turned and walked away. Just before she passed the corner, she looked back. She was a beautiful woman with her movie star face and her expressive eyes. She smiled a Raphaelesque smile, gave me a little wave, and then she was gone.



Don left next. Alonia finished her assignment in Buenos Aires and came to stay with me for the remainder of the time I would spend in Iquique. After I closed the facility and we visited Jack in Bogotá, we would go to her place in San Juan de Marcona south of Santiago, Chile. I couldn’t wait because I was ready for some down time.

Hart and Roscoe were the last to leave. Roscoe and I had reached the point where we got along. He told me that if I needed somebody on another case to keep him in mind. His flight left half an hour before Hart’s flight.

After Roscoe had left, Hart said, “Been good working with you, Hammer.”

“Same here. You’re an amazing shot with your cowboy gun.”

“I practice a lot. You could do it if you tried.”

“I doubt it. If I’m in Richmond sometime, I’ll look you up.”

“It won’t happen.”

“Why not?”

“You only know me by my alias. I can’t tell you my real name.”

“Well, in that case, good luck.”

“Did you know that Isabela was an Englishwoman?”

“Not really. I never asked because of the nature of the business, I don’t ask a lot of personal questions of people who work for me.”

“She goes by an alias too. Her husband’s a colonel in the British Army.”

“I thought her husband was in the military.”

“He’s a duke. Isabela is really Lady Isabela.”

“It never occurred to me that she was an aristocrat.”

“Clover’s an alias too. I don’t know his real name, but he’s Lord something or other. His castle is in the Midlands.”

“I’m not surprised to hear that,” I replied.

“The truth doesn’t count in this business,” Hart observed. “It’s the quality of the lie that people remember.”

“Yeah, I guess you’re right.”

“Clover recruited Lady Margot when she was a teenager. They trained her and educated her for what she did for them.”

“He told us that on our first briefing. She was very good at it.”

“The Fishers were a reclusive, childless couple who adopted Margot to validate her cover. Lord Fisher was a little shrimp of a man, like the little nut in Cordoba. Margot was a foot taller than he was. The Fishers went along with the gag for patriotic reasons, although it turned out bad for them in the end.”

He looked at the clock. “Better get going,” he said. “By the way, Lady Margot’s real name was Susan Taylor. Her father’s a chemist in Sussex.”


The End


Next Month: Hammer Spade and the Four Horsemen



Quantum computing-Schrodinger's Cheetah

Adapted from a longer piece in The Economist issue September 28-October 4th 2019


In an article published in 2012, John Preskill, a theoretical physicist, asked a question, “Is controlling large-scale quantum systems merely really, really hard, or is it ridiculously hard?” Seven years later the answer is in. It is merely really, really hard. In September, a paper on the matter was published online, proved that a quantum computer can outperform a classical one. The underlying research had already been accepted by Nature, a top-tier scientific journal. The leak revealed that Google has achieved what Dr. Preskill dubbed in his article, “quantum supremacy.” Using a quantum computer, researchers at the information technology giant had carried out in a smidgen over three minutes a calculation that would take Summit, the world's current best classical supercomputer, 10,000 years to execute.

This milestone was a credible demonstration of quantum supremacy. The history of the field has been divided into two eras: a “before,” when quantum computers were simply an idea, and an “after,” when one actually exists, and it worked. There has been a lot of discussion in computer science circles about this. Now it has arrived. And it works.

Google's experiment involved “circuit sampling,” a process of checking whether numbers their machine spits out, given random inputs, fit a particular pattern. This particular task was easy for a quantum computer while being checkable by a classical one. It confirmed that quantum computers may in time able to handle long-standing matters of practical importance. These include designing new drugs and materials, giving a boost to the field of machine learning, and making obsolete the cryptographic codes that lock up some of the world's secrets

Quantum computers employ three counterintuitive phenomena. One is “superposition,” the idea behind Schrodinger's famous dead-and-alive cat. Unlike classical bits, which must be either one or zero, “qubits” may be a mixture of both. Google's machine has 53 qubits*, which between them can represent nearly ten million billion possible superposed states.

The second is “entanglement”, which ties quantum particles together across time and space. In standard computers each bit is sequestered from the next. Quantum machines like their qubits entangled. Mathematical operations on superposed and entangled qubits can act, to a greater or lesser degree, on all of them at once.

A quantum calculation starts by addressing qubits individually: making one of them mostly zero, say, and then entangling it with its neighbor by a certain amount. That done, it lets the rules of physics play out, with the qubits' states and linkages evolving overtime. At the end (but not before, which would ruin the calculation), the qubits are examined simultaneously to obtain an answer.

The trick is to maximize the chance of choosing the right answer instead of one of the zillions of wrong ones. This is where the third counterintuitive idea comes in. In classical physics, probabilities must be positive, A 30% chance of rain, say. Quantum mechanics uses a related concept, called “amplitudes.” These can be negative as well as positive. By insuring that amplitudes which represent wrong answers cancel each other out, while those that represent the right one reinforce, programmers’ confidence on the correct solution.

That is the explanation which textbooks present. In the laboratory, things are more difficult. Superpositions and entanglements are exceedingly delicate phenomena. Even the jiggling of adjacent molecules can interrupt them and sully a calculation. Most designs for quantum computers require the machines to be stored at temperatures colder than that of deep space, and to be tended by a basement full of PhDs, to keep things on track.

No height of education or depth of cold, though, can altogether preclude errors. The biggest problem facing quantum engineers is how to spot and correct these, because most of the useful applications of quantum computing will require many, many more qubits than current devices support, which increases the risk of errors. There is now a huge effort by well-known firms such as IBM, Intel, and Microsoft but also by an eager band of newcomers, such as Rigetti, to build better, less error-prone kit.

Parallel with this race to build better machines, is the race to develop useful quantum algorithms to run on them. The most famous example so far is probably Shor's algorithm. This is the piece of quantum-turbocharged math’s that allows rapid factorization of large numbers into their component primes. This scares cryptographers, a group whose trade depends on this being hard to do. But if quantum computers really earn their keep, other algorithms are need to be developed. Developing them will be assisted by the fact that a lot of the proposed applications (drug design, materials science and so on) depend on quantum processes. This is why these applications have been so intractable until now.

Many scientists disagree with the phrase “quantum supremacy,” implying that if the threshold is crossed, it will leave decades of existing computer science in the dust for something weird and wonderful. However, for all the “before” and “after” that Google's paper represents, building practical, error corrected machines will not be easy.

Most computer scientists think it is a mistake to believe that quantum computing will replace the classical sort. The practicalities of low-temperature operation alone are likely to see to this. Governments, big firms and the richer sorts of university will, no doubt, buy their own machines. Others will rent time on devices linked to quantum versions of the cloud. But the total number of quantum computers will be limited.

But bear in mind a similar prediction of limited demand made in the early days of classical computing. In 1943 Thomas Watson, then boss of IBM, is alleged to have said, “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.” **

He was out by a factor of perhaps a billion.


* A qubit is a two-state (or two-level) quantum-mechanical system.

** A 1943 computer would use vacuum tubes and base 10. Your smartphone would be bigger than a warehouse using vacuum tubes and the base 10 number system.


John Preskill was recently elected to the National Academy of Sciences, which generated a lot of enthusiasm among his colleagues and students. Famed Stanford theoretical physicist, Leonard Susskind, paid tribute to John's early contributions to physics ranging from magnetic monopoles to the quantum mechanics of black holes.



Take Your Sons Hunting

E. B. Alston

Rocky Gap, Virginia

December 11, 1975


I have two sons, Mike and Carl. When they were growing up I made it a point to introduce them to firearms and take them hunting. My purpose in introducing them to firearms was to make them aware how dangerous guns are. I also did this for my daughter, Lynn. I guess that part worked out well because today they respect guns without being overly fascinated with them. It is curiosity and fascination about guns that gets children unfamiliar with them into trouble.

Enthusiasm for hunting sports didn’t carry into adulthood for my children. My daughter wasn’t interested and the boys thought of hunting as more of a fun outdoor hike in the woods than a quest for wild game.

But still, we had a lot of fun in the outdoors while they were growing up.

When we lived in Southwest Virginia, we deer hunted in the national forests. The Appalachian area has tens of thousands of acres available to hunt. They are wild, undeveloped acres where you don’t have to worry about houses being nearby.

One cold December Saturday, Don Meadows and I took our sons deer hunting in Jefferson National Forest in Giles County. We hunted on Wolf Mountain along Nobusiness Creek. The plan was to arrive at the hunt area before daylight, still hunt until eight a.m. and meet back at the truck to fix a campfire breakfast.

Don was a gourmet campfire cook and he brought biscuits. You’ll note that actually bagging a deer would have spoiled breakfast big time. Luckily nobody did, although my son, Mike, and Don’s son, Kevin, saw a couple of does and a spike buck.

Breakfast was a huge success with the boys. We had biscuits, eggs, sausage, fatback and jelly, plus perked coffee. The smell of frying fatback and perking coffee in the open air is one of the true pleasures of outdoor life.

The boys had never seen uncooked fatback and said, “Eyuuu, I’m not eating any of THAT!” when I was slicing it. By the time it was ready to eat they changed their minds and ate it all. Don and I didn’t get a single piece.

Appetites are big on twenty-two degree outdoor mornings and every morsel was eaten with gusto. The five of us ate a dozen eggs. I know I ate only two and I doubt if Don ate more than that. That left eight eggs to be consumed by two teenagers and one eleven year-old boy. Don’t forget a half-pound of fatback, a dozen buttered biscuits, a pound of sausage plus two-thirds of a jar of blackberry jam. 

We had built a large campfire due to the intense cold. After breakfast and cleaning up, we were sitting around the fire digesting our food, when we heard loud popping sounds from the fire, like a small firecracker might have sounded. Mike and Kevin stirred among the ashes and while they were doing it, a small limestone rock popped and split apart. Our theory was the wet limestone rocks were being split by steam caused by the heat from the campfire. So until the fire died out, the boys spent their time looking for small limestone rocks to throw into the campfire. The popping continued for quite a while.

Boyhood fun comes from odd circumstances.

It was ten-thirty before we split up to hunt again. Don and I agreed Mike and Kevin could hunt together, but we made sure they hunted in a familiar area. We also reminded them about safety rules and that it was a bucks only hunt. They were both mature enough to follow instructions.

Don had identified a special spot where he wanted to hunt. So Carl and I made our way up the ridge toward a nice little cove where we could watch and wait for game.

Carl was hungry by noon, so we ate our sandwiches.

We were on the south side of the mountain and the sun came out in mid-afternoon. Although it was still below freezing on the mountain, Carl and I got downright comfy in our hunting clothes. We took a nice nap.

After waking up, Carl asked if he could play in a hole full of leaves a hundred feet down the mountain. A huge oak tree that blew over during a storm had caused the hole. We could see the tree with a fifteen-foot root ball about halfway down the mountain. That must have been a heck of a wind. Soon Carl was among the leaves whooping and hollering. No danger of getting a deer around there.

After this had been going on a few minutes, I saw movement out of the corner of my eye. It was a hunter stalking through the woods in hope of surprising a deer. He moved by Carl, while he was making all that racket, one careful step at a time. He didn’t look at Carl or me the whole time he was passing by. It must have taken him fifteen minutes to go out of our sight. There wasn’t a deer within a mile of Carl and the racket he was making. The only way Carl could have made more noise was to shoot his gun. Yet that hunter moved by as if a deer might have been a foot away. It was a ridiculous scene.

All fun had to end sometime and about four-thirty, I told Carl it was time to go. We got back to the truck about dark. Don and the other boys were waiting when we got back to the pickup. Nobody had seen a deer. Everybody had had a glorious time. It was, and still is, a day to remember.


From the Kitchen of P. L. Almanza


Tea Cakes


tea cakes 2.jpg


2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 stick (1/2 c) unsalted butter, softened

1 cup sugar

2 large eggs, whisked

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 - 2 tablespoons whole milk



Prepare a lightly floured work surface. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or lightly grease it. Preheat oven to 350° F.


Whisk together the flour, baking powder, and salt. Set aside.

In a large mixing bowl and using a hand mixer, beat the butter, sugar, and whisked eggs until creamy. Beat in the vanilla, milk, and flour mixture until well blended, adding another tablespoon of milk if needed for the dough to come together.


Dump dough onto the floured surface, sprinkle flour over dough then roll out to about 1/4-inch thick, or a little thicker.


Cut dough out with a 3" cookie or biscuit cutter - OR roll into 1 1/2" balls. Place on baking sheet.

Bake for about 12-14 minutes (balls may take a bit longer), or just until bottoms are very lightly browned.


Let cool on pan for 1 minute then remove tea cakes to a wire cooling rack. If desired, while they are still hot, sprinkle or dip tops in sugar. Or cool completely and ice/decorated as desired.



Sugar Cookies



2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

2 sticks (1 c) salted butter, softened

sugar cookies.jpg1 1/2 cups sugar

1 extra-large egg

1 1/4 teaspoons vanilla extract



In a medium bowl, stir together the flour, baking powder, and baking soda. Set aside.

In a large bowl and using a mixer, cream together the softened butter and sugar until light and creamy. Beat in the egg and vanilla.


Gradually, beat in the flour mixture on low speed.


Preheat oven to 375° F.


Roll rounded teaspoonfuls of dough into balls (about 1"), and place onto ungreased cookie sheets, spacing about 2" apart.

frosted sugar cookies.jpg

Bake for 8-10 minutes, or until edges are golden.

Let stand on cookie sheet for 1 minute then remove cookies to wire cooling racks. Makes about 48 cookies.



When cookies are completely cool, frost with simple icing (confectioners sugar and enough cream for desired consistency. Icing can be tinted with food coloring) and decorate tops with sprinkles or sparkling sugar, OR dip cookies half way in melted milk chocolate chips. Allow time for icing to harden before serving or storing.


Soft and chewy, They're always a favorite on holiday cookie trays and for gift giving. I love them plain.



Chocolate Chip Cookies


chocolate chip cookies 2.jpg


1 cup softened salted butter or margarine

3/4 cup sugar

1 cup packed light brown sugar

2 extra-large eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

2 1/2 cups uncooked quick-cooking or old-fashioned oatmeal (not instant!)

1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips

1/2 cup chopped pecans or walnuts (I used pecans)

1/2 cup shredded sweetened flaked coconut



Line 2 large cookie sheets with parchment paper or use silicon mats. In a mixing bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt. Set aside.

Preheat oven to 350°F.


chocolate chip cookies 3.jpgIn a large mixing bowl and using a hand mixer, beat together on medium speed the butter/margarine and both sugars until pale and creamy, 3-4 minutes, scraping sides of bowl as needed. Beat in one egg until incorporated, then beat in the other egg and vanilla.


Beat flour mixture into the creamed mixture just until well blended.

Stir in oats, chocolate chips, nuts, and coconut until well distributed.

Drop by heaping tablespoons onto the baking sheets.


Bake for about 15 minutes, or until center is set. (For chewy cookies, they need to seem a bit undercooked.)


Cool cookies on pan for 2-3 minutes then carefully remove cookies using a thin metal spatula to a wire cooling rack to cool completely.


I chopped the pecans fairly fine. Also, I didn't want long strands of coconut in the cookies so I pulsed it a few times in the food processor before measuring it out.


These big, soft and chewy chocolate chip cookies are chocked full of oats, pecans, and coconut, making them the Best In the World.



A High Plains Christmas

Part One

E. B. Alston


Abe’s snoring woke Zed up again. For over a week now, just about daybreak Abe turned over on his back and started snoring. Zed tried to ignore it, tried to shut the noise out by pulling the buffalo robe over his head, but nothing helped. Daylight was streaming in through the one window in the sod cabin. Zed’s breath made little clouds in the frigid air but he was warm lying on the straw mattress under the buffalo robe. He looked at his clothes at the foot of the bed and his boots on the dirt floor and wished he’d put them under the robe with him the night before. His other partners, Bob and Gilbert were still sleeping away, oblivious to the noise Abe was making. Condensation from their breathing in the cold air reminded Zed of steam engines.

He decided he might as well get up. The horses needed to be fed and he had to relieve himself. Still he lay there a few minutes longer, hoping one of them would wake up and light the fire, but they were dead to the world. He finally realized that nature meant for him to be the first to brave the Kansas cold. He got up, dressed quickly and put kindling over the coals in the fireplace. In a few seconds, a tiny flame flickered and he deftly placed additional kindling and wood over the flames until the fireplace began to radiate heat into the cramped room. As soon as the fire was going, he went outside into the cold and snow to feed the horses. He guessed it was about 7:30. None of them had a watch. The horses were glad to see him and jostled to get to the trough where he put oats out for them. While they were occupied with the oats, he forked hay into the corral. Twenty cowponies consumed a lot of hay.

The boss had sent them here for the winter to spread out the horse herd and station men where they could check on the herds of cattle. In winters like this, one out of four wouldn’t survive. There was no hay for cows. The cabin was two days ride from the main ranch.   There was not enough work to keep four men busy but the boss tried to keep his men over the winter because good help was hard to find. So they remained on the payroll and were assigned to this outpost. When the first snow fell they’d been dispatched to this line shack with a wagon load of flour, cornmeal, bacon, beans, coffee, salt, pepper and sugar with instructions to return on March 15. Zed was assigned to mark the calendar. Today was Christmas Eve, 1869.

All of them were refugees from the civil war. Zed and Bob had been with Grant’s army at Appomattox. Abe and Gilbert were with Lee. Although they had little in common there were no animosities between them. All of them had lost friends and relatives in the war and were burnt out with conflict. Abe and Gilbert grew up on adjoining plantations in Alabama. They were fugitives from the occupation army because they had violently resisted confiscation of their land and property after returning to their devastated homes. Zed and Bob just couldn’t go back home and wandered west like so many scarred veterans from both sides.

When Zed got back inside, the others were up, having awakened when the room got warm. Abe had made coffee and was cooking cornmeal and flour flapjacks and bacon. They didn’t have any syrup or molasses so they sprinkled sugar on the flapjacks and decided it was a pretty good substitute.

Their diet was pretty monotonous. Bob had killed a deer two days ago so they could have fresh meat for Christmas.

They’d exhausted anything of interest they had to say long ago. There just wasn’t anything left to discuss so they didn’t talk much. Their only entertainment was playing poker with a well-used deck of cards. The king of diamonds and three of spades were missing and all of the high value cards were visibly marked so everybody knew who had the best hand.  They didn’t play for money anyway so nobody cared who won.

 Zed announced during breakfast that it was Christmas Eve. They talked about riding to Abilene but it was almost a day’s ride in good weather. So the cold and a foot of new snow persuaded them there was nothing in Abilene that warranted the effort.

Zed thought about it and decided he needed to go somewhere. The reminder of Christmas made him homesick and all of a sudden he needed to get away. The closest town was Longford. It was two hours away, maybe three in the snow. So after breakfast, he got his bedroll and gun and saddled the big black gelding for the ride into Longford. His companions thought he was crazy. Gilbert, in his southern drawl, assured him he’d freeze his butt off and when he got there nothing would be happening in Longford. Zed waved him off and told them he’d be back the day after Christmas.

The big black was Zed’s favorite horse. He was about four years old, intelligent, long legged and very athletic. The horse liked him too. Zed knew he did because the other ranch hands thought he was difficult to handle and he had a reputation for biting people. For the most part everybody was happy to let Zed ride him and he’d come to think of him as his horse. The horse was glad to be out of the corral and was ready to stretch his legs with a good gallop. This was tricky and dangerous in the snow but Zed let him have his head for a couple of miles before he reined him in.

The weather changed almost as soon as he left the shack. The sky turned gray and threatened more snow. There was only one ranch house along the route. It was a large but otherwise unimposing sod house with a sod fireplace at each end. Sod was free and plentiful in Kansas while lumber was dear. It was much larger than their little hut. Smoke poured from both chimneys and light shone cheerfully through two front windows.  Cottonwoods and hedge apples were the only trees that grew in these parts and they were not suitable for lumber. But you could build a sod house as big as your back could stand.

The ride was uneventful and he didn’t see another soul. Even the cows looked the other way when they passed by. Zed started to think this trip might not have been such a good idea after all. The big horse thought otherwise. He pranced and fidgeted occasionally, wanting to break into a headlong gallop but Zed kept him under control.

The ride to Longford took longer than Zed thought it would and night was falling by the time he rode into town. The only sign of business activity was a light on in the combination feed, seed, grocery, clothing store, hotel and saloon. There were rooms on the second floor where Zed planned to spend the two nights. He hoped they had a vacant room or at least a vacant bed. He’d brought his bedroll just in case he had to sleep on a floor somewhere. A barbershop stood next to the saloon offering the possibility of a hot bath. Thoughts of a hot bath made him decide the trip was worthwhile however arduous it had been. A post office, a sheriff deputy’s office, a Justice of the Peace office and a combination blacksmith shop and livery stable arranged indifferently along both sides of the short main street completed the business part of town. There were at most, a dozen houses spaced along short streets in an east-west, north south grid. The houses were lit and looked cheerful and warm inside. The businesses, except for the saloon, were dark. Zed was the only person on the street when he rode into town. He tied the horse to the hitching rail and went inside the saloon. It was empty, except for the bartender.

“Anywhere I can get a shave, a bath and a steak?” Zed asked.

“Sure,” the bartender replied. He looked like he was glad to have a customer and would enjoy a little company.

“How about my horse?”

“Take him to the stable down the street.”  He pointed towards the east. “Jake’s probably drunk. You’ll have to put him up and feed him. Its 35 cents a day. Just pay Jake when you leave.”


“Which do you want first? The shave, the bath or the steak?”

“The bath first, then the shave. I’ll eat after I’m cleaned up. Could I get my clothes washed while I’m taking a bath?”

“Can’t handle that tonight. But I could sell you some nice new duds at a Christmas bargain price.”

“I’ll take you up on that.”

“Good. You want a room too?”


“Throw your stuff in the first one on the left at the top of the stairs and put your horse up while I get the bathtub ready. You’ve got plenty of time. Got to heat the water.”


Zed went back outside, got his bedroll and deposited it in the room. Then he walked big black to the stable. A man, Zed assumed he was the man called Jake, was dead drunk and his face was down on a pile of papers on the desk in the tiny office.  Zed unsaddled the horse, put him in an empty stall, filled the water bucket from the pump out front and put oats and hay in the trough. 

“Merry Christmas,” he mumbled to the big black as he patted his neck. The horse nuzzled his arm. He left the stable and walked back to the saloon and barbershop.

The bartender doubled as the barber. This was a one-horse town. An elderly Mexican woman appeared and proceeded to cook his steak. 

The bath, the new clothes, the shave and an unexpectedly fine meal made Zed feel like a new man and he appreciated his good fortune after braving the cold to make this trek. It was 8:30 and he was still the only customer in the saloon. He’d had one drink; he was not much of a drinker. The bartender was the only other person in the saloon and he looked like he’d like to close up except for Zed.

The bartender introduced himself, “By the way, I’m Amos Brown. How long are you planning to stay?” 

 “Pleased to meet you Amos, my name is Zedekiah Smith but people call me Zed. I’m leaving day after tomorrow.”

“Not too many strangers come through Longford, especially this time of the year.”

“I just needed to get away from a little line shack with four of us in it. I work for Mr. Dean.”

“I’ve heard about him. He’s got a real big spread.”

“Yeah, its real big,” Zed agreed.

Zed thought about the spirit of Christmas and decided he’d let Amos close up and go home. Then he had a thought. It was a small chance in this tiny town, but things had worked out pretty good so far. Why not ask?

“You got a woman here?” Zed asked, expecting a look of incredulity from the bartender. This was not Abilene.

“Yeah,” he replied.

Zed was flabbergasted, “You do?”

“Yeah, she’s upstairs in the room at the end of the hall.”

“Why ain’t she down here?” Zed asked, remembering the women in Abilene who hovered so close to a man he almost suffocated.

The bartender read his mind, “She ain’t like them women in Abilene.”

Well, that made sense. Longford was not like Abilene either.

“Is she pretty?”  Before the words passed his lips Zed wished he hadn’t asked. It was a real dumb question. Bartenders always said they were pretty. If they had all their parts, bartenders described them as pretty and if the cowboys had enough to drink, they thought so too. The question marked him as inexperienced in such matters.

“Yeah, she’s a real handsome woman.”

“I bet so,” Zed thought. Then aloud, “How much?”


Zed whistled, “That’s pretty steep.”

“She won’t do it for a penny less.”

Zed thought about it. One third of a month’s pay to be with a woman he hadn’t seen.

“Will she come down and let me see her?” Zed asked.

“Naw. You’ll have to meet her in the room. She won’t come out.”

“She ain’t like them in Abilene for sure.”

“Naw. She’s a different kind of woman. She ain’t the type for this but she had a real tough break.”

Zed got the impression that the barkeep admired the woman upstairs.

“Suppose I don’t like her?” He was thinking, “Suppose she ain’t pretty like you said she was?”

“If you change your mind, don’t pay her.”

“You mean I’ll pay the money to her?” This was not Abilene for sure.

“Yeah. You want me to tell her you’re coming up?”

Zed thought a minute before he replied, “Yeah.”

The bartender went up the stairs and returned in a couple of minutes.

“She’ll be ready in 20 minutes,” he informed Zed. “You need another drink?”

“Naw, I’m okay.”

“Do you want the Mexican to fix breakfast?”

“Yeah, if she would.”

“Then she’ll come about 7:00. Since you and Mrs. Montgomery are my only customers, I won’t open up tomorrow. If you want dinner and supper you can just let the Mexican know yourself.”


“I think I’ll head on home. If you want something to drink later, just come down and get a bottle. We’ll settle up when you leave.” He pointed to a bottle under the counter with a fancy label, “That’s the good stuff.”  

“Thanks,” Zed replied appreciatively. The bartender had been very nice to him.

“Merry Christmas,” Amos said.

“Same to you.”

The bartender closed the big doors at the saloon entrance and left through a side door. Zed finished his drink while he watched twenty minutes tick by on the clock above the bar. At 9:00, he emptied his glass and rose to go upstairs to see the woman in the room at the end of the hall. On the way up he realized he’d never been with a woman on Christmas Eve. He stopped off to leave his hat in his room before knocking on her door. A woman’s voice asked who was there.

“Zed Smith.”

“Come in,” the reply came from within.

She was a southern woman with an accent similar to those who lived around Richmond, Virginia. He opened the door and went inside. A kerosene lamp was lit and sat on the stand beside the bed. He glanced around the room. It was better furnished than his room, with a factory made bed and curtains on the window. The woman was beside the stand. Her hair looked black in the lamplight. She was nearly as tall as he was and she was fully dressed like she was going to town or even to church.

“It’s $10.00,” she told him.

“Yeah, the barkeep told me.”

She didn’t play up to him like the Abilene women did. He took a ten-dollar bill from his pocket and handed it to her. She put it in the drawer of the nightstand.

“Do you want me to undress or would you like to undress me?” she asked quietly. There was none of the fake flirtyness of the Abilene women in her. This was all business as far as she was concerned.

Before he could answer, a sound came from the corner of the room farthest from the lamp. Zed was startled. It was a baby’s cry! The woman looked upset and went to a basket on the dresser where she picked up an infant, cuddling it in her arms.

“I’m sorry,” she told him. “She’s been irritable all day. I think she’s starting to teethe.”

Zed was upset too. The little baby in the room upset him. He remembered what the bartender had said about her not being the type. She seemed like a nice woman and she was pretty too. Why was she doing this? She ought to be at home somewhere getting ready for a family Christmas.

The child quieted down and the woman put her back into the basket. Then she looked at Zed.

“What would you like me to do?” she asked again.

“Ma’am, I can’t now.”

“You can’t? Why not?”

“I can’t do nothing like this with a little baby in the room.”

“But, I can’t leave her alone!” the woman exclaimed.

“No ma’am, you can’t. And I’m not asking you too either.”

“She’s just four months old. She won’t know anything about what we do.”

“I know, ma’am. I just can’t. It ain’t right.”

They stood facing each other in the lamplight. Finally she broke the silence.

“I’ll return your money.”

“No ma’am. Ain’t no need for that. You can keep it.”

“I will not accept charity, sir.”

“Then say it’s a Christmas present from me.”

“You’re a stranger. Why would a stranger give me a present for nothing?”

He didn’t want to argue, “Ma’am, just keep the money.”

All of a sudden she looked vulnerable. He was afraid she was about to cry.

“This is so hard!” she blurted out.

“What’s so hard, ma’am?” He wondered why he asked.

“Doing this for money.”

“Why are you doing it?” He still wondered why he asked.

“I need a lot of money before spring.”

“What for, ma’am?” He was thinking she needed money to go back east.

“So I can hire a field hand to plant corn and harvest the wheat.”

“You’re a farmer?” he was incredulous.


“How big a farm?” He figured she had a quarter; 160 acres.

“Two squares.”

“Ma’am that is a lot of land! Ain’t you got a husband?”

“My husband’s dead.”

“I’m sorry to hear it.” He was genuinely sorry. “How long ago?”

“Six months.”

She had a four month old baby. Her husband had been dead two months when their child was born. He hesitated before he said anything else, “Then you ought to go back east where you came from, ma’am. This is rough country, especially for a woman.” He almost added, “Like you,” but didn’t.

“I can’t go back.”

“Why not?”

“There’s nothing to go back to.” 

“Ain’t you got no family?” She was very well groomed and he thought she must have come from a prominent family.

“My parents are dead.”

“Ain’t you got no other kin?”

“I’ve got lots of kin people back home but they can’t help me.”

“Why not?”

“Their condition is as desperate as mine.”

“Where are you from, ma’am?”

“North Carolina, near Weldon. My father owned a plantation on the Roanoke River.”

“Can’t you go back there?”

“No. All of our land was sold to Yankees to pay Yankee taxes.”

She glared at him, “Over 38,000 acres of good bottom land and when my daddy died of a broken heart he was living in a shack on 33 acres. Imagine! Jacob Fitzgerald living in a shack! ” she added bitterly.

“Sorry ma’am.”

“I’m sorry,” she said.

“For what?”

“For getting mad. It wasn’t your doing.”

“It’s alright. The war caused a lot of bad things to happen.”

She sat on the bed and stared out the window.

“I wish the war hadn’t come,” she said wistfully.

“Me too, ma’am.”

“I’d be at home tonight. We’d be opening presents now. Daddy always got his girls clothes from London. We’d run upstairs and try them on and run back down to show them off.” She looked at him, “It seems like it happened a million years ago on another planet.”

“Times have changed,” he admitted.

“It won’t be like that ever again,” she replied sadly.

“No ma’am, it won’t.”

The nostalgia left and her bitterness returned, “Now I’m selling myself for money.”

“Why are you doing it, ma’am?”

“I need the money.”

“How much do you need?”


That was a pretty specific amount, “It ain’t none of my business, but why do you need exactly $360.00?”

“I’ve got to hire a man to help me farm. A good man costs $30.00 a month.”

“You’ll need more than one man for two squares.”

“I’ve already got a colored man and woman. They’re looking after things while I’m here.”

“Colored people?”

“They were with us before the war and came out here when we moved.”

“You mean you brought your slaves?”

“They aren’t slaves any more. They’re free to go anywhere they want to.”

“Then why did they come?”

“They loved us,” she added sadly. “And we loved them.”

“What can they do?”

“Maud was my house servant. She tends to the house. Julius was our field foreman and he does field work. He worked with Ethan before he died.”

“Ethan was your husband?”


“What happened to him?”

“He was wounded at Antietam. They thought he was going to die. But when I got word, I went to him and nursed him until we could bring him home. Julius went with me and helped me bring him back.”

Zed was beginning to admire this woman now. “Did he ever get well?”

“Not really. Something inside didn’t heal properly. Every so often he’d get raging fevers. He was having one when he died.”

Now Zed realized this woman came to this god-forsaken country with a grievously wounded husband, knowing she could become a widow at any time.

“Ma’am, you took a big chance coming out here with him like that.”

“I knew it, but he wanted to come. He wanted to get away and I did too. We sold my jewelry so we could come out here, buy some land and make a fresh start.”

“When did you come?’


She came west with a sick man and got pregnant after they’d been here a year.

“Ma’am, I’ve saved a little money. I could lend you $360.00 and you wouldn’t have to do this anymore.”

“You don’t know me.”

“I trust you, ma’am.”

“It’s really a gift. You have no idea if I’ll ever pay you back.”

“I know you will if you can.”

“I won’t take presents from strangers.”

“Ma’am, you can’t keep doing this.”

“Why not? It’s my body I’m selling.”

“Ma’am you’re not the type.”

“And just how do you know I’m not the type?”

He didn’t want to argue about it, “You just ain’t.” He tried to say it with finality.

They didn’t speak for a while. The clock downstairs struck ten.

“I’ll just go back to my room, ma’am. Merry Christmas.”

“What’s your name?”

“Zedekiah Smith. Folks call me Zed.”

She finally relaxed a little and smiled, “I’m pleased to meet you, Zed. I’m Sarah Fitzgerald Montgomery.” She pointed to the baby basket, “She’s Jennie.”

“Pleased to meet you, ma’am.”

There was a moment of awkward silence. Then she asked, “Zed, how much money have you saved?”

He thought this was an impertinent question about his private business but before he knew it, he heard himself telling her, “A little over $1600.00.”

She appeared to be in serious thought.

She turned and looked him in the eye, “Zedekiah, will you marry me?”

Now Zed needed a seat. “Ma’am, can I sit down?”

She motioned towards the armchair by the window. They stared at each other for a few minutes.

“Ma’am, I’m just a simple cowpoke. I ain’t cut out for a high class woman like you.”

“High class!” she scoffed. “I sold myself to you for the evening.”

“But you had to do it. People do things in a bad situation they wouldn’t normally do. You ain’t no whore. I knew it the minute I walked in the room.”

She relaxed a little. “I apologize for springing that on you.”

“That’s alright, ma’am.”

“But I meant it. I still mean it.”

Now he was quiet.

“Zed, you are an honest, kind and generous man.”

“Thanks, ma’am.”

“I would be a faithful wife to you.”

“I know you would, ma’am.”

“I know this sounds wrong with this financial mess I’m in, but I have a good head for business. I believe we could prosper as husband and wife.”

By now Zed’s mind was going a million miles a minute. This prospect of a pretty wife at hand and his mind was reeling warning him to go slow.

“I work hard, ma’am, and I try to save a little all along.”

“What are you saving up for?”

“I want to buy a little piece of land of my own.”

“I’m offering you 1,280 acres.”

“Ma’am, this is real sudden.”

“I know. It’s sudden for me too.”

“Yeah, this is real sudden,” he repeated.

“Do you believe in Christmas?”

“Yes, ma’am, I do.”

“And giving presents?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

‘Would you give me a present?”

“I’d sure like to, ma’am.”

“Then marry me. That’s the present I want from you.”

If ever a man was in a quandary, Zed was in one. She’d won. His heart was already on her side and his mouth was ready to say the words but the voice in his head was screaming, “Slow down, you fool!”

His heart won. “Okay ma’am, I’ll marry you,” he heard himself say.  He half expected her to jump up and embrace him but she didn’t. She stayed on the bed looking at him.

“Thank you, Zedekiah,” she said quietly. Then she got up from the bed, came to him and knelt beside his chair. He was thankful she didn’t push herself on him.

“Can we get married tomorrow?” she asked.

“Tomorrow’s Christmas.”

“I know. I want to get married on Christmas. Remember, it’s my Christmas present. I don’t want to wait until next Christmas.”

This woman was a master persuader. “I’ll try to set it up, ma’am.”

“The Justice of the Peace could do it.”

“Yes ma’am, I know he could.”

“Would you speak to him first thing tomorrow?”

“Yes ma’am, I will.”


“Yes ma’am?”

“My name is Sarah. You may call me Sarah now.”

“Yes ma’am, I will.”

She laughed. She had a pretty laugh; the type of laugh a man likes to hear from a woman. Then she kissed him on the cheek and his heart told his mind to stop yelling and just shut up.


“Yes ma.., er, Sarah.”

I want you to promise me something.”


“I want a wood house.”

“Okay.” He almost said “ma’am”. He said “okay” without hesitation.

“We can order one right away.”

“How?” He almost added “ma’am” again.

“A company called ‘Sears and Roebuck’ sells houses by mail. Everything comes on the train; windows, doors, everything and it’s precut. You don’t even need a saw. All you have to do is put it together from the plans they send.”

“How much does it cost, ma’am?”

“$610.00 delivered to Abilene.”

“Okay,” he heard himself saying. He was on auto-pilot now.

“Thank you, Zed.”

“Just add it your Christmas present.”

She laughed again. He liked to hear her laugh.

“There is one other thing.” She had a very serious expression.

“What’s that?” he could see his whole $1600.00 flying away on wings. The odd thing was he really didn’t care at the moment.

“I want us to have a real marriage. I know it sounded like a business deal but I want us to love each other and have children. If you don’t think you can learn to love me, I don’t want you to go through with it.”

“Can you love me?” he asked. He was amazed he could ask a question like that of a woman.

“I can love you. I knew it the minute you walked through the door.”

“Then I can love you too, ma’am.” His heart had truly taken control of his voice.

She giggled. “Zedekiah, my name is Sarah.”

“I know it is, ma’am.”

She giggled again. He liked being around her already, especially when she laughed.

They talked into the night, getting to know each other. He started to relax a little and she smiled at him the whole time. Their hearts grew close that fateful Christmas Eve in Longford, Kansas. And how the time flew by! It was after one when he got back to his room. She and Jennie would join him at breakfast and they would plan their wedding then.



He was wide-awake when the clock downstairs struck 5:00 and his mind had started working again. It was adding up the pluses and minuses in this situation. He had agreed to marry a woman with aristocratic and expensive tastes. She came with almost 1300 acres of land. Knowing her like he did already, he was betting it was one of the very few tracts in this part of Kansas with a stream flowing through it. She was the most persuasive woman he had ever known. She could probably persuade a man to do just about anything she wanted him to do. He was still, in the cold light of morning, unconcerned that he had promised her a wood house. But then, he hadn’t known many women and none of them made him feel so good to be around. This woman was intoxicating. That in itself was a danger sign but even in the mental clarity of early morning, he didn’t see the danger. Suppose she was just manipulating him and after his $1600.00 was gone, she’d just chuck him aside. On the other hand she was brutally honest and straightforward. And she did advise him that if he couldn’t love her, she wanted him to walk away. His mind was clearly on her side too.

He got up and went to the livery stable to feed his horse. Jake was nowhere to be seen. It didn’t occur to Zed at the moment that it was still very early. The black horse was glad to see him. He whinnied and started pawing the floor as soon as Zed entered the barn.   He expected to be let out and maybe gallop some more. Zed put a measure of oats into the trough and forked in more hay. The water bucket was frozen. Zed found an empty one in another stall, filled it from the pump and set it in the stall with his horse. There was one other horse in the barn. Zed looked him over. He was a tall roan gelding with a blaze face and one white stocking. He was a very handsome horse. Parked in the back between stalls was a buggy with expensive looking harness hung on one of its wheels. Since this was the only other horse in the barn, Zed fed and watered him too. He went back to the stall where Big Black was munching oats while he pawed the ground. It would be very easy right now to saddle up and just ride out of town. He thought about it a few minutes, and was briefly tempted to do it, until he thought about the dreary sod shack with the four of them crowded inside with nothing to do. He had a chance today to do better. It might not work out but it looked like it had a lot of promise.

When he got back to the saloon a little after six, the Mexican woman was already there. He told her Sarah would be joining him for breakfast. She was surprised. Then a knowing smile appeared on her face as she started to go back towards the kitchen.

“Ma’am, could you help me with something?” he asked.

She turned to answer him, “Si, Senor.”

“Me and the lady upstairs want to get married today. Could you tell me where the Justice of the Peace lives?”

Her jaw dropped. Then a big smile spread slowly across her face. “I’ll tell Senor Amos. He’ll know what to do.” Before Zed could say anything else, she was gone.

Zed went upstairs to his room where he washed up and combed his hair. He came back down a little before 7:00. The cook was putting breakfast for two on the table.

“Senor Amos will be here in a few minutes,” she told him.

Before he could thank her, Sarah appeared at the top of the stairs with Jennie in a basket on her arm. Zed went to meet them and escorted her to the table. It was the first time he had seen her in good light. She was a beautiful woman. And little Jennie was just about the prettiest child he’d ever seen. She was at the age where she smiled at everything. He hoped Sarah wasn’t disappointed in his appearance.

“Good morning, Zedekiah,” she said in her soft southern accent. She smiled at him.

“Good morning, ma’am,” then he corrected himself, “Sarah.”

“That’s much better,” she replied with a smile.

Sarah placed the basket on the table so Jennie could see them. Then he held her chair for her to sit down and took the place to her left. 

While the cook was pouring their coffee, Sarah said, “You look very handsome this morning, Zedekiah.”

“Thank you, ma’am. You look real pretty yourself.”

“Why, thank you, Zed. I was thinking last night we hadn’t seen each other in the light. I was pleasantly surprised to see such a handsome man waiting for me this morning.” Her voice was like music. Zed liked this a whole lot.

“Ma’am, er, Sarah, you’re the prettiest woman I have ever seen.”

“Thank you. I had a hard time getting to sleep last night. Did you?”

“No, ma’am. But I woke up real early this morning thinking about things.”

“And what do you think this morning?”

“I’m still game if you are, Ma’am.”

“I’m getting excited already,” she replied.

She smiled sweetly at him. He finally relaxed enough to smile back at her. She took his hand.

“You have a nice smile, Zed.”

The cook cleared her throat, “Your breakfast is getting cold. Stop grinning at each other and eat. You two have a busy day ahead of you.”

They began to eat but were too mesmerized with each other to catch the implications of what the cook’s comments meant.

“Does your land have water?”

“Chapman’s Creek runs through both sections.”

“I knew it,” he observed with a grin.

“What did you know?” she inquired.

“I knew you’d pick land with water on it.”

“Is there anything wrong with that?”

“Nothing, Ma’am. I’m glad you picked land with water. I would have too.”

This was the last private conversation they would have for the next few hours. They were interrupted when the bartender’s wife, Mattie, came in, introduced herself and joined them at the table.

“Mrs. Morales told us you two want to get married today?”

“Yes ma’am, we do,” Zed answered. “We want to get married this morning if we can.”

Mattie smiled and addressed Sarah, “This is the best news we’ve heard all year. Amos told me last night he thought Zed was a good and honest man.”

“I think so too,” Sarah agreed. “Will we be able to get married today? It’s my Christmas present from Zed.” She smiled at him when she said it.

“Amos is at Walter Tyree’s house now. He’s the Justice of the Peace.”

Before they could say anything else, the bartender and another man and woman entered the saloon. Zed rose to meet them. Amos introduced Walter Tyree and his wife Jane to him and Sarah.

 “Pleased to meet you,” Zed replied. “This is Sarah Montgomery and her daughter, Jennie.”

Tyree asked, “I’m told you two want to get married today?”

“Yeah, we do,” Zed answered.

“What time?” Tyree inquired.

Zed looked at Sarah. She thought a minute. “I’ll have to feed Jennie around 10:30. Could we do it at 11:00?”

“Eleven it is, Mrs. Montgomery. We’re thinking about inviting the other families in town to your wedding. Do you mind?”

Sarah and Zed looked at each other. Sarah answered. “We don’t mind. But we wouldn’t want to cause a lot of trouble for everybody on Christmas day.”

“It ain’t no trouble, ma’am,” Amos answered. “People in town are just tickled to death about this and they want to come.”

Zed and Sarah were very surprised, but appreciated the outpouring of good will.

Sarah smiled, “Then everyone is invited to our wedding.”

Tyree had another suggestion. “We were thinking about everybody bringing their Christmas dinner to the saloon here and we could have a big celebration afterward.”

Zed was quickly getting out of his social league and in danger of becoming overwhelmed by all this good fortune and attention. Sarah recognized this and graciously accepted the town’s hospitality for the both of them.

 “It’s so nice of ya’ll to do this for us. We’ll be forever indebted to you for your fine hospitality,” she said in her very best southern accent with her sweetest smile.

“I’m marrying a woman that everybody in town loves,” Zed thought to himself.


Continued Next Month





P.L. Almanza: From the Kitchen of P. L. Almanza; lives in Hamlet, North Carolina. She has been writing stories since she was four years old. Her first book, The East Side Killers came out in April 2014. Her cookbook, Family Meals and Desserts, came out in the summer of 2015. She is currently working on two new cookbooks 


E. B. Alston: Author, columnist, literary critic, and sometimes poet. His work has been published in various newspapers, telecommunications trade magazines, and books. He is the Managing Editor of the magazine.

Laura A. Alston: Thanksgiving Day, Past and Present, lives and writes in Henderson, North Carolina. Her first book, My Pet Rocky Renee, was published in June 2010. In addition she has published Too Many Goodbyes, You Gave me Wings and a book of her collected poems, From My Heart to Yours


Rita Berman: Mark Twain, an American Writer, Humorist, and Lecturer; was born in London, England and now lives in Mebane, N.C. Her business, travel, and writing advice articles have been published in more than 500 diverse newspapers and magazines in the United States and Gt. Britain. Her reference book, The A-Z of Writing and Selling,  was a Writer's Digest Book Club selection for September 1981.  Her other books, available on Amazon.com are Still Hopping, Still Hoping, (2012), The Dating Adventures of a Widow, (2013), The Key, (2014), Parallel Lives, (2016), Ariana Mangum's Books and Columns (2017),and Military Wives and Widows Tell Their Stories, (2018).


Randy Bittle: Life in the Universe; is a self-taught independent philosopher who is still learning.  He has two books, both collections of essays, available on Amazon.com. His latest book, More Colors Through My Mental Prism is also available.


Brad Carver: Thanksgiving in Moccasin Gap; was a regular columnist. His book, Daddyhood, was published in 2007. Brad was a humorist, and friend who lived in Semora, North Carolina.  This is a reprint from November 2012. He is now deceased and I still miss him.


Diana Goldsmith: Mahjong; Diana has been attending and now runs a shared learner’s ‘Writing for pleasure’ group for the past 8 years.  She is an avid reader especially historical crime and loves Anne Perry’s books about Victorian England. She lives in Chard, Somerset, UK.


Peggy Lovelace Ellis, Natters of a Nomad, has been a freelance editor for 46+ years, and a published author for considerably less. Over the past 25 years, she has published regularly in such magazines as Good Old Days, Reminisce, Reminisce Extra, Rock and Gem, Aquarium, True Story, Splickety, Woman’s World, Highlights, and Righter Monthly/Quarterly Review. She publishes in the Divine Moments series, Merry Christmas Moments (November 2017) and The Right Words at the Right Time (forthcoming). She has compiled and edited three anthologies for her writers’ group: Challenges on the Home Front World War II (Chapel Hill Press, 2004), Lest the Colors Fade (Righter Books, 2008), and A Beautiful Life and Other Stories (Righter Books, 2010). Each contains her short fiction, memoirs, and research.


Howard A Goodman: The River Rocks and My Secular Immortality; A veteran of corporate society his entire working life, Howard discovered his passion for writing—an occupation that had lurked subliminally in his subconscious—thanks to the grim reality of suddenly being forced to make a major mid-life career transition. Though he didn’t grow up in the South and is not particularly partial to grits, Howard considers himself a Southern author of sorts. In contrast to those who spin tales of being raised dirt-poor on a tobacco farm, Howard's focus is on the lives of corporate professionals and their families—the thousands who flocked to the upscale cities and towns surrounding North Carolina’s high-tech Research Triangle Park—the Neo-Southerners. Howard resides with his wife in Cary, North Carolina.


Sybil Austin Skakle:  Contemplating a Leaf, My First Best Friend and Thanksgiving 1993; grew up in Hatteras, NC, born January 10, 1926, was a hospital pharmacist for 23 years, has published poetry, Searchings, 2001; a memoir, Confessions of an Outer Banks Filly, 2002; another memoir Valley of the Shadow, 2009. Her work has appeared in periodicals and numerous poetry and prose anthologies, four of which were published by The Chapel Hill Writers’ Discussion Group. She has been a member of Friday Noon Poets for more than thirty years.    


Marry Williamson: Dancing; lives in Chard, Somerset, England. She was born in the Netherlands and moved to Britain in 1966. She worked for an Anglo-Dutch company in London. In 1999, Marry and her husband retired and moved to Chard, Somerset. Her hobbies are writing, reading, bird watching, and exploring ancient monuments. She is a member of a local writers’ group in England.


Tim Whealton: It’s Different Now: writes a regular column from New Bern, NC. He is a gunsmith whose shop is in Cove City,


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