The Winemaker Finds a Ghost by Chuck Thurston

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Prologue

It is 1898. Joe Stanton’s Irish immigrant father, grimy and exhausted after a long day’s labor and beaten down under the weight of company store debt, has little hope to pass on to his youngest son. And yet there are the evening fiddle tunes, the dark Irish stories told around the small stove in the miner’s shanty and the wit that never buckles in the face of grinding poverty. Joe has some token schooling, but at 12, he takes his place alongside his father in the mines. He would seem to be yet another “strong back and weak mind” — slaving life away building the wealth of others. But he has a different plan. He does not want the new century to see him coughing up the black flecks that mark his father’s hacking spells.

At nineteen, Joe manages to exchange the coal company scrip from his last month’s work for American cash and heads south across the Piedmont to escape the meager prospects in the West Virginia coal fields. Surely he can put his strong back to work to support himself, and send some “real” money home to help his struggling family.

Granite is being quarried near the small North Carolina town of Mount Barclay. Barclay Mining is run by Millard Wheatley — the latest of several owners. None before him have been able to turn a profit, but, with Wheatley’s influence, a rail spur is being extended to the quarry proper which should finally make the enterprise profitable.

Wheatley is rich, arrogant — and unscrupulous. He controls what he doesn’t own outright in the little town — from cradle to grave. A general store with children’s shoes and candy barrels — and a funeral parlor — sit at opposite ends of Barclay’s single, dusty business district. In between, scattered offices house his land, real estate and lumber interests. The head of the last elk shot in the region is mounted prominently in his hardware store. This building is two stories with a full basement under it – one of the most impressive structures in the small town, and the headquarters of his Mountain Empire.

Wheatley’s quarry boss takes on Joe and is soon pleased with his strength and tireless labor — and his wit and humor. Joe is quick with a joke and a laugh and not given to the complaints and grumblings that mark most of the other laborers. Days spent in the free air of the open quarry are reason enough to lift Joe’s spirit, after the grimy pits of West Virginia. He describes his family’s misery and his gratitude toward his present circumstances to his Tarheel coworkers.

He is soon the most reliable “dynamiter” in the operation — analyzing the granite seams, drilling the holes, placing the charges and finally, lighting the fuses. All this done, he sprints to a safe spot for viewing, and watches with pride as the resultant blast frees exactly the portion of the granite wall he aimed for.

Wheatley doesn’t spend much time at the quarry, but hears enough about Joe to realize that the young Irishman could be useful to him. Young, naive and trusting, Joe is increasingly asked to run personal errands for Wheatley who teaches Joe some rudimentary money handling and soon has him clerking at his hardware store. He begins to mold him into a tool for a scheme that the great man is hatching.

Some of the tycoon’s dealings have caught up with him and he realizes that unless he turns a large profit on one of his enterprises soon, his entire house of cards is apt to tumble. He comes to the conclusion that the hardware store might be his salvation.

The store sits smack in the middle of Mount Barclay’s main thoroughfare, on the east side of the north-south running street. The bottom floor is filled with the paraphernalia of the day: nails, nuts, bolts, horse tack, plow points, metal cookware, axes, knives, shovels, picks, tubs, kegs, — and a thousand other items useful in a nineteenth century town. Wheatley’s hunting trophies occupy any wall space that doesn’t have a bridle or harness hanging on it. A pot-bellied stove sits in the middle surrounded by three or four cane-bottomed chairs. The second floor has a large meeting room and several smaller rooms of stored merchandise and files containing the store’s records. The stoned up cellar houses jugs of turpentine, kerosene and a few bottles of locally made spirits that Wheatley consults on occasion.

But it all has to go. Wheatley has insured the store and its contents to double its real value with the connivance of a bribed insurance auditor. He begins to set in motion a scheme to collect this windfall. The store must be destroyed, but it must be done in a way that throws no suspicion on him — and ideally – directs the blame toward someone else. He has no lack of enemies. He just needs a willing collaborator.

Wheatley cultivates Joe’s trust with patience and cunning. Joe thankfully accepts the credit that Wheatley extends to him. He can, after all, send more of his own cash back to his impoverished West Virginia family. He discovers – with Wheatley’s encouragement — the charms of the whisky collection in the cellar. Wheatley also feeds the gullible young man tales of greed, fraud, bribery and other malfeasances that Wheatley himself is exquisitely familiar with. Wheatley paints a picture of himself as a struggling businessman beset on all sides by others wanting to do him in. Joe remembers his own family’s servitude under unscrupulous mine owners, and he is inclined to believe his employer.

The tycoon concocts a tall tale. He gradually convinces the uneducated Joe that a rapacious insurance company has worked a devious scheme to seize most of his property. Joe is astounded, however, at Wheatley’s carefully described plan to burn down his own hardware store to forestall this takeover. As Wheatley hopes, Joe doesn’t fully comprehend the fallacy of this logic and is seduced into helping his boss carry out the plan.

On a cold, blustery October night in 1899, Wheatley provides Joe with the last of the details. The store ordinarily closes at 5 or 6 in the evening, when Joe locks up and leaves for his boarding-house supper and pint at the Quarry Tavern; Wheatley customarily holds court with a few of his cronies in his upstairs room. On this night, however, there will be a change in the routine.

Wheatley tells Joe that following lock-up, he is to stay behind and clean up the store. The crowded aisles and dusty merchandise have not seen the hand of broom or brush in some time and Joe will busy himself with these chores until he hears Wheatley and his shady crowd leave by the back exterior stairs. The early darkness of autumn will have fallen.

Joe will wait a bit until he is sure that Wheatley and the others have all left, then light a kerosene lantern and take it with him to the cellar. He will hang the lantern on one of the darkened cellar’s supporting posts. Wheatley tells him that he will see an empty whiskey barrel which Wheatley has filled with various combustibles — pitch pine knots, straw, some oily rags. Joe is to drop the lantern in the barrel, make sure that a nice blaze is started and then make his way up the short set of stairs to the cellar’s outside entrance – large swing-out doors opening to a side alley. Wheatley assures Joe that the fire will provide him plenty of light to exit by and that he need not panic. Wheatley will join him at the Quarry Tavern, buy his supper and treat him to a pint of his favorite. They will be dining and toasting long before the flames have raised an alarm in the small town.

Joe carries out the scheme. But Wheatley has added something else to this tub of destruction that he has not told Joe about. As Joe watches the flames catch and begin to devour the barrel’s contents, he hears another sound that chills him to the bone – the unmistakable hiss of a fuse! Wheatley has planted dynamite beneath the top layer of kindling!

Joe is paralyzed for a brief moment, then turns and runs headlong up the three steps and pushes up against the wide cellar doors. But Wheatley has taken no chances that his treachery will be uncovered. The doors have been barred from the outside. Joe realizes the fuses must be short. He backs away from the doors and rushes at them again, putting all of his weight and the strength borne of his terror against them. The old wood splinters and the doors bang open against their frames. He senses briefly the cold, fresh air — then he is enveloped in a light and roar and blown into the windy October night.

My Phony Valentine by Chuck Thurston

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As a kid, I heard this story many times. My dad had a married nephew, my cousin – who was the son of an older sister, and much older than I (I won’t name names here). I remember him as a lanky, happy-go-lucky sort with a wide smile that often seemed a bit goofy to me. He didn’t take all those romantic occasions very seriously. One Valentine’s Day, he got an old dried up horse biscuit from the pasture, wrapped it up, and gave it to his wife. Later on that day, she ground part of it up and put it in his coffee.

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The point was made, life went on and their marriage remained solid.

I told my wife this story, and she said, “My family never did things like that! If they got mad at each other, they just didn’t speak for years!”

I replied, “That’s a shame…they could have cleared up misunderstandings real quick if only they’d had easy access to horse biscuits!”
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A Writers’ Night Out by Chuck and Heidi Thurston

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Why do you write? What prompts you to move the ideas in your head into a medium that others can read? Sure, many writers answer simply, “Because I must!” Likely true, but can’t we put a little detail on that? Or – perhaps you haven’t written anything for publication yet, but are really interested in doing so. What stories, ideas, events, etc., are pushing this urge?

We asked this question of the attendees at our January 22nd Writers’ Night Out, and we got a lot of responses! Here they are boiled down:

• To get attention.
• To make some money.
• To create a memoir; I want my (relatives, children, grandchildren) to know something of my life.
• To help me understand my thought processes and gain some insight into myself.
• To get out the stories that are in me that I feel need to be told.
• To stir emotions in other people.
• To function as a therapeutic, cathartic exercise for me.

While most writers probably have one or two of these as primary drivers behind their efforts, I happen to think that a little bit of each of these is in every writer. Our discussion was spirited and insightful. The passion for our craft was evident in many responses. As we listened to them, we gained a new appreciation for the wide variety of approaches represented in our little group of writers. It was an evening well spent.

If you’re ever in the vicinity of Kannapolis, NC, on the 4th Thursday of the month, feel free to drop by the French Express Coffee House and jump into the mix!

Prescription: A Little Christmas by Chuck Thurston

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An old friend of mine once said, “After sixty, it’s just patch, patch, patch!”

Our patchups started in February, and it was one thing after another for the rest of the year. My wife was already in physical therapy for one kind of structural failure, when we put the final dings in the fender in early November. As a matter of fact, we pretty much obliterated the fenders and much of the rest of our van when a vehicle running a stop sign struck it almost amidships. That was only the first wham. The second occurred milliseconds later when it was driven across the road and into a brick wall marking the entrance to a suburban development. Take that, mortals.

Well, parts flew and air bags deployed and seat belts cinched tighter than we thought possible. The moments after are a blur. I staggered out and walked around Vito (our name for our Chianti red minivan) and helped two or three onlookers hoist Heidi out of the passenger seat and onto her walker. Sirens wailed in the distance and very soon deputies, state police, ambulances and fire trucks were all in attendance and their uniformed crews took charge of the whole shebang. Vito was a pile of scrap, but he had sacrificed his vehicular integrity in our behalf. Take that, survivors.

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I won’t go into details of the next several weeks, but we discovered that they were filled with plusses and minuses – and both sides of the equation were bad. We added hospital stays, doctor examinations, lawyers’ meetings, vehicle haulaway and writeoff, visiting nurses with ointment application and dressing changes, insurance claims, and a hundred other little details downstream of an accident like this. We subtracted tickets to the Nutcracker and a Panther’s game; visits to friends and family, our daily workouts at the Y – we scrubbed Thanksgiving at our cabin and Heidi was convinced we were about to bag Christmas, when a most remarkable thing happened.

Early in December, we got an email from old friends, living in Long Island, who were going to be in North Carolina on some family business. They allowed as how they might have a chance to drop by, and would phone us in the morning to firm plans up. We had not told them of our accident and they were shocked when we gave them the details over the phone. They were sympathetic in the extreme, and told us that when we got back into hosting mode in the early spring, they would have to drive down to see us!

This was the first time since the wreck we had considered our lives in a timeline that extended beyond the next doctor’s appointment. There was a future, beyond our present troubles, and we owed something to it!

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Look, even if we didn’t go to great lengths, we had window swags, a door wreath and some other Christmas decorations in the cellar. Once those were in place – what the heck, let’s decorate the mailbox and the outdoor porch light. Outside taken care of, it only made sense to buy three or four poinsettias and spot them around the living room. Well now – they’d look a whole lot better if the garland for the mantle was put in place; and didn’t we have a little ceramic Christmas tree with twinkling lights and a little train circling it to music box carols? To be sure we did.

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That was more like it. We bought Christmas cards and mailed them out. We displayed the ones we received. We watched a few Christmas specials on TV. Our bodies are still not completely healed, but our spirits are well on the way to recovery. Take that, post-calamity funk.

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The Horror Under the Stairs by Chuck Thurston

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It’s the day after Thanksgiving and a lot of household chores have been on hold as we prepared for the day and kicked back afterwards. Sooner or later, though, things have to be dealt with. Heidi sent me down to the cellar to put away a few things that wouldn’t be needed again and to pick up a few more that would be put back in service.

I dawdled a bit in the cellar as I often do – engaging in a little self-flagellation over my neglect in staying ahead of cellar cleaning. It can wait until warmer weather I kept telling myself – and recalled that I had made that same sort of vow last year about this time.

Then I checked into the little storage area under the stairs and what I saw almost made my skin crawl.

wine cellarThere were huge gaps in the wine collection! For some reason, other events in life had caught up with us, and our stock was shockingly depleted!  The whites almost gone and the reds down to a few bottles of less-than-favorites or special bottles waiting for a little more age or the right occasion. And the holiday season already begun!

“This will not stand!” – as George H. W. Bush said of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. And it won’t, either. I’ll get on it right away.

And, incidentally, if we are on your Christmas gift list (and you know who you are), a bottle of something is always welcome. After all, environmentalists have been urging us to give gifts that are consumable  and don’t add to the country’s growing land fills.  We would truly enjoy it and you would be doing your part to Go Green. Win-win.