Finding the Drama: Bells at Easter

The pulse of any novel and any genre ­– from horror to humor – is based on the drama embedded within the story, drama that’s slowly exposed as though the winds are gently blowing the dust away from the rocks.

Drama is what makes a story memorable, much like the story that an old rancher told me on the high plains of Texas when I was researching my book: XIT: The American Cowboy. Once a year, every year about Easter, it comes back to haunt me.

The bells awoke Arthur Daniels on a chilled Easter morning, and he thought for a moment that he was probably dead, and it wouldn’t have surprised him at all. But slowly his head cleared and the fog faded away from the edge of his eyes, and Arthur Daniels climbed out of the lumpy mattress that was only costing him fifty cents a night but was dreadfully overpriced at that.

His bare feet touched the floor of the old walk-up hotel, and he shuffled toward a window that had been stuck closed with paint years ago, and Arthur brushed back the dust from a cracked pane, looking out over a backstreet of Matador. It was empty. And at the far end, the bells were playing a song he had never heard before. But then, Arthur Daniels couldn’t remember much of anything he had ever heard in church, except the commandments against lying and stealing and killing, and he had at least managed to keep from breaking one of them.

The Easter morning was as gray as the town below him, and Arthur felt like maybe he belonged. He had spent his whole life on the move, not quite sure of where he was going, not quite sure if he had ever gotten there.

As a young man he had begun picking cotton in those black delta fields of Mississippi, and the rows stretched out before him as thought they would never end. Maybe they didn’t. Arthur just followed them day after day, month after month, and he looked around one morning and found himself a long way from home.  The cotton wilted, and the winter winds slung ice in his face, and Arthur turned back toward the house that held the fires and the laughter of his family. That had been twenty-two years ago, and he hadn’t quite made it back yet, though he never quit trying.

The road, a week earlier, had stopped at the edge of Matador, Texas, and so did Arthur Daniels. He smiled as he listened to the bells and was glad he had awakened early enough to hear them.

He guessed cotton had led him astray. Or maybe it was the war. Both had beaten him and left him alone, and Arthur found that he had just about as much in common with strangers as he did with friends. Neither paid a lot of attention to him, but Arthur didn’t mind. He made it just fine and always found something to eat whether he was hungry or not, and he almost always was.

Arthur wasn’t proud. He simply did what he had to do to survive. He dug post holes until his hand were raw. He chopped kindling, and the blisters became calluses, and his hands were as tough as uncured leather. He dug a well or two out in the Llano Estacado, the land of the backshade folks, out where water was only a promise and men would die of thirst before they ever ran across it. He seemed to prefer those chores that he could do by himself, the only ones nobody else would take. Arthur definitely liked being alone. He wasn’t close to anyone.

He had been. There were people that he liked to be with and drink with and laugh with, but they had all been misplaced. Why, Arthur had stood up as the best man at George’s wedding. He and Sam had started a small grocery store together down just west of New Orleans. They threw a party to announce its grand opening, and Arthur let the wine mix with his politics, and he even announced his candidacy for mayor. And he friends though Arthur Daniels might have won. But the war cut the campaign short. And Arthur buried George at Shiloh, and he left Sam lying on a hillside at Vicksburg as the green of the grass turned crimson beneath the stains of wasted life. And Arthur never bothered to get close enough to shake hands with anyone again. He was a loner because he couldn’t bear to ever say goodbye.

Arthur Daniels eased out into the Matador Sunday morning and glanced at the little chapel down at the end of the street. Men in pressed suits and ladies in white dresses had crowded around the doorway, and children played chase between the buggies.

He glanced down at his own clothes. His pants were wrinkled, and dirt had been ground into the fabric. There was a patch just below the left knee where the horse had kicked him, and his boots were as cracked as the windows in his lonely room. He needed a shave, but he usually did. And Arthur felt like whistling, and he usually didn’t. He slapped the dust from his shirtsleeves and walked slowly toward the ringing of the bells.

Every eye watched as the gaunt man found an empty seat on the back pew. But no one spoke. Men frowned. Women looked quickly away. And children whispered. Arthur Daniels was an outsider, an unfamiliar face in a town that never took the time to trust an unfamiliar face. Arthur picked up a hymnal but did not sing. He stared ahead and hoped to hear the bells again.

The minister clasped his Bible to his chest and told an old, old Easter story as he had told it for years. A man. A mob. A trial. An execution. Anger. Tears. A cross. A death. A resurrection. The story was nothing new, but it was new to Arthur Daniels. He had never heard it before, and he listened intently to those words about a man who had walked as a stranger among men, of a man who had been rejected and persecuted, beaten and spit upon.

As the service drew to a close, the minister raised his arms and said loudly, “Is there any among us here today who will stand and tell us about your life with Christ?”

No one stood.

The Minister tried again. “If you are ready to follow Jesus, please stand and confess to him your sins.”

No one stood.

Once again, the minister cried, “Will anyone rise at your seat, stand up, and give us a testimony for Christ?”

Arthur Daniels looked around him and slowly rose to his feet.

“Bless you brother,” the minister said, surprise etched in his eyes “Please tell us what you know about Jesus.”

Arthur Daniels shrugged. “I don’t know much of anything about him,” he said softly. “You told me more this morning than I had ever heard before. Me and this Jesus fella, we aren’t really acquainted at all. But I’ll tell you one thing, preacher man, I’d stand up for any man that ain’t got more friends than he does.”

Heads were bowed. And they said someone prayed and someone sang. But no one saw Arthur Daniels walk away on the Easter morning that the man in the ragged clothes condemned them all.

Bells for Easter originally appeared in The Writer’s Collection.


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