Ever since an incident occurred one evening outside the little Pennwood Church, Ann Collins associated horror with the smell of freshly cut cedar and the pungent odor of kerosene. When she was seventeen, Ann helped Lockie Cummings, her best friend, clean the auditorium of the church in preparation for the annual Christmas program.
“Guy bought me a gift,” Lockie told Ann. “He’s goin’ to put it under the tree later today.”
“Lockie, you know that Burl is goin’ to be mad that you would accept a gift from Guy,” Ann told her friend. Burl had been spending as much time as he could with Lockie during the past few weeks. Ann knew that Burl had been working after school at Puckett’s Grocery in order to earn money to buy a Christmas gift for Lockie.
As Lockie polished the stained oak of the pew, she pushed a wisp of auburn hair from her forehead. Ann noted once again Lockie’s hazel eyes and almost flawless complexion. Lockie had a way of making any boy who spoke to her feel he was important.
“Tonight I’m goin’ to have Burl introduce you to that good-looking boy from Parley. I know he’ll be at the program,” Lockie said.
Ann was uncomfortable about the idea of Lockie finding a boyfriend for her. She hoped that Lockie would never realize that the only boy Ann was interested in was Burl Wilson.
“Marie told me that Guy bought a lavaliere at Luther’s Drug Store last Saturday,” Lockie said. Marie was Lockie’s cousin. “She says it’s the prettiest lavaliere she ever saw. It has a little ruby stone in the center of the gold medallion.”
“Are you goin’ to let him give you that? What’ll Burl do?” Lockie asked.
Lockie shrugged and ran a hand lightly through her hair. “I’ve always wanted a lavaliere,” she said. “Aunt Frankie has promised me hers after she passes on, but that may be a long time from now. I’ll be an old woman myself, and I’ll have nowhere to wear the lavaliere to show it off.”
When the girls had finished dusting the pews, Ann took a long look at the decorated tree. She could not remember a prettier one. But this had been her appraisal of the church tree each year since she was five years old. Later, when the kerosene lamps on the shelves behind the pulpit were lighted, the little auditorium would assume an aura of magic.
After Lockie and Ann had finished cleaning the church, they walked to Lockie’s house in order to eat a meal that Lockie’s mother had prepared. Then it was time to return to the church.
Ten minutes before the program was to begin, the auditorium was already half-filled, mostly with the youngest children and their parents. Lockie and Ann were standing just inside the church beside the narrow door near the pulpit. Suddenly, Ann heard the sound of running feet and a man’s voice calling out in alarm, “He’s pulled a knife!”
Within moments, Ann saw two or three men leaning over what appeared to be the form of a man lying in the sand in the roadway. A figure ran quickly toward a car parked beside the store. Ann saw dimly a tall man guiding another shorter man into the darkness behind the church. When the two men passed in front of a pair of headlights, Ann realized the man being restrained was wearing a plaid jacket like Burl’s.
As Ann stepped outside the church, she heard two men in animated conversation.
“That Steerman boy bought a present for Lockie Cummings,” one of the men said.
“Yeah, and Burl Wilson asked Steerman about it. You know Burl claims Lockie as his sweetheart. Both of them boys was fightin’mad,” the second man said.
“Which ‘un pulled a knife first?” a voice called out.
“Nobody knows. There ain’t no witnesses. I guess we’ll hear what Burl has to say at the hearin’” somebody else volunteered.
Ann’s thoughts were in turmoil. If it was Burl she had seen being escorted away from the scene, why had she not also seen Guy? A few moments later Ann learned that Guy was dead. With the Case knife with the “Christmas tree” handle, Burl had cut a fatal gash across Guy’s throat. Guy must have bled to death, Ann thought, as she shivered uncontrollably.
The next morning Ann learned that Guy’s sister found the box containing the lavaliere that Guy bought for Lockie. It was lying near the stand of mail boxes behind the store. As Guy’s sister got into the car on her way to the funeral home where Guy’s body had been taken, she was heard to remark, “Nobody will ever wear such a bad luck charm. I’ll see to that!”
Over the next few months Ann heard her parents discussing the Wilson family’s efforts to arrange an early parole for Burl. Mr. Wilson spent his meager savings on attorney’s fees and took a second mortgage on his farm. After Burl was paroled, he and Lockie were married a few months later. Though the Christmas program at the church continued for three or four years after Guy was murdered, Ann never went again. The smell of freshly-cut cedar and the odor of kerosene she avoided if she possibly could.
Robert G. Cowser was born near Saltillo,Texas, and earned a diploma at the consolidated school there. He earned a Ph.D. in English at Texas Christian University and has taught English at both the high school and college level in Texas, Oklahoma, Connecticut, and Tennessee. He currently teaches college-level courses in a state prison.
Robert G. Cowser