Authors: Annette Smith
© 2002 by Annette Smith
Published by Revell
a division of Baker Publishing Group
P.O. Box 6287, Grand Rapids, MI 49516-6287
Ebook edition created 2012
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means—electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise—without the prior written permission of the publisher and copyright owners. The only exception is brief quotations in printed reviews.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is on file at the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
The stories, characters, and town written about in this book are fictional.
The internet addresses, email addresses, and phone numbers in this book are accurate at the time of publication. They are provided as a resource. Baker Publishing Group does not endorse them or vouch for their content or permanence.
To my four sisters-in-love.
In order of appearance,
Diana, Martha, Dale, and Sara.
Thanks to the following folks:
My husband, Randy, for his willingness to subsist for days at a time on freezer food, his promises not to take his sweater off in public (thus revealing an unironed shirt), and his amazing ability to juggle the bills when the royalty check doesn’t come, which makes it possible for me to live my dream of writing full time. He’s simply the best.
My teenage daughter, Rachel, and my grown-up son, Russell, for convincing me of my worth and value, even when I’m not the mother I want to be.
Louie and Marolyn Woodall, my globe-trotting parents, for inspiring me to live a life of risk and adventure.
Dayne Woodall, my engineer brother, for the hours and hours he spends patiently walking me through my latest computer snafu.
Revell editor Lonnie Hull DuPont, for her encouragement and enthusiasm for my work and for making my writing fingers feel like they could fly.
Chip MacGregor, my agent and friend, for his expertise and guidance that helps keep me on track.
Special friends who, during the writing of this book, gave special support: Suzie Duke, Laura Jensen Walker, Sheila Cook, and Sheri Harrison.
To God be the glory!
Ella Louise, Texas
Once the site of bustling activity, the outskirts of Ella Louise, Texas, where the railroad tracks once ran, now lie abandoned, given back over to the forest and overgrown with native pine trees, thick underbrush, noxious weeds, and snaky wild-berry vines. It’s been forty years since the train stopped coming through Ella Louise. Rail routes changed, and with them a way of life.
Back then, most of Ella Louise’s able-bodied men made their livings working in the woods, harvesting timber. Hauling cut trees to one of the town’s two sawmills for processing, these men received a fair wage. With that wage, they supported their families. Problem was, both sawmills relied on the train to transport their products. When the train stopped coming to Ella Louise, the mills were forced to shut down.
The closing of the sawmills precipitated the dominolike flattening of Ella Louise’s economy. The families of the mill workers packed up and left Ella Louise in droves. Lacking paying customers, most downtown businesses closed, one by one. The population of the town, which once hovered close to twelve thousand, dropped to near what it is today, just over twelve hundred.
To the average hiker, the woods where the railroad tracks once ran appear quiet and still. But superstitious old-timers
swear up and down that if a person goes to the tracks and finds the right spot, he’ll hear the whistle, the bell, and the clankety-clank sounds made by those long-gone trains. Nostalgic storytellers explain that since so many trains, making so much noise, passed through Ella Louise during its glory years, the sound of them remains in the woods. Although the sound is muffled beneath five decades of fallen pine straw and musty wild moss, on occasion it can be heard.
On at least a dozen occasions, I’ve traveled to Ella Louise, trekked to the site of the old railroad tracks, parked myself
on a flat tree stump, and sat still and quiet as a doe, lis
tening for the train.
I’ve yet to hear it.
Honestly? About an hour or so of listening is all I’m good for. After that, the bugs get to worrying me and my behind gets tired of its woody perch.
Kindly town folks who know about my quest express their regrets and ask if I’m disappointed by not hearing anything. Truthfully, I tell them, “Not much.” For though the whistle of a phantom train would be something to hear, the sounds of life in present day, small-town Ella Louise are what I
I am a collector of stories, and in this small Texas town are tucked some of the most intriguing tales I’ve ever heard. I can’t imagine that the sound of any train could compare with the rich collection of stories and yarns I’ve
gleaned from Ella Louise’s always friendly and flawed,
often funny and eccentric population.
As you read the tales I’ve recorded in this book—many of them laugh-till-you-snort funny, a few of them touched with as much beauty and melancholy as a mourning dove’s lonely dusk call—I trust that you, dear reader, will agree. So settle yourself in. Find a comfortable place to sit. Prop up your feet and fix yourself something good to drink. It’s time you and I took a trip to the town of my dreams—Ella Louise.
OMAN AND A
“Says right here.” Nineteen-year-old newlywed Rochelle Shartle sat cross-legged in the rumpled bed, eating Little Debbie oatmeal cream pies and reading the newspaper to
her groggy husband, Rocky. “The town of Ella Louise,
Texas, invites all its friends and neighbors to attend this year’s annual Okra Festival and Quilt Show.”
“You like okra?” Rocky asked.
“Not really, but admission’s free and there’s a craft show and live music. It doesn’t say anywhere that you have to eat okra. Come on. I want to do something today. It might be fun.”
“I don’t think so.” Rocky had a project due for school that would take him all weekend to finish.
“How far is Ella Louise, anyway?” Rochelle asked, as if she hadn’t heard him.
Rocky gave in after successfully extorting from
Rochelle the promise that they would not stay too late.
The festival turned out to be a big deal, but even though they were only two amongst a small throng of visitors, Rocky
and Rochelle found themselves personally greeted by the town’s mayor, Alfred Tinker, who stood at the
entrance of the festival grounds. As they walked past,
Mayor Tinker handed them plastic okra-shaped lapel pins. Treated to all that the festival had to offer, they were spritzed with free Avon cologne—a brand-new scent—guided through the craft-show tent by two members of the Gentle Thimble Quilting Club, and pressed to sample fresh okra cooked seven different ways. (“Just spit it in your napkin when no
one’s looking,” Rochelle whispered to Rocky when he
looked about to gag.) In addi
tion to the okra, there was a quilt raffle, a donkey softball game, and a nurse offering
free blood-pressure checks.
“Leaving already?” asked the mayor, who was waving good-bye to people as they left the festival. “Come back and visit us real soon. Folks, did anyone tell you about the womanless wedding over at the Baptist church tonight? No, no. Not a
wedding. Fund-raiser. Town’s trying to raise money for the volunteer fire department. They’re needing
a new truck. Sure y’all can’t stay? It’s sure to be an enjoy
able evening, and we’d love to have you.”
Rocky nixed the womanless wedding but let Rochelle talk him into driving around Ella Louise and its outskirts before heading home.
A lot of work had gone into the preparation for the festival. Teens from the Methodist church youth group had done a trash pickup, and members of the Golden Spade Garden Club had placed whiskey-barrel halves planted with moss rose and red petunias all around the town square.
“Pretty,” said Rochelle as they circled. “You think it’s always this nice?”
“Yards are full of flowers. Look at those daylilies—and those roses!”
“Must be good soil here,” said Rocky, inching the car along.
“I think it’s the humidity,” said Rochelle, who was
inclined to sweat. She fanned herself but kept her nose out the window so as to get a good look at the town.
“Is that the Chamber of Commerce? In the back of a tanning salon?”
“What the sign says.”
“Wanna stop?” Rochelle was as eager as a kid hoping
to get a Dairy Queen dip cone.
Rocky glanced at the car clock. He knew he’d have to pull an all-nighter to get his project done.
“Please? I’m not ready to go home yet. I love this little town. Maybe there’s some stuff here that we haven’t seen.”
Rocky doubted it but indulged his city-bred bride anyway. A bell hung on the inside doorknob jingled when he pushed open the door of the Chamber of Commerce and Tawny’s Quick Tan Salon. The aroma of a burning vanilla
candle and a just-eaten Lean Cuisine lunch wafted
the room. The place was quiet, and at the sound of the
bell, Mayor Alfred Tinker’s ample-bodied assistant, Faye Beth Newman, looked up from her crossword puzzle. Her face brightened and she rose to her feet.
“Come in! Welcome to Ella Louise. I’m sorry, but Mayor Tinker’s at the festival right now. He’s left me to hold down the fort. Have you two been out there? Good! Have a good time? I’m so glad. Did you taste the okra? How about the fritters? Aren’t they to die for? Now, tell me where you two are from.”
“Houston,” Rochelle said. “We’re from Houston.”
“Wonderful! What can I do for you?”
“Do you have any information about interesting things to see around town?”