Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Summer Solstice Time-travel Excerpt from Blink of an Eye

Tonight is the night of the Summer Solstice capping the longest day of the year. In my new novel Blink of an Eye, P.I. Buck McDivit travels back in time 1000 years and experiences an ancient Summer Solstice festival first hand. Check it out.

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A storm came up, with thunder rattling windows as rain drummed a cadence on Thorn’s tin roof. Lost in a dream world, Buck didn’t awaken. At least until a bright light shining in his eyes caused him to open them. When he did, he sat straight up on the couch, not believing what he saw.
Before him stood a beautiful woman, an aura of blue light radiating from her naked body. He first thought it was Thorn. Instead, it was someone he’d never expected to see again. His heart began racing inside his bare chest.
“Is it you, Esme, or am I dreaming?”
“Come to me and see,” she said.”
When he pressed against her and began smothering her with kisses, he knew she was real.
Esme was tall and graceful, her long hair and demanding eyes as dark as the storm raging outside the house. As he pressed against her soft breasts, a familiar rush coursed through his body. Just to make sure it was she, he turned her around. As he remembered, a rattlesnake tattoo highlighted the supple curve of her shoulder.
“It’s been two long years. Not a day has passed that I didn’t think about you,” he said. “Why did you go away?”
“I know it hurt you, Buck McDivit. I could not help it because I am from a different place and time.”
“What place, and what time?” he said.
“You will see. I will take you there. First, you must become as naked as I am.”
Buck’s jeans dropped to the floor. “I’m ready,” he said. “Where are we going?”
“To a place you’ve never imagined,” she said.
Esme held his hand as they passed through the locked door as if it weren’t there. The storm had grown stronger as rain poured down in sheets. Thunder rocked their steps, lightning sizzling across an angry sky.
Sharp stones from the gravel driveway didn’t hurt his feet. Though rain gushed off his head and shoulders, he was oblivious to it. Esme led him down the hill, their feet sinking into the mire as they reached a pond overflowing from the deluge. Lightning laced the darkness above them. He hesitated when she stepped into the roiling water.
“Come with me,” she said.
He continued to waver. “It’s dangerous.”
Pulling him toward her, she said, “Trust me.”
Neck deep in churning water, they embraced as lightning kissed the pond. It set off a kaleidoscope of radiating colors that made his head spin. When he opened his eyes, darkness was gone. So was the storm. Dancing rays of sunshine radiated through the cloudy sky. Birds soared overhead, and only friendly drops of rain rippled the water’s surface.
“We’ve crossed over,” she said.
“That was the wildest ride I’ve ever taken. What just happened?”
“You did this once before. You just don’t remember.”
“Did what?” he asked.
“Walked across time,” she said. “Brace yourself for culture shock because you are now in my world.”
They were in the river. Esme took his hand and led him out of the water to a teepee near its bank. The same teepee Esme lived in when he’d met her near the pagan village of Lykaia. When they pushed through the flap, he saw Beauty, Esme’s giant wolf dog. They moved toward one another, meeting in the middle, and were soon rolling on a deerskin rug.
“Where the hell have you been,” Buck said, giving her big neck a warm hug.
“She’s missed you, and so have I,” Esme said.
“You can’t imagine how much I’ve missed both of you.”
“Yes I can,” she said. “Let’s get you dressed. I have much to show you.”
Soon, Buck looked like a Mississippian warrior, Esme like a medicine woman. Beauty hadn’t left Buck’s side until Esme told her to stay and guard the teepee.
“She doesn’t like crowds,” she said.
Buck gave the large beast another hug and then followed Esme out the door. He could hardly believe the sights that began unfolding around them.
Dozens of canoes occupied the riverbank and more floated in the river. When they crested the natural levee, his jaw dropped. Wooden houses with thatched roofs stretched for as far as he could see. Indian women, naked from the waist up, were working small truck gardens. Men, returning from a hunt, carried a deer and a large turtle.
“They are preparing for the festival,” Esme said.
Buck was curious. “Festival?” he said.
“You’ll see.”
They were both resplendent in colorful paint and feathers. Esme seemed to know everyone and exchanged smiles and greetings as they passed. They soon reached a palisade. Behind the timbered walls, stately mounds, topped by wooden houses, jutted toward the sky. Activity outside the entrance to the palisade was heavy.
“It’s festival day,” she said. “Some of the people have traveled a thousand miles to be here.”
“Tell me about this festival.”
“Tomorrow is the first day of summer, the longest day of the year. For my people, it is one of our holiest days. Today is the eve of the summer solstice. Our chief will speak, and there will be a game of chunkey. Following the game, the bonfire is lit, and everyone feasts, chants, and dances until dawn.”
Buck had met Esme for the first time during a solstice celebration. He remembered because he’d been the only male present. He and several hundred naked pagan females had danced the night away in a solstice ceremony. When he’d met Esme, she’d been the spiritual leader of the pagan enclave known as Lykaia.
“Are we going to dance like we did when we first met?” he asked.
She shook her head. “I am the medicine woman. I must feast with our chief, the elders, and the emissaries from many other tribes. I have other plans for you.”
“What tribes?”
“Mississippians from all over, Aztecs and Mayans from Mexico, and Anasazi from Four Corners.”
“You must be kidding.”
“I assure you I’m not.”
They all wore their festival best. Pearls, shells, and colorful beads adorned the braids in many of the women’s long hair. Most of the men had painted faces and shaved heads with only a top knot. Colors of their costumes moved like a kaleidoscope in slow motion.
The palisade was on a hill. From their vantage, they could see the bend in the large river. Hundreds of canoes lined the bank, more still arriving. Everyone, it seemed, was smiling.
“How can so many tribes coexist?”
“Spiro, as you know it, is the religious hub of our universe. There can be no war, strife, or disagreement in this holy place, especially on the eve of the summer solstice. Well, except for chunkey,” she said.
The scene reminded him of the open marketplace in Santa Fe. This was similar but ten times larger. A myriad of color, noise and excitement, and jewelry wasn’t the only thing for sale.
The aroma of fresh corn, squash, grapes, and a dozen other vegetables floated in a warm breeze. A big black dog that no one seemed to own sniffed his leg before disappearing into the crowd.
“This place is shoulder to shoulder,” he said. “Reminds me of the crowds at the state fair, or an OU football game.”
“There are many thousands here today,” she said.
“Thorn would be in heaven,” he said.
“She descended from Mississippians.”
“I can’t imagine anyone loving their cultural history more than her.”
“She is a good person. Maybe too good for the likes of you.”
“What about for you?”
Esme’s smile disappeared. “We were never meant to be.”
“Star-crossed lovers?” he said, squeezing her hand.
“We must live in the moment. I have you now, at least for a short time, and there are many things I need to tell you.”
They strolled through the open-air market, marveling at the crafts. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, only a flock of gulls circling to land on a pond created by a bend in the river.
“It’s time to enter the palisade,” she said.
“I understand every word these people are saying. They can’t be speaking English.”
“You left your clothes and many other things in Oklahoma. While you are here, you are one of us.”
The high-timbered palisade surrounding the enclave was more spectacular than Thorn had described. A moat filled with water surrounded the tall timbers. Guards armed with spears left little doubt that no one entered except by invitation. He and Esme were on the list. They followed a circular maze until it opened into the ancient gated city of Spiro. The panorama blew him away.
“I visited the Archaeological Park yesterday. I had no idea it looked as spectacular as this.”
“The new world’s version of Camelot,” she said. “The game is starting. Would you like to see?”
In the distance, hundreds of spectators occupied a large arena where two teams were beginning to compete.
“It’s a half-mile away. It’ll be lunch before we get there,” he said.
“We don’t have to walk,” she said, snapping her fingers.
Four men appeared with a hand carriage, waiting until Esme and Buck had climbed aboard. Hoisting it to their shoulders, they began trekking toward the chunkey game. Rampant noise grew louder as they approached the arena, covered seating awaiting them. Play stopped as the players, and the crowd acknowledged Esme’s appearance.
“They treat you like a goddess,” Buck said.
She wasn’t smiling when she said, “To my people, I am a goddess.”
Forty people occupied covered seating opposite them. A man in bright paint sat in a cane throne decorated by wreaths of flowers and feathers. The throne rose high above everyone else in the box.
“He must be a bigwig,” he said.
“Walking Wolf is chief of the Mississippians. He’s without a doubt the most powerful person in North America.”
Walking Wolf’s throne was quite a distance away for a good look. Still, the regal old man seemed strangely familiar to Buck.






Buck had attended many sporting events, both amateur and professional. He’d never seen one quite as loud and raucous as the chunkey match.
Eight contestants and a referee, surrounded by several thousand adoring fans, occupied the football-sized field. Dressed in breechcloths, the competitors had faces painted white with black eyes like raccoons. Both teams wore pillbox hats woven of straw. One of the men stood at least six-six, and towered over the others.
“That’s Talako,” Esme said. “He’s the captain of our team. We have never lost a game.”
“Impressive,” he said. “Who are they playing?”
“A team from a large Mississippian settlement called Cahokia. They have also never lost.”
“One of their dudes is almost as big as Talako,” Buck said. “How is the game played?”
“With short spears and a stone roller chiseled from quartz. Talako and the big man from the other team are the spears. They do all the throwing and most of the scoring. Each team has a disc roller and two team members called fronts that run interference. Only the disk rollers can touch the disk, and only the spears can throw them. The fronts use their spears for tripping, and preventing the disk from going through the goal posts. That’s five points. You’ll get the gist once they start playing.”
One of the Cahokians had a six-inch stone disk with a hole in the middle. Taking a stance like a pro bowler, he rolled it toward the opposite goal. The referee waited until the disk had traveled about twenty feet and then waved his hand. Talako and the big man from the Cahokia team launched their spears. When the disk came to a halt, a ref ran onto the field, picked up the closest spear to the disk and held up a finger.
“One point,” Esme said. “The first team to reach twelve points wins.”
“What’s the significance of the hole in the disk?” Buck asked.
“If a spear penetrates the hole, then the game is over. The team that makes the toss is the winner.”
“Seems unlikely for that to happen.”
“Almost never,” she said.
When the ref waved his hand again, eight men ran toward the disk. The melee that followed resembled hand-to-hand combat. Both teams pushed and shoved, the fronts doing their best to break their opponent’s legs. A Cahokian retrieved the disk and launched it toward the goal. The scrum continued, both teams fighting for position and scoring a few points. The crowd had grown inflamed.
“There’s massive betting going on in the stands,” she said. “Much property will change hands because of this match.”
“Most everyone’s rooting for our team,” Buck said.
“Not all. There’s a large contingent of Cahokians here to watch the game.”
Talako’s spear landed within inches of the disk, the crowd standing and yelling. When the ref waved his hand, the two Cahokian fronts took Talako’s legs out from under him. When they did, the big spear kicked him in the side.
“Damn! That looked like a foul to me. Those boys are serious. They don’t have a penalty box in this game?”
“Chunkey emulates combat. Bones are often broken. The crowd expects the team to play through their pain.”
“Brutal. Sort of like pro football. How long till the ref calls a break?”
Esme shook her head. “They’ll battle until they drop, or the game is over. There are no quarters.”
“And the reward?” he asked.
“Life, the losers killed and their scalps displayed on the winner’s belts.”
“You gotta be kidding me,” he said.
“If the visiting team wins, our chief will pardon them because this is a religious holiday. If our team loses, they will lose their heads.”
“Doesn’t look like they’re in any danger of that. They’re ahead by six points.”
“I pray not,” Esme said. “Talako is Walking Wolf’s only grandson, and the greatest warrior our tribe has.”
“Your chief wouldn’t allow his own flesh and blood to have his head chopped off.”
“Not only allow it, he would proclaim it so. He would have no choice,” she said.
“You seem distressed. You okay?”
“These games always frighten me.”
“You want to leave?”
“I can’t,” she said.
“Something you aren’t telling me?”
“Walking Wolf and I are time walkers, inherited only when both parents are also walkers. The only other walker in the tribe is Talako.”
Buck stared at her anxious expression, trying to decipher what she had just told him.
“So you and Talako are . . . ?”
“Betrothed,” she said. “We must marry and have a child.”
She squeezed his hand, her eyes begging for understanding.
“I had hoped we were going to do more than just hold hands tonight.”
“I am so sorry. That is not possible,” she said.
“Do you love him?”
“As much as I love you.”
“Then I guess it’s okay,” he said.
When they returned their attention to the game, they saw that the Spiro team had drawn within a point of winning. The Cahokian roller gave the disk a great heave, the crowd waiting until the referee waved his hand. As he did, Talako and the big Cahokian launched their spears. The disk hit a bump and fell on its side as Talako’s spear sailed over it.
When the Cahokian’s spear began its descent, every spectator in the arena sensed what was about to happen. As the missile landed in the hole in the disk, the crowd grew deathly silent. The chief came down from his cane throne, motioning Talako to approach him. Esme’s face turned bright red as she squeezed Buck’s hand.
“I can’t believe this,” he said.
“If he can break Talako’s spear, then it is a sign that the Great Spirit wishes him to die. Walking Wolf will have to take his head.”
Buck stood. “I’ll stop it,” he said.
Esme pulled him back into his seat. “No. If the spear breaks, then it is ordained.”
Talako’s head hung low as he knelt in front of his grandfather and handed him his spear. Removing a serrated stone dagger from his ceremonial belt, Walking Wolfe drove it into the earth. Then he raised the spear over his head and did a slow turn so that everyone in the stands could see.
Esme let go of Buck’s hand, her tears flowing and the veins in her neck bulging. She clinched her hands, almost as if she also had hold of the spear.
Though smaller than his grandson, Walking Wolf looked anything except weak. Buck could see he was preparing to break the spear and had little doubt that he could complete the task. As the rapt crowd watched in silence, his muscles strained, his face turning red. Buck and everyone else expected the spear to snap at any second.
Despite his efforts, the spear never even bowed. Finally, the anger imprinted on his face disappeared, replaced with a smile. He turned again to the crowd.
“This spear is unbreakable. Would anyone care to try?” He walked around the arena, offering it to anybody that might accept it. No one did, not even the contingency from Cahokia. “Then the Great Spirit has spoken,” he said. “I deem this contest a draw.”
Cheers erupted from the crowd as Chief Walking Wolf returned the spear to Talako. Buck glanced at Esme, her hands still clinched and tears streaming down her face. He took her hands and uncoiled her fingers. Two deep red welts occupied her palms. He began massaging them.
“You saved him, didn’t you?” he said.
Her breathing labored, she answered. “It took every ounce of power I have. I couldn’t let him die.”
People began filing out of the arena as Esme regained her composure.
“What now?” he asked.
“A meeting with Walking Wolf. You are about to learn why we brought you here.”
Mesmerized by the game in the arena, Buck hadn’t noticed much of the scenery inside the palisade. Now that it was over, he glanced around at the mounds that seemed much larger than when he viewed them with Thorn.
“These structures are magnificent pyramids. They seemed like nothing more than mounds of dirt when I saw them yesterday,” he said.
“Withered by centuries of wear and erosion. I am thankful you get to see them in all their glory.”
“So am I.”
“Like the pyramids of the Mayans and Aztecs, ours predict astrological patterns.”
“Like tomorrow’s solstice?”
She nodded. “Now, we must meet Chief Walking Wolf in the Great Hall atop the main pyramid,” she said.
Buck was breathing hard as they climbed the pyramid. When they reached the top, he could see that the panorama was breathtaking.
“What are they building down there?” he asked.
“A giant bonfire to celebrate the solstice. Chief Walking Wolf will address the masses just before dark. The ceremonial lighting of the bonfire will then occur. You will see.”
A massive wooden house occupied the flat top of the pyramid. Esme led him down a long hallway to a darkened room and the chief of the Mississippians soon joined them.
“Oh, my God!” Buck said when he saw him. “You’re Pascal LeFlore.”
“I am Chief Nashobanowa. That means Walking Wolf in our language. I go by many other names. Like you, Esme, and my grandson, I am a walker. I was the one that handed you the Black Cup.”
“But you died,” Buck said.
“No, because I was never alive in your time. Walkers cannot alter time. Please, have a seat.”
Chief Walking Wolf sat on a colorful blanket situated on the dirt floor. Buck and Esme joined him. The man was much older than they were, though younger than the old man he’d pulled from the burning pickup.
“There is much you don’t understand about walking through time,” Esme said. “Right now, it is not important. What is important is the reason we brought you here.”
“Which is?” he asked.
“We first must drink from the Black Cup,” Walking Wolf said.
The cup was similar to the one Pascal LeFlore had given him. This one exuded a distinct glow, its aura pulsating when Walking Wolf shifted it in his hands.
“You have done this before,” Esme said. “With the Great Spirit when he took the embodiment of a man.”
“I don’t remember,” Buck said.
“It is okay,” Chief Walking Wolf said. “The point is we know you are reverent and that you appreciate this moment.”
“The Black Cup is as old as time,” Esme said. “The relic is the most valuable, venerated, and holy object our tribe possesses. Every one of us would give their life to protect it.”
“And we do,” Walking Wolf said. “But there is a problem.”
“The Black Cup is in danger of desecration,” Esme said. “Though not in our time, and out of our control.”
They both nodded when he said, “Haskel Doonkeen?”
“The man who calls himself Blade,” the chief said.
“He has gone to great lengths to get the cup,” Esme said. “Chief Walking Wolf and I have done everything we can. We are powerless to protect it from him in your world.”
“Will you help us?” he asked.
“If it’s within my power, I’ll stop him,” Buck said.
“I believe you,” Walking Wolf said. “But we must drink from the Black Cup to assure that it is so. Are you prepared?”
Buck nodded as a young woman appeared through the door’s skin flap. Below the waist, she wore moccasins on her feet and a deerskin skirt. Above the waist, except for red paint, bright feathers, and strings of beads, she was quite naked. She was also attractive.
“This is my daughter, Teawah. She will assist us with the ceremony,” he said.
Chief Walking Wolf held the cup as she filled it. He took a deep breath before drinking. Whatever was in the cup was potent because his eyes crossed, and he looked as if he were about to pass out. Esme took the cup from his trembling hand, waiting as Teawah refilled it from her pitcher.
“The tea from the Black Cup induces visions,” she said. “It tastes like death, though is life itself. It focuses our mind’s patterns and illuminates the future.”
She took a drink from the cup, her reaction to tasting the concoction much the same as Walking Wolf’s. Buck thought she was about to throw up. She didn’t, though her entire body shook as she handed him the empty cup.
“The tea lays bare our fears and desires,” Walking Wolf said. “Two things from which we hide. Take it in one drink, or you won’t finish it.”
Teawah drew close to him, filling the cup with the viscous fluid. He could feel her warmth and smell her lotus perfume as he touched the dark concoction to his lips. The tea was so foul tasting he had the instant urge to spit it from his mouth. He didn’t, taking the chief’s advice and drinking it in one long swallow.
Buck felt his eyes cross. The room began to spin, Esme, Walking Wolf, and Teawah staring at him, laughing. His body shook and stomach churned as Teawah pulled him toward a door that led outside. He reached it in time to vomit over the railing. With his body twitching and head pounding, he let her lead him back to his seat on the rug.
The hallucinogenic tea affected Walking Wolf and Esme less than Buck. He watched as Teawah refilled the chief’s cup. This time, she had to lead him to the back door. Esme soon followed.
Buck’s head continued to swim. He’d never felt so drunk. The room had begun to rotate. Explosions of colored lights illuminating dark worlds he’d never imagined. Esme was a snarling jaguar, the chief a giant wolf pacing the floor.
Teawah’s smile was sultry as she approached him. Engulfing him in her willowy arms, she kissed him and pressed her soft breasts into his chest. When her intoxicating perfume changed into the fetid breath of a man, he recoiled. It was Haskel Doonkeen. Buck pushed him away.
Blade’s features began to change. He morphed into a giant, hairy creature that looked almost human. Buck was trying to scream when someone put the Black Cup to his lips again. It was the last thing he remembered for awhile.
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If you enjoyed this short excerpt from Blink of an Eye, then check out all the colorful characters on Eric's AmazonBarnes & Noble, and iBook author pages, and his Website.

Monday, May 22, 2017

“The Queen of the Gypsy Nation”

“The Queen of the Gypsy Nation”: “If you’re looking for something interesting,” the security guard said, “you should go visit the Queen Gypsy’s grave.” I asked who this was and he began to tell me a story that’s too long to …

Friday, December 16, 2016

Hound of Christmas - a short story

Snow blew through the cabin's front door as Skylar's grandfather carried in another log for the massive stone fireplace. Skylar crossed her arms against the chill, watching as Gramps dumped the log on the blaze and then breathed on his hands as he rubbed them together.
“Wind's picked up out there,” he said, poking the logs on the fire. “If it doesn’t let up, we’ll be snowed in by tomorrow.”
Mattie didn't answer, barely glancing up at her father-in-law as he pulled off his coat and sat in his old Afghan-draped cane chair. After rocking the baby's cradle beside her, she continued stringing popcorn on a length of twine.
Grandpa smiled and ruffled Skylar's hair. “What do you want for Christmas, Sky?”
“Nothing,” she answered.
“Well, I'll bet Santa brings you something nice.”
His words brought unexpected tears to Skylar’s eyes. “I'm too old to believe in Santa Claus anymore.”
“Too old? Nonsense, you're only seven. Of course, there's a Santa Claus.”
Skylar sat at the foot of her grandfather’s rocker, touched his knee and said, “It’s okay with me, Gramps, even if there is no Santa.”
“Baby, Santa's no more than an angel, and I guarantee there are angels right here on this earth among us. Sometimes we just don't see them. Still, if you don’t stop believing, they always show up when you need them most.”
***
Skylar scaled the ladder to her bed in the log cabin's loft. Kneeling on the floor, she said a prayer.
“Lord, people out there that need your help more than me, but Gramps says it's always okay to ask, so here goes. Dad’s been so moody and angry since losing his job, would you please cheer him up so he and Mom will stop fighting?”
***
The first one out of bed Christmas Eve morning, Skylar put a log on the coals in the fireplace and then peeked out the front door. A carpet of white blanketed the ground outside, and most of the rustic front porch. It was several miles from the nearest paved road, and only the gentle rustle of a cold morning breeze through pine boughs made any noise at all.
Shivering, she took a walk around the house to the barn, throwing a few snowballs at the shrubbery. Returning to the porch, she started back inside when she heard a cough. Glancing around, she saw a long tail sticking out from beneath the tarp covering the pile of wood on the porch. When she approached, the tail slowly began to wag. Skylar grabbed the edge of the tarp and pulled it up. Staring back at her was the biggest dog she’d ever seen. His striking tan chest highlighted a coat of solid black, and he had big floppy ears and tan spots over both eyes.
“You okay?” she asked, cautiously touching the large animal's furry coat.
The big dog continued wagging his tail and licked her hand. It was then she noticed how skinny he was, his ribs protruding through matted hair. More than just skinny, she could see from the blood caked on his rear haunch. After hugging the dog, she peeked through the door, wondering if her father was there. He wasn’t. Gramps was in the kitchen, along with her mother, nursing her baby brother as she sat in her own rocking chair.
“What you got there, Sky?” Gramps asked.
Mattie looked up and saw the large animal. “What are you doing? You can't bring that dog in here.”
“He was freezing, and he’s hurt. Please?”
“Dan will kill us all if he finds that creature in the house.”
“Mattie, the dog’s injured,” the old man said.
Mattie handed the baby to her father-in-law. “I'll put an extra blanket on Dan. Maybe he’ll stay in bed a while longer before he gets up.”
 When Mattie disappeared into the room in back, Gramps examined the cut on the dog's hind leg. “Something got this big boy pretty good. He must have been in a heck of a tangle. Sky, get me a damp rag.”
Skylar returned from the sink with the rag, and a biscuit from last night's dinner she’d dipped in bacon grease. The big dog gobbled it down in one bite as Gramps cleaned his wound and applied a coating of iodine to it.
“Where’d he come from?” she asked.
“Who knows? From the looks of those ribs, he's been on his own a while.”
Gramps and Skylar both turned when they heard the gruff words of Sky’s dad. “He was Jess Blanton’s dog. Guess he ran off when the old man died.”
“Then can we keep him?”
“Why hell no. We barely got enough around here to feed ourselves, much less that overgrown hound. Go ahead and get him out of here.”
“He’s hurt. Can't he stay in for just a little while longer?”
Before Dan could answer, Mattie said, “It’ll soon be Christmas. Why can't you lay off her, at least for today?”
Dan started to speak. Seeing an argument starting to ensue, Gramps said, “The big boy looks just like the dog you had in high school.”
Dan glanced at the dog and then back at his wife. “I said to get it out of here, and I don’t mean next week.”
Skylar was sitting on the floor by the fireplace, her arms around the big animal’s neck. When Dan approached, the dog uttered a low growl. Dan cocked his foot, as if about to kick him in the ribs. Seeing what was about to occur, Skylar draped herself across the dog and held on. Mattie jumped up from her chair and grabbed her husband’s raised arm.
“Don’t do it! I swear, this time I’ll get Gramp’s shotgun and shoot you myself.”
Dan just stood there, his arm extended in a frozen arc, staring angry bullet holes into Mattie’s eyes. Gramps, moving quickly for an old man, joined Mattie and grabbed Dan’s other arm.
“Son,” he said, “We don't have much, but we got each other. You swing that fist, and you better be ready to spend Christmas alone.”
After a long pause, Dan relaxed his arm, pulled free of Mattie and Gramps and strode to the far wall. Leaning against it, he lowered his head and emitted a pained sigh.
“Now my family’s turning against me,” he said. “What do you expect me to do? We’re almost out of money, and we hardly even have a slice of bologna to eat for Christmas dinner, much less any presents. Now my daughter wants to adopt another hungry mouth.”
All the anger gone out of her Mattie rushed to her husband, again grabbing his arm. This time to pacify him. “It’s all right, Dan. We’ll make do. We always have.”
“Yeah, well how are we going to do that?”
“Growing up, you were the best hunter in the county. Take my old shotgun and shoot some game,” Gramps said.
“I thought about it, but you only got two shells left. Not terribly generous odds, I'd say. What if I miss?”
“Well, Son, that seems to be the point. You don’t even try anymore. It’s been a month since you looked for a job. And what if you do miss? We won’t be a whit worse off than we are now.”
Dan’s wavy brown hair had grown unruly from too much time between cuttings. He no longer even bothered combing it. Mattie hadn’t said anything, not wanting to provoke him into yet another angry tirade. As if suddenly realizing his unkempt appearance, he raked his hand through his mop of hair and then returned to his bedroom, shutting the door behind him without replying to his father’s admonition.
Mattie and Gramps glanced at each other, and then stared at the closed door as Skylar knelt beside the big hound, her arms around his neck as she wept softly. Finally, Gramps joined her, fingering the worn metal tag attached to the faded red collar around his neck.
“His name's Casey,” he said, rubbing the massive head that looked too large for its withered body.
“Gramps,” Skylar said. Her dark eyes were red and welling with tears she was trying, without much success, to hold back. “Please don’t make me throw him out in the snow.”
Gramps put his hand on Sky’s shoulder and shook his head. “Baby, sometimes we just don’t have control over what we want to do.”
“It’s just not fair,” Skylar said, no longer able to hold back tears that began rolling down her cheeks.
Mattie tried not to notice, turning away and grabbing a broom to sweep some invisible speck of dust under the kitchen table. Soon, the bedroom door opened. It was Dan his hair slicked down with water and combed, his two-day growth of beard freshly shaven. He was dressed in boots and an old hunting jacket, his Dad’s lever-action, single-shot twenty-gauge under his arm. The room grew quiet when he cleared his throat.
“I been doing some thinking, and there’s something I want to say. I know there’s no excuse for the way I been acting.” Skylar and Gramps exchanged knowing glances when he said, “Sky, your mom would have never said anything about it, but I hit her with my fist the other night. It wasn’t right, and I’m not proud of doing it. I love your mom. She’s the best person I’ve ever known in my life, and I promise before all of you, right here and now that it won’t happen ever again, for any reason.”
Mattie continued staring at the bare floor beneath the straw bristles of the broom, her green eyes welling with tears. Gramps started to say something, but Dan held up his hand and shook his head.
He walked to where Skylar remained on her knees beside the big dog. Squatting down, he squeezed her shoulder with one hand and rubbed the dog’s belly with the other.
“Sky, I know I haven’t always been the best dad in the world, especially here lately, but I promise I’ll work at doing better. After Christmas, I’m going to town and not coming back without a job. I want you to make a Christmas wish. Don’t tell me now, just think on it a while. Whatever it is, I promise I’ll find a way to fill it for you.”
By now, Skylar and Mattie were both hugging Dan as the big dog’s tail pounded slowly against the floor. Gramps joined the group hug. Dan finally unraveled himself from their arms and retrieved the shotgun leaning against the wall.
“I’m going hunting. With a little luck, we’ll have something more than biscuits and pork and beans for Christmas dinner tomorrow.”
When Dan opened the door, Casey rolled painfully to his feet and followed him outside to the porch.
“Skylar, keep him here, by the fire.”
“Take him with you,” Gramps said. “He looks like a hunting dog. Maybe he’ll help you find some game.”
“I can do this on my own.”
“I don’t doubt that one bit. Don’t matter because we can all use a helping hand now and then,” Gramps said
Dan started to say something. Thinking better of it, he shook his head as the black and tan hound followed him through the snow. Holding open the passenger door of his old pickup, Dan waited for the dog to hop in. When he realized that the animal’s hurt leg was preventing him from doing so, he grabbed him around the chest and hoisted him into the front seat.
They were soon out of sight of the homestead’s clearing, reaching the deeply forested area surrounding the snowy mountainside. When he opened the pickup door, the hound jumped out with some difficulty. Before trudging a hundred yards, Casey took the lead, his nose to the snow, his gimpy leg less noticeable than before.
 He quickly picked up the scent of a rabbit as he shuffled along beneath tall trees with branches drooping from heavy snow. Dan began seeing tracks, just as the big dog stopped and went into a perfect point. Before them in the snow was a rabbit large enough to provide the family at least a semblance of a Christmas feast. Dan raised the gun, aimed, and squeezed the trigger. The firing pin clicked but failed to ignite the shell inside the gun’s chamber. The rabbit also heard the click, scurrying away into a patch of thick underbrush.
“No!” Dan said. “A dud.”
Ejecting the shell with a flip of the polished lever, he watched it sink into the snow, thoughts of returning home with empty hands crossing his mind. Then he thought about his stoic little daughter’s unusual show of tears, the fortitude of Mattie, and look of his father’s deep blue eyes—the same look he’d seen the first time when he failed to make his school’s varsity basketball squad.
He still had another shell. It was probably also a dud. He'd never know until he pointed the gun at something and pulled the trigger. The black and tan hound hadn’t finished with the hunt his tail wagging and having the time of his life. He rubbed his nose against Dan’s knee, giving him a look as if to say, we’ll get the next one. The dog’s enthusiasm was infectious, and Dan hurried after him, through the snow.
Within minutes, the hound caught the scent of something nearby. Because of the way he pawed the snow and moved his tail, Dan knew that it wasn’t another rabbit. The animal they saw next was unafraid of both of them. It was a hog—a monster-sized boar with tusks that curled out of its mouth like dual scimitars. The hog jostled the snow with its hoof and charged. Dan raised the gun, aimed, and pulled the trigger, hearing only a hollow click—his second shell also a dud. Taking an instinctual backwards step, he tripped on a log and fell into the snow. Before he could get up, the boar was on him, ripping at his arms that he’d extended in defense of his face.
Casey launched himself into the fray, sinking his teeth into the boar’s throat and then holding on as the giant beast began tossing and rolling, trying to loosen the hound’s jaws from his jugular. Caught beneath the struggle, Dan tried to push the two animals off him before one of the sharp hooves crushed his chest or put out an eye. He managed to yank himself loose from the melee, knowing the heavy boar would soon beat the dog to death unless he acted quickly. Grabbing the gun by the barrel, he smashed the stock across the beast’s wiry back, continuing to flail away until little was left of the weapon except for broken wood and a bent piece of metal.
It didn’t matter. The boar had had enough. Standing with difficulty, he tried to back away from the fight, Casey’s teeth, now red with blood, still planted in its throat.
“Casey,” Dan called, jumping to his feet and going after the boar again with the remains of his shotgun. “Let him go, boy, let him go,” he yelled between whacks.
The big hound released his grip. The bloody boar wheeled around, starting away toward the shelter of nearby trees. He never made it, a bullet from a high-powered rifle felling him where he stood.
Startled by the rifle shot, Dan turned to see two men, both carrying expensive rifles and dressed in the finest hunting garb Cabela’s had to offer, enter the clearing. Before ever saying a word to him, they walked over to view the wild pig’s carcass up close.
Dan dropped to his knees and crawled to where Casey lay on his back in a pool of blood. The hound was a mess, slowly coughing and wheezing as he tried to catch his breath. Dan rubbed his big head.
“Don't you die on me.”
He didn’t notice the approach of the two men. “Are you okay?” one asked.
Dan’s coat was in shreds, his arms and face burned from cuts inflicted by the boar’s tusks and hooves. He was also covered in blood, his own, the hog’s, and Casey’s. “I’ll make it,” he said.
“More than I can say for that dog of yours,” was the emotionless reply of the younger hunter.
Before Dan could answer, the older hunter spoke instead. Something in the tone of his voice caused adrenaline—freshly drained from Dan’s body in the skirmish with the wild hog—to shoot through him again.
“We’ll give you twenty dollars to help us drag the pig back to our truck.”
“I don’t think so. It’s not your pig,” Dan said.
“We shot it, and saved your life,” the younger hunter replied.
“That dog saved my life. You two are on my property. You have no permission to hunt here. The hog is mine.”
“Your property, you say?”
“This whole mountainside. Every acre on it. It was my parent’s before me and my grandparent’s before them.”
“We trailed that boar for more than an hour,” the younger hunter said. “He’s ours.”
“The Sheriff won’t see it that way. He keeps a close eye on strangers in these parts.”
“Look,” the older hunter said. “We didn’t know it was your property. We’ll be happy to pay you for the hog.”
“How much?” Dan asked.
“Fifty,” the man answered.
“A hundred,” Dan countered, “And another twenty for me to help you drag it to your pickup.”
“Done,” the older hunter said, retrieving five twenties from a thick roll of bills in his coat pocket.
The younger man had already gone for their nearby pickup. He returned shortly, and Dan helped them hoist the heavy beast onto its flat bed. He didn’t wait to watch them rumble away, returning quickly to the bloody spot where Casey lay. Removing his coat, he wrapped it over the hound. Lifting him with some effort, he carried him the long mile back to the front seat of his own truck.
It was only a few miles to the little tourist town of Marley’s Peak, named after his own grandfather. Christmas lights were aglow on both sides of the street; tourists still window-shopping and taking pictures with their digital cameras. Dan didn’t notice. He only stopped when he reached the old two-storied Victorian home of Doc Mason, the local vet. Cradling the dog with both hands, he kicked on the door with his boot until he heard someone moving around inside. Soon, a gray-haired old man opened the door, not smiling when he saw Dan and the dog.
“That’s Jess Blanton’s dog.”
Dan nodded. “Jess is gone. Casey’s my dog now. He saved my life. Now I need you to help save his.”
“Put him on the table,” he directed after leading Dan to his operating room. “My, my,” he said when he uncovered Casey. Shaking his head, he said, “He’s lost a lot of blood. Don’t know if he’s going to make it.”
“Doc, what can I do?”
“Get me some hot water and start praying,” the old man said. “I'll do what I can, but it don't look good.
***
Skylar awoke Christmas morning at her usual early hour. She wasn’t the only one awake in the house. The first thing she saw was a large holiday tree decorated with strings of popcorn and crowned with a golden angel. How wonderful, she thought. Then the odor of a sumptuous meal, cooking on the kitchen stove, reminded her it was Christmas. When she heard the whimper of a large hound by the fireplace, she began to cry.
“Casey,” she said, rushing to where he lay. “What happened to you?”
Casey’s tail thumped slowly against the hardwood floor as he licked the little girl’s hand.
“He’s banged up pretty good, but he’s going to be okay,” Gramps said from his rocking chair. “Your Dad’s pretty banged up too. He hasn’t told me yet what happened. Guess we’ll have to wait to find out.”
Three hastily wrapped presents sat beneath the tree, apples, pears and shelled nuts in bowls on the kitchen table. Mattie stood at the stove, cooking bacon and eggs in her old cast-iron skillet. For a moment, Skylar thought that she had died and gone to heaven.
An hour had passed before the bedroom door opened, and Dan appeared. He strolled stiffly to the stove where he gave his wife a hug and a lingering kiss. After savoring a sip from the cup of coffee Mattie handed him, he walked over to Skylar and the dog, knelt down beside them and kissed her on the forehead. It was then she saw the fresh cuts on his face and hands.
“Dad, what happened?”
Dan quickly recounted the tale. “That dog doesn’t have a lick of quit in him,” he said, rubbing the hound’s head. “Gramps is always talking about angels. Yesterday, he was my angel. He's part of the family now. If someone's gonna go hungry in this house, it'll be me before it's him.”
Gramps joined them by the fire, resting his hand on his son’s shoulder. “A man came by the house this morning. Wanted to know if we’d consider giving him a hunting lease on the property. Said they would pay top dollar. I told him that he had to come back later and talk to you about it.”
Dan grinned. “We’ll work on that later. Now Sky, what can I do to fulfill your Christmas wish?”
The black and tan’s tail thumped slowly against the hardwood floor as Skylar hugged his big neck, and then her dad’s. Smiling, she said, “You already did.”


END



Born a mile or so from Black Bayou in the little Louisiana town of Vivian, Eric Wilder grew up listening to his grandmother’s tales of politics, corruption and ghosts that haunt the night. He now lives in Oklahoma, and continues to pen mysteries and short stories with a southern accent. If you liked Chicken Fries, please check out his AmazonBarnes & Noble, and iBook author pages.