In fact, if he had been caught as a stowaway, he might have been immediately returned to state prison where he had spent the last three years of his life. He did not want another prison sentence, especially one not deserved. Because he would not turn state's evidence, he had been blamed for a crime he did not commit. Three years of convict labor was enough to do him for a lifetime. But then again, loyalty to friends was a long suit he wore with pride, even during the burning days of summer and the frigid days of winter as he worked on the chain gang.
The year was 1910. The time was December 24, Christmas Eve. Cyril Townsend had lost track of time, but he learned the date as he read the headline of the paper in the Atlanta depot. He was eager to get back to the mountains of North Georgia. Maybe there he could find refuge and some work that would help him to get readjusted to his freedom.
As he moved nonchalantly through the regular passengers that alighted from the train in Blue Ridge, he could not help but note their apparel, warm and appropriate for the winter weather that even now threatened snow. Most of them had trunks that were unloaded from the baggage cars. Black porters from the local hotels and some servants from the more notable residences in Blue Ridge were there with carriages to meet the travelers.
Others waited to board the train for its journey on to Murphy, NC and into burgeoning towns in Tennessee. "Coming home for Christmas or going away for Christmas," Cyril Townsend said to no one in particular. His main aim was to keep away from public notice and gain a little perspective about his next move.
He was hungry. And cold. What would he do for food? Steal again? He did not relish the recollection of stealing from a clothesline down in Georgia the overalls and shirt he wore or the coat he had found hanging across a seat in the Atlanta depot. He was too near home to risk arrest from stealing, a practice his upbringing had always taught him was wrong. Even the dire circumstances he had been in did not calm his conscience from the thefts he had committed.
He decided to go to the back door of the Blue Ridge Hotel. Maybe there they would have a handout of leftover food for a starved traveler. As he approached the rear of the hotel, he was met by a large black man. Dared he ask him for food? He hoped he would not get the porter into trouble by doing so. Cyril devided he wouldn't lose anything by asking.
"I've come a long way and I don't have any money to buy food," Cyril Townsend said. "Do you have any leftovers in the hotel kitchen that you could give to a poor, starving traveler?"
"We've just had a big banquet," the hotel worker said. "Wait a minute. Sit here on the porch and I'll bring you a plate."
Within minutes the porter returned with a steaming plate of ham and yams, cranberry sauce and beans, bread and hot coffee. Cyril Townsend bowed his head in gratitude and thanked the Lord for such provision. This act o fkindness was restoring his faith in mankind. Maybe life on the outside of prison wouldn't be such a hard road, after all. He thanked the porter for his kindness. After eating, Cyril decided to wander back to the railroad depot.
No sooner had he walked to the rail yard than he saw a farmer with a covered wagon. The farmer was unloading gallons of sorghum syrup onto a boxcar and still had sacks of grain in his wagon to unload. A clerk on the boxcar was keeping a record of the produce.
"Hello," Cyril said to the farmer. "Could you use some help transporting your goods to the boxcar?"
"As a matter of fact, I could," the farmer replied. "Grab these and begin to tote," he said, pointing to the produce remaining on the covered wagon.
The two men worked, soon warming to the job in the cold December wind. When the task was finished and the farmer had settled with the clerk on satisfactory bill of lading, the farmer turned to Cyril Townsend.
"You leavin' on the train?" he asked.
"No. As a matter of fact, I came in on it." The farmer didn't need to know that he, Cyril, was a free-loading passenger, fearing all the way from Atlanta that he might be discovered in his hiding place in a boxcar.
"Where ya headin', then, on Christmas Eve?" the farmer asked.
"I was hoping to go to Blairsville, Georgia," Cyril Townsend said. "I used to live in a community near there several years ago."
"Well, climb on board," the farmer said. "I'm going there as fast as these mules can take us."
Again feeling gratitude well up in himself at his good fortune, Cyril Townsend climbed into the wagon.
"My name's Thomp Collins," the wagoneer said. "And who might you be?"
"I go by the name of Cyril Townsend," the hitchhiker said.
"Pleased to meetcha," Collins said. The two men did not talk much as the mules drew the wagon along the narrow road that ran from Blue Ridge to Morganton, through Hemp Town, and on toward Blairsville. All the while Thomp Collins was trying in vain to remember where he'd heard the name Cyril Townsend. And likewise, Cyril Townsend was trying to recall if he had previously known Thomp Collins.
The rhythm of the wagon over the bumpy road did not deter Cyril Townsend, tired as he was, from falling asleep as they traveled. He awakened after a long nap when he heard Thomp Collins saying "Whoa," to his mules. Cyril took in the form of a substantial barn in the dusk, and a short distance away on a rise a farmhouse with lights at the windows.
"Welcome to my place," Thompson Collins said, his hand extended for a shake.
"But I did not intend to come all the way to your house and make a nuisance of myself to your wife and children," Cyril Townsend protested.
"It's Christmas Eve," Thomp Collins said. "Come and share our Christmas Eve meal with us. Susie, my wife, always has plenty to spare. And besides, I think you and I have something to talk about."
Cyril helped Thomp stable and feed the mules. All the while Cyril felt a bit uneasy. Would this man know about his trial and sentencing? After all, the trial did take place over three years ago in Union County. As he pondered these questions, his tired body seemed somehow to be drawn to the warmth and welcome of the nearby farmhouse. What did he have to lose from sharing a Christmas Eve meal?
At the house, Thompson Collins introduced his wife Susan and his children to the stranger. The children, polite and quiet, were named Roe, Virge, Joe and Bob. "And at Christmastime, we always remember our little ones we lost at an early age, and we've placed a holly wreath on their graves at Old Choestoe Cemetery," said Susan Thompson. "Their names were Avery Cordelia, Charles Luther and Mary Rebecca."
The Thomp Collins family did not seem at all surprised that a wayfarer would share their Christmas Eve meal. Thomp showed Cyril to a side room with a small bed, and asked the older children to bring him a basin of warm water and fresh towels. Thomp himself laid out clean clothes of his own for Cyril to put on after his bath.
Refreshed and clean, Cyril rejoined the Collins family. Soon they were seated at a table laden with good food from the garm. All bowed heads while Thomp asked the blessing. While they ate, the question Cyril feared came.
"Are you returning from prison?" Thomp asked Cyril.
"Yes. Is it that obvious? How did you know?"
"All the way from Blue Ridge to Blairsville, as you slept, I kept thinking that I knew the name, Cyril Townsend. Then I remembered that you had taken the rap for some of your friends and were imprisoned even though you were not guilty of the crime for which you were charged. Your case is similar to mine," Thomp Collins continued.
"Back in 1875 I would not turn state's evidence. I was sent to Federal Prison in New York. Upon my release and return two years later, after a long, hard journey, I told Susie that as long as we had a house and food and clothing to share, we would never again turn anyone in need away from our door. That is why you are welcome tonight in this house and at our table."
"Neighbors call my husband 'The Poor Man's Friend,'" wife Susie Collins said. No matter the need, whether at Christmas or all year long, he is quick to respond when he meets someone whose pain and suffering he can relieve."
That night on the clean bed in Thomp Collins' house, Cyril Townsend resolved that as soon as he was on his feet again, he would adopt the same motto as that of Thomp Collins: "The poor man's friend," and seek to make it his life principle.
c 2007 by Ethelene Dyer Jones; published Dec. 20, 2007 in The Sentinel, Blairsville, GA. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.