Friday, September 25, 2015


Ten years ago, Hurricane Rita ravaged parts of Louisiana and Texas. I'd been staying with my parents in north Louisiana, taking turns with brother Jack, caring for my mother with lymphoma and father with Alzheimer's. Rita was whistling through town the night I left for home. The strength of the storm, even at the Oklahoma border, still amazes me. Here's what I wrote at the time:

I tried sneaking away from Vivian yesterday before my new girlfriend Rita realized I was going. I didn’t quite make it. She wrapped my neck in a damp embrace, trying to keep me from leaving.

She chased me, smothering me in wet kisses. When that didn’t work she tried to blow me off the road.  Finally, at the Oklahoma border, she gave up and let me go. Some relationships were never meant to be.
Eric Wilder is the author of the French Quarter Mystery Series. Please check out his books on his AmazonBarnes & Noble, and iBook author pages

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Amarillo - a short story

We crossed the Panhandle at sundown, heading south toward Amarillo. Jim hadn't moved in over an hour, just staring out the window at crimson light bleeding up from the horizon.

"This reminds me of a picture show I seen once," he said.

"What movie?"

He leaned back against the seat and closed his eyes.

"Don't remember much. A kid trying to make a name for his self shot an old gunfighter in the back. Left him for dead on the side of the road."

"What happened?”

"Sheriff waylaid the kid and beat him senseless. Folks from town wanted to string him up. The dying gunfighter wouldn't have none of it. Turn him loose, he said. Let him feel what it’s like living the rest of his life in the sight of a gun."

"What's it mean?"

"Hell, I don't know."

Closing his eyes again, he stayed that way until I braked the Ford on the outskirts of town. Not knowing where to go, I nudged him, waiting until he shook away his bad dream.

"Teddy Jackson's place. Down the road a ways," he mumbled. "Next to a used car lot."

We passed miles of used cars, cattle pens, and wrecking yards. We found Teddy Jackson's trailer house behind a twelve-foot fence topped with barbwire. The sign said Teddy's Junk House. Jim reached across the seat, leaning on the horn until a woman with a thatch of thick red hair opened the trailer door. She came out and shined a flashlight through the windshield.

"Closed up. What the hell you want this time of night?"

"Here to see Teddy," Jim said.

"Well, he ain't here. Come back tomorrow."

"I'm Jim Droon, and this is my brother. Teddy's expecting us."

Muscles in the red-haired woman's face relaxed. "We won't see Teddy till the bars close down."

Swinging back the gate, she let us drive into the lot, smiling when Jim winked at her.

"Name's Darla. Proud to meet you, Jim. What's your brother's name?"

"Hell, Darla, I just call him Little Brother, but he answers to most anything."

"Don't mind the crap on the floor," Darla said, kicking an empty pizza box aside as we followed her into the trailer. "Wind blows so hard round here, it don't do a lick of good to try and clean."

"Makes no difference to me," Jim said, sprawling on a faded sofa.

"Teddy bought me a bottle of tequila before he left. Been working on it all night. Want a taste?"

"Why hell yes," he said.

Jim's eyes crossed as he swigged the tequila straight from the bottle. Darla's raspy laugh filled the trailer when he blew tequila out his nose.

"Jim, you're a hoot. I think I'm gonna like you."

"Want some of Darla's hooch, Little Brother?"

"Can't drink on an empty stomach," I said.

"Don't worry ’bout him," Jim said. "Little shit never could hold his liquor."

Leaving them in their own little world, I scoped out the kitchen for something to eat. All I found was an empty beer can and a dead mouse.

"How do you like our little corner of the world?” Darla asked when I returned.

"It's so . . ."

"God forsaken?"

"You got it." Jim grinned when I said, "Reminds me of Kansas, all big and open. We had one ol’ stunted elm tree in our front yard."

Darla rubbed the dark bruise on her arm. "Only one?"

"Didn't last long. Mama was working and Daddy off playing pool. Jim siphoned gas from the tractor, poured it on the tree, and then set it afire. Said it bugged him the way its branches brushed against his window when the wind blew."

Leaning forward on the couch, Darla said, "Bet your old man was pissed when he come home."

"Let Little Brother tell you."

"Jim didn't want a strapping so he sneaked off to town, but not until he left the half-empty gas can beside my bed. Daddy come home all sotted up. Found the burned-up tree and can of gas. I didn't know what hit me when he yanked me out of bed by the hair, beating me with the buckle of his belt till I begged him to stop."

"You survived," Jim said. "Besides, that's why you're the little brother, Little Brother."

Just before midnight, Darla said, "Amarillo's a hell hole. Ain't enough life here worth embalming. Been thinking ’bout hitching back to Dallas. Where you boys headed?"

"South," Jim said.

"How far south?"

"Till the wheels burn off that ol' Galaxie."

"San Antone," I said. "Jim says it's pure paradise. Jobs for everybody. Nice weather all year round."

I didn’t miss the glance Darla shot him. "Well, don't take everything you hear too serious, kid. San Antone's okay. For my money Dallas is the place to be."

"Can't be like San Antone. Jim says they pave the streets with gold."

Darla laughed and she and Jim kept right on drinking till the bottle was almost empty. Around two, we heard brakes screech outside the fence. It was Teddy. He staggered out of his dented Biscayne, stumbling up the steps to the trailer. When he saw Jim, recognition flooded his ratty eyes.

"Jimmy," he said, latching his arms around his neck.

When he kissed him on the mouth, Jim didn't flinch. Darla did, though, a strange look flickering and then dying in her green eyes.

"Get in this house," Teddy said, steering Jim back toward the trailer door. "Who's this you brung with you?"

"Little Brother," Jim said.

"Looks bigger than you," Teddy said. "Darla, I'm starved. What the hell you got to eat in this place?"

Darla stalked off to the kitchen, returning with a bowl of stale rice soaked in red sauce I had somehow missed. She didn't bother heating it up and Teddy didn't seem to mind, eating it straight from the bowl without offering any to me or Jim.

"Jim and me spent time in McAlester," he said. "Hard time. Jim kicked the shit out of a guard." A wicked grin spread over his skinny face. "What a man your brother is. What a man."

"Shit, Teddy. You're the one," Jim said. "You always had a plan. The rest of us was just doing time."

"A plan is what I got right now," Teddy said, edging closer on the sofa.

He’d finished the red rice and filled a shot glass with tequila. Darla had passed out on the couch as he stared at Jim. "There's a bank in town, ready for the breaking. You boys interested?"

Jim said, "Maybe. Least in hearing what you got to say about it."

"End of the month payroll," Teddy said. "Forty thousand dollars, or so. Twenty each."

Teddy paused as Jim reflected on the amount he had mentioned. Leaning closer, he said, "I drive. You walk in, hand them the note, collect the money, and walk out. I'll pick you up on the corner. Easy as apple pie."

Not believing what I was hearing, I waited for Jim to laugh, or at least change the subject.
Instead, he said, "How many guards?"

"Just one," Teddy said. "That's the beauty. They got all the money in the world and almost no security. We'll waltz right in, take what they got, and then hit the road without a hitch."

I tried to catch Jim's eye but he glanced away.

"When?” Jim finally said.

"Tomorrow. Right after they open up."

"Won't give us much time to case the place."

"Already done it," Teddy said. After patting Jim's cheek, he said, "You think about it."

He sauntered off to bed in the next room. Darla rubbed her eyes, blinked herself awake, and followed him. Jim kicked me off the sofa, wrapped his hands behind his head, and grinned.

"You wouldn't rob another bank, would you Jim?"

"Not me, little brother. Us."

"If Teddy wants to rob a bank, let him do it. He don't need you."

"Teddy's a driver. He can't pull this job by himself. Besides, Teddy and me shared a cell in McAlester. He's smart and knows how to make things work. If he says this is a good bank to rob, then I believe him."

"If he's so smart, why did he wind up in McAlester?"

Jim ignored my question and said, "We need Teddy to drive and I need you to back me up."

"What about San Antone?"

Jim stared at the ceiling, smiling his crazy smile, and said, "This is San Antone, Little Brother."

"No way. You promised Mama no more prison. Remember?"

Jim's eyes had closed but I knew he was listening because of that grin on his face I'd seen all my life.

"Quit belly-aching, Little Brother," he finally said. "Neither of us is going to rob no bank. I was kidding."

"You sure?"

Jim passed out on the couch, my only answer a coyote, somewhere down the road, howling at the moon. Propping my shoulders against a wall, I closed my eyes. It was dawn when Jim nudged me awake with his foot.

"Get up, Little Brother. We're going to town for something to eat."

My gut ached. So did my head. During the long night, I'd somehow convinced myself the bank robbery was just a joke.

Teddy, Darla, and Jim weren't quite ready so I chewed on a piece of cardboard till they’d killed the last of the tequila. Temperatures had dropped below freezing during the night and we had to push the Ford to start it. Jim and I sat in the backseat of the Galaxie, Darla riding shotgun as Teddy circled the block. They both looked strung out. So did Jim. Finally, Teddy stopped and let us out.

"I'll park this heap around the corner," he said. "Just come running."

Darla reached through the window, giving Jim a hug and frantic kiss. She waved when Teddy pulled away. Drawing me like a magnet, Jim started down the street.

"Why aren't they coming with us?"

"Teddy's lazy and looking for a closer place to park. Cafe's just around the corner. I ain't waiting."

When we rounded the corner, I looked in both directions for the pancake house. Instead, a bank door beckoned and I realized Jim had suckered me. Grabbing the front of my pea jacket, he shoved a big revolver under my belt and pushed me through the front door.

"Don't do this," I said.

He just grabbed my shoulder, cupped my ear, and whispered, "All you have to do is stand right here and wait on me. I'll do the dirty work and no one will even know you're involved."

"I'd follow you to hell. But robbing a bank. . ."

"You never robbed a bank before?"

"Jim, you know I ain't."

His eyes began to glaze. "It's like pure, unadulterated sex."

My knees began to shake, heart thumping so hard I thought it was gonna pop out of my chest. One fat guard propped up the far wall, drinking coffee from a plastic cup. Jim strolled past him, straight to the nearest cashier where he pulled his pistol and stuck it in the woman's face. Outside the bank, I'd felt I was about to puke. Now, time started passing in slow motion.

"You're too young to die, good looking," Jim said to the woman. "Put your money in this sack and signal your boss over here. Do it now."

The young woman's body stiffened. Color drained from her face and saliva drooled down the corner of her mouth. I wondered if she would piss her pants before I did.

"Don't shoot me," she said. "Please!"

"Put the money in the sack," Jim said, his words growing ever louder. "And call your boss."

The woman's voice was shaky when she motioned to a well-dressed man beside the open vault.
"Jeremy, please."

With a glance of disapproval, the young banker approached the booth. He had no chance to comment on her disrespect before Jim stuck the pistol in his face and eased the two of them down the row, into the vault.

The big clock on the wall seemed frozen. Though it seemed like forever, only five minutes passed before Jim walked out alone. Slung over his shoulder was a leather bag. For a moment, I thought we were home free. Didn't happen that way.

Sirens began wailing and people started screaming and dropping to the floor. The fat guard pulled his pistol, fanning the bank. Jim was almost to the front door when the man yelled for him to stop. Without waiting, opened up with the gun. My heart counted three explosions.

The first bullet caught Jim in the shoulder, spinning him around. The second took a hunk out of his right ear. The third struck him square in the belly. I watched him fall back against the wall, pluming blood painting a crushed rose across the front of his jacket.

It wasn't over. The guard rushed forward, jamming his pistol in Jim's face. Yanking the gun Jim had give me, I pointed it at the guard, closed my eyes and pulled the trigger.

All my luck had ebbed sometime the day before. Catching sight of the weapon in my hand, the fat guard squeezed off a round from his pistol at the exact instant. His bullet burned a hole through my leg, lighting a burning fire just below my right knee. My bullet lifted him off his feet, crushing him against the wall.

 Steadying Jim before he collapsed to the floor, I swallowed hard to keep from vomiting. As blood gurgled from his mouth, I wondered what weird anomaly let his eyes remain clear as Amarillo's cold blue sky.

"Get me out of here, Little Brother."

Trembling bodies lay sprawled on the floor, blocking our path to the door. I stepped over, through and between them, hauling Jim to the front door, the bank's alarm still screaming and distant sirens blaring. Chill wind hit us in the face when we stepped outside.

Teddy and Darla waited in Jim's Galaxie. Teddy saw us first, slamming the car into reverse and burning rubber all the way up the street till he reached us. I heard a crow cawing, somewhere above us. For a moment, I thought we was back home in Kansas.

"Jim's shot. Help us."

The front door opened and Darla bolted out, rushing toward us like an excited chicken. She wrenched the moneybag off Jim's shoulder, the car door slamming behind her. Old tires screamed as they burned rubber around the corner and disappeared.

Jim's voice was weak when he said, "Bastard! Get me out of here. I swear I ain't doing no more hard time."

A crowd had gathered on the sidewalk and scurried out of our way. Then it appeared before us: a cross topping a church steeple. I dragged Jim through the gates.

"Inside," I said. "The priest will give us asylum."

"Dumb shit," Jim said. "We're bank robbers. Ain't no asylum for us."

I pulled him through the door, my right leg numb from the knee down. My head felt as if I’d taken two dozen fast circuits on a broken tilt-a-whirl. We made it to the third pew before I collapsed.

"They're coming," I said.

Jim's laugh surprised me. I had to lean closer to hear what he was trying to tell me.

"Last night I dreamed about that picture show again; the one where the kid shot the old gunfighter."
Blood soaked my jeans. I was about to throw up, but Jim's throaty voice swam inside my head. I could only nod.

"The gunfighter just lay there in the dirt," he said. "Half dead, but staring at me as if I was a cockroach he wanted to stomp."

"Just stay quiet. The priest will get you a doctor. You'll be okay."

Ignoring me, he said, "It was me, the dirty bastard who shot the gunfighter in the back." He laughed and coughed up blood that foamed down his chin and neck. "This morning when I woke up, I could still feel the noose around my neck."

Jim massaged his neck as more blood gurgled from his lips and a cold glaze crept over his blue eyes.

"Hang on. They're coming for us now."

"I'm gut shot. Maybe I'll see you back in Kansas. Gotta go now. Daddy's coming. Take care of him for me, Little Brother."

Jim’s body went slack in my arms as heavy oak doors swung open. I gazed up at angry men pointing their guns at me. Behind them, hazy clouds dulled the pink winter sky as a chill breeze gusted down the aisle. It whistled like Daddy's belt buckle. Hard and cold as it flailed long red whelps across my back.


Eric Wilder is the author of the French Quarter Mystery Series. If you liked Amarillo, please check out more of his writing on his AmazonBarnes & Noble, and iBook author pages

Friday, August 07, 2015

A TALK WITH HENRY - a short story

I'd driven past that certain Interstate off-ramp more times than I cared to count. This day was different. Something took control, guiding me down a winding southern byway to a place I'd buried beneath the shifting sands of time. I soon realized it was a journey I'd long anticipated.

Pitted country blacktop soon became a tree-lined boulevard leading to a college rectangle. I stopped, got out, and stared. Little had changed in twenty years. Visions of the old college, devoid of even a single student, assaulted my brain, and I couldn't turn away.

Waning summer had left a pall in the air, the place deserted except for a pigeon pecking at a cigarette butt, and a lone jogger bent over in a huff. A lazy water sprinkler did little more than cast slow motion rainbows against the sidewalk. If the campus had been a corpse, then I was a curious child peeking through the mortuary window. A horn honking behind me broke my trance.

Just off campus, I found what had drawn me—a barroom catering to college students. It caused my broken crux of faded memory to flash like southern lightning. After a gasp of humid breath, I wheeled into the parking lot.

Except for a coat of garish paint, the building was little changed. The same railing of rusted steel surrounded the parking lot with pea gravel and broken oyster shells. Faded warehouses framed either side. Mike's Place flashed in purple and gold lettering from a neon sign. For a moment, I thought I was at the wrong place. But only for a moment.

A weather-beaten sign on the roof proclaimed the name I remembered. Trianon. It beckoned me from the car and I hurried to accept its invitation.

Hot Louisiana sun sucked oxygen from my lungs as I strolled across the parking lot. An explosion of trashcans erupted on the side of the building, followed by a brindle cat, screeching as he bounded from the heap. The big tom skipped past me in a frightened sideways motion, then disappeared in a rush behind the building. The trash lid revolved like a percussive top before falling silent on broken concrete.

Silence returned me to reality when I reached the black-painted door. Light-headed from the heat, or maybe suffocating demons from my past, I grabbed the handle and pulled. Icy refrigerated air blasted my face. Engulfing me in a dry wave, it sent a chill down my neck, reviving memories of many sweltering southern summers.

"Come in heah," the little man behind the bar drawled.

I took a quick glance around the room. Things had changed. Once dark, walls were now vivid white, decorated with black stripes. Fluorescent brightness, reminiscent of a New York bistro, replaced the dim coolness of my memory. I sat on a tall stool and waited for the smiling bartender.

He had a crooked grin and mortician's complexion, his shirt the color of a typewriter ribbon. White double-pleated linen pants matched the barroom's theme and connected diamonds decorated his tie. When he smiled, his eyes focused on a spot between my eyes.

"What can I get you, big guy?" he said.

Continuing to polish a glass with his white cloth, he waited for my answer. I looked at pictures of colorful specialty drinks taped to the smoked-glass mirror behind him. It only took me a moment to point to a picture.

"Hurricane. House specialty. Three-fifty with the souvenir glass. Two-fifty without." he said.


“You bet,” he said with a wink. “Everybody needs a memory. Where you from?"

"Oklahoma," I answered, more interested in the bar than conversation.

"Oweeee, boomer sooner! What'cha do up there?"

"Work in the oil patch."

"Got a cousin in Enid in oil," he said above the whining blender. "Jake Perkins. Know him?"

My shake of the head didn't surprise him. He continued pouring the icy pink concoction into a large glass decorated in reds and greens. Adding a straw, cherry and slice of orange, he slid it across the polished counter.

"Not too fast," he said. “Name's Mike. What’s yours?"

"John Tolliver."

"What brings you to town, Mr. John?"

"I went to school here, years ago."

With a knowing grin, he returned to his aimless glass polishing. "Summer vacation," he said. "Ain't many people around right about now."

"When I lived here, an old black man waited bar."

"Henry," he said. "Died a few years back."

Before I could reply a couple entered, sitting on the opposite end of the long counter. The man made a production of lighting his companion's cigarette as Mike popped the cotton cloth across his arm.

"Yell if you can handle another," he said.

Hot and thirsty, I sipped the syrupy drink and pivoted on the stool to have a look around. Then, either the rum, or the moment nailed me. Maybe both. Like a motion picture fading into another scene, my imagination began recreating the room as I'd remembered it. Somewhere in my brain's recesses, fluorescent lighting dimmed and the walls began to darken. Jarring ring of pinball machines in back and labored strains of Mick Jagger began emanating from a jukebox.

Scratched marble and corroded chrome replaced Mike's white plastic tables. His black and white tile had become dark, oiled wood. Blinking twice, I turned around.

Gone were the bartender and his two customers, replaced in my mind by an old black man with short, snowy white hair and a tiny mustache. A bow tie girded the collar of his starched white shirt as he polished a glass with a soft cloth clutched in his gnarled hands. When he spotted me, he pushed his wire-framed glasses up on his forehead, leaving two burnished dents in the sides of his nose. He grinned, revealing a full set of shining teeth still firmly set in his sunken cheeks. I stared in disbelief.

"Henry? That you?"

"Sure is. Where you been?"

"Away. I wasn't sure you'd be here."

Henry's chuckle dissolved into a rheumatic cough. He stopped polishing the glass, leaning for a moment against the bar.

"Where else would I be? Ol' Henry's always here."

It was no lie. Henry had seemed a permanent fixture of the place. As much as its worn stools and dark wood. I couldn't recall visiting the Trianon without seeing his ageless face behind the bar.

"What'cha gonna have?"

"Draw one," I said.

Winking, Henry took a frosted mug from the freezer, filling it from the tap behind the bar until a foamy head poured over the lip.

"You remembered," he said.

I did remember. During my seventeenth year and first visit to the Trianon, I'd found myself anxious about what to order.

"Beer," I'd said.

"What kind of beer?" Henry asked, staring over his wire-rims.

"Tap," I'd said, spying the spigot.

"You mean a draw. Next time you want a beer, just say Henry, draw one. That's all you gotta do."

I smiled as the recollection evoked a much deeper memory that sent a melancholy wave cresting across my bow.

"Your lady friend never came," he said, handing me the draw.


The loose layer of ebony skin on his neck wriggled. I nodded when he said, “You made it anyway, didn't you?"

Once, long ago, I'd tutored a girl in math. Not just any girl. The homecoming queen. A gorgeous young woman that wouldn't have otherwise noticed a certain shy sophomore. She was flunking math and resorted to asking for my help. When she aced the course, her warm kiss thrilled me. Enough so that I managed a stammered invitation to her for a beer at the Trianon. I waited alone until the place closed, hoping for an explanation that, like my date, never arrived. I remembered Henry’s commiseration as I sipped the draw.

"She musta got sick or something."

We both knew she hadn’t. Didn't matter because the old man had helped ease me through the crisis. It was a moment I'd never forgotten.

"Getcha another?"

My eyes popped open. I leaned against the counter for support, trying to focus on the smiling man bedecked in black and white. Henry was gone, as was the dark interior of the bar. I gasped for a reply to his question.

“No," I finally said, seeing the empty Hurricane glass. “How much do I owe you?"

“Three-fifty," he said.

Handing him a five I started for the door, advising him to keep the change.

“Wait up," he said. "You forgot your glass."

“Keep it,” I said. "I don't need it now."

He scratched his head and returned to wiping the bar as I walked out the door.

Glaring sunlight, along with a blast of humid air, struck me square in the face when I stepped outside. Still light-headed from three ounces of rum, I wobbled back to the car, my dilated eyes burning from barroom smoke. I found the brindle tomcat perched on the hood.

He bounded off in a single fluid motion, finally stopping at a safe distance to yawn and lick his paws. After stretching, the feral prince  strolled away to view the garbage cans awaiting his afternoon inspection.

As I drove away, I watched him in the rear-view mirror until his graceful image melted into a warm, summer daydream.


Eric Wilder is the author of the French Quarter Mystery Series. If you liked A Talk With Henry, please check out more of his writing on his AmazonBarnes & Noble, and iBook author pages

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

PRAIRIE THUNDER - a short story

Buck McDivit is my Oklahoma cowboy detective, and the protagonist in Ghost of a Chance and Bones of Skeleton Creek. Hope you like him.


Heavy June rains had raised the humidity well above normal. Buck McDivit felt it as he pulled into the thoroughbred horse ranch north of Oklahoma City. The horses issued a noisy acknowledgment of his appearance when he entered the large barn.

“Sorry, gang. You’ll get your oats after I clean up a bit.”

Buck took the stairs to the upper level. A narrow walkway encircled the large structure. It provided passage to several luxury suites often used by jockeys and visiting horse buyers. The owner, Mrs. Virginia O’Meara rented one of the suites to Buck for almost nothing. In return, he fed the horses and watched after them. He’d often wanted to bring home a girlfriend to see the place, but knew Mrs. O’Meara had a crush on him. Perhaps the motivation for the cheap rent.

Mrs. O’Meara had a much younger boyfriend that spent little time in Oklahoma City. A wary man, he kept a jealous eye on his wealthy girlfriend whenever he came to town. Trouble Buck didn’t need. He hadn’t dated anyone lately extraordinary enough to chance losing his happy home, though he did have someone in mind.

Blood on his hands disappeared into the marble bathroom vanity. Besides his work as a P.I., he often assisted the Logan County death investigator. Earlier, he’d worked a messy murder just north of Guthrie, a quaint bed and bath town north of the City. The phone rang as he dried his hands. It was Doc Halsey, the Logan County death investigator. Halsey was a veterinarian. That didn’t matter much in Logan County.

“We got another homicide, this time in Felony Flats.”

“Do I have time to feed the horses?”

“Make time. This one ain’t going no place.”

Buck did his feeding and then hurried up Coltrane, past Waterloo Road. Felony Flats had earned its name. A preacher intent on something other than salvation had purchased cheap land, and then built even cheaper houses on it. He carried the note for anyone that could sign their name, and more than a few that couldn’t. The houses fell apart after a few years. The residents, many of them only a step or two ahead of the law, never protested.

Waterloo Road, the county line, is too far north to worry Oklahoma County police. It’s also far enough south of Guthrie to provide little interest to the Logan County Sheriff. Bad things often happened in Felony Flats. Tonight, the name fitted the area well. Darkness blanketed the neighborhood as Buck parked his “Cowboy Coupe” in front of a ramshackle mobile home. A body awaited inside.

Broken brick littered the front yard. Someone had begun laying a barbecue pit. It was far from finished. A golden moon shined through thin cloud cover. Fireflies lit the pathway to the mobile home as a chorus of tree frogs heralded his appearance. Long after dark, it was still hot. He found Doc Halsey squatting beside the body of a large man, two Logan County deputies looking on with tired eyes.

“Johnny Big Shoe,” Halsey said. “Never thought he’d end up like this.”

Pulling on a pair of latex gloves, Buck knelt beside Doc Halsey. Without asking what had happened, he cocked Big Shoe’s head and touched the clotted wound behind his left ear.

“Blunt trauma,” Halsey said. “Someone nailed him from behind with something jagged and heavy.
Been dead since last night. His cousin, Austin Big Shoe, found the body.”

“Where is he now?”

“Guthrie, for questioning. Our number one suspect, to hear the Sheriff tell it.”

“Doesn’t make much sense. Why did he call the police if he’s the killer?”

“And wait twelve hours before doing it?” Doc Halsey added. “Don’t have a clue, but then again that’s not my job. Not yours, either.”

Buck glanced around the room, noticing the many Indian art paintings. A bare spot over the ratty sofa cried out for attention. Yellowed walls of a chain smoker outlined the former location of a missing painting. Sheriff Farnsworth entered the squalid mobile home before Buck could digest this information.

“Bag him,” Farnsworth said. “Austin confessed. No need to proceed any further with your investigation.”

Farnsworth glanced at Buck as if he were about to stomp a cockroach when he asked, “What’s the motive, Sheriff?”

“Them two’s feuded for years. Started in high school. They had designs on the same gal. They couldn't tolerate each other.”

“Then what was Austin doing here?” Buck asked.

“Came to kill him, I guess,” Sheriff Farnsworth said, dusting his hands as he started for the door. “Whatever, Austin confessed, and his fate is out of my hands.”

Buck knew better than to pursue the questioning. So did Doc Halsey. Lowering his eyes, he began wrapping the deceased man in a plastic body bag as the two deputies followed Farnsworth out the door. Halsey waited until he heard tires slipping in loose gravel.

“You’ll get us both fired if you aren’t careful.”

“When I was on the O.C.P.D., we checked things out with a lot more care. There’s enough evidence here to prove the case, one way or the other.”

“This ain’t Oklahoma County, Buck. What happens in Felony Flats stays in Felony Flats. There ain't no slick city lawyers here to get a guilty man off death row.”

Buck just shook his head. “Or an innocent man. What’s the story on all the paintings?”

“Johnny Big Shoe was an artist. I own some of his paintings myself. He never hit the big time. Maybe he will, now that he’s dead.”

Two men in a county transport truck retrieved Johnny Big Shoe's body. Doc Halsey supervised the loading, and then walked over to Buck’s truck.

“Forget this one. Go home and get some rest.”

Buck took half of Doc Halsey’s advice. That night, he got enough sleep for the first time in a week. A good thing because the horses were in no mood for late feeding two days in a row. Next morning, some of the stalls needed mucking. He’d finished a surveillance job the previous day. Despite Doc Halsey’s advice, he decided to visit the Logan County jail.

Farnsworth figured into Buck’s decision to take the day off. Sheriff Farnsworth’s daughter, Carla, worked for the Logan County Sheriff’s Department. She smiled when he entered the front door. With blond hair braided into a sexy pigtail, she had the bright looks of a California surfer girl.

“To what do we owe this pleasure?” she asked as Buck approached her desk.”

“Nothing much. Just thought I’d give you another chance to go two-stepping with me Saturday night.”

“Maybe. Tom Jr. and me had a little fight last night. Don’t know if we’re broke up just yet, but it’s a definite possibility.”

“Then can I pick you up around seven Saturday night?”

“You here just to ask me out?”

“I also need to talk with Austin Big Shoe.”

“Daddy left orders for no one to see Austin.”

“I’m working for your daddy today.”

Skepticism flashed in Carla’s green eyes. “Sure about that?”

“Call and ask him if you don’t believe me.”

“Never mind,” she said. “I’ll have Roy bring him up to the visitor’s room.”

Buck walked away without a guilty conscience. A man’s life was more valuable than a little lie. Though that’s how he had it figured, he doubted Carla would see it that way.

There are no country club jails in rural Oklahoma. They’re all tough, the Logan County jail no exception. Buck waited as two jailers led Austin Big Shoe through the visitor’s room door. Clad in heavy shackles, he shuffled across concrete dressed in an orange jump suit. His wrists were cuffed, elbows manacled behind his back. Austin had two black eyes and a swollen face.

Buck didn’t smoke but kept a pack of cigarettes for just such occasions. Lighting one, he placed it between Austin’s bruised lips.

“Bad fall on the way to jail?” Buck asked. Austin likely grinned at the question. His eyes were swollen shut, and Buck couldn’t tell. “Sheriff Farnsworth said you confessed to killing Johnny.”

When Austin mumbled something indecipherable, Buck knew it was a denial. He always carried a pad and pen, a habit he’d learned from his days on the O.C.P.D. He placed the pad on the table and the pen in Austin’s hand

“I don’t believe you killed Johnny. I’ll help you, but you got to give me some information. What’s the story on the blank spot on the wall behind the couch in the trailer?”

Austin nodded. Although cuffs and manacles made movement difficult, he wrote until the jailers returned for him. Sheriff Farnsworth was talking with Carla when Buck reached the front desk.

“You liar!” Carla said.

“Get the hell out of here, McDivit,” Sheriff Farnsworth said.

Ignoring the sheriff, Buck glanced at Carla and said, “Does this mean our Saturday night date is off?”

Carla’s glare was his only answer. He rationalized that her anger didn’t matter. Still, he felt as though he’d just fallen on his sword. Despite her rejection, he had a hunch Austin was innocent, and set out to prove it before the trail became too cold. In hopes of scoring more clues, he returned to Johnny Big Shoe’s house. The smell of recent death hung in the air. No yellow crime tape encircled the house, nor was the front door locked. With Austin Big Shoe’s fate already sealed, no one cared.

The missing painting, according to Austin, was an original Charlie Red Bird. Red Bird had died of lung cancer shortly before becoming famous. The painting he’d given his friend Johnny was worth a cool quarter-million dollars. Austin’s estimate. The painting, Prairie Thunder, depicted a violent Oklahoma rainstorm. It had become a problem in Johnny’s recent divorce. His ex owned a studio in Oklahoma City’s Paseo Art District. She coveted what she considered her half of the painting.

Johnny had refused to sell it. As Buck saw it, this made her a prime suspect. The painting had occupied the back wall of the squalid mobile home, just behind Johnny’s old green couch. What caught his attention was the circular tear in the couch’s fabric. It would have defied dating except for one thing. He’d spotted several fresh droplets of blood, one within the tear. Because of the blood’s placement, he knew it had gotten there on or about the time of the circular tear. Of that, Buck had no doubt.

With this information, he headed toward Paseo District. But not before taking pictures and collecting samples of the blood droplets. The Paseo District lies just north of downtown Oklahoma City. It has a Santa Fe stucco appearance and is quite unlike any other place in the State. It’s now populated by art studios and a few southwestern style restaurants.

Much like the rest of the country, a declining economy had affected Oklahoma City. The Paseo now lay somewhere between decline and prosperity. Buck loved the pink and blue buildings.

Parking in front of Dream Catcher Studio, he found it closed for lunch. A cozy bistro across the street called The Azure Pendant beckoned. When an attractive woman, dressed in faux-buckskin, greeted him at the door, he knew he'd made a wise choice. They were the restaurant’s only occupants.

“Slow day?” Buck asked.

“Every day’s slow in the Paseo.”

“What’s for lunch?”

“Honey lime, chipotle chicken and cornmeal dumplings. To die for.”

“Twist my arm, sweet talker,” Buck said. “And I better have a Tecate in a cold mug.”

She disappeared into the back of the restaurant, returning with a mug of beer, its edges salted and topped with sliced lime.

“Beer’s on me. I’m Beth.”

“Pleased, Beth. I’m Buck. Nice place,” he said, admiring the Mexican tile and large window overlooking a picturesque patio. “You have a different accent. You’re not from around here, are you?”

Beth smiled, relishing the handsome cowboy’s blatant flirtation. “Followed my ex-husband here from Austin. He’s gone, but I stayed. What’s your story?”

“Just a lonesome cowboy that likes two-stepping on Friday nights, and cold Coors any old night. Can’t say as I’m sorry your old man is gone,” he said, noticing she wore no wedding ring.

“Hey, best thing that ever happened to me.”

Beth was friendly and had a terrific smile. She looked like an American Indian princess, or perhaps a seventies hippie. Her thatch of thick red hair and a fair complexion marked her more as Irish than Indian. She was maybe ten years older than he was. It didn’t matter. He liked redheads. Something about her set his sexual bells ringing, almost causing him to forget why he was there in the first place.

“I’ll get your chipotle chicken,” she said, breaking eye contact.

Buck’s head had begun to spin as he exchanged quips with the attractive restaurateur, and not because of the beer. After finishing the last savory bite of chicken, he said goodbye and walked across the street to the Dream Catcher Studio. An attractive woman with thick braided hair met him at the door. She didn’t need her turquoise squash blossom necklace to proclaim she was no wanna-be Native American.

“I’m Brenda Big Shoe. How may I help you?”

“Just browsing.”

She smiled. “Need help, I’ll be in back.”

Buck had no idea what he was looking for, but soon found it anyway. Brenda Big Shoe was talking with a petite woman in a blue pinstriped dress. The attractive woman, despite her spiked heels, barely reached Brenda Big Shoe’s chin. They were in a heated discussion and Buck decided to interrupt their conversation.

“Sorry to butt in, but I have a question. Have any Charlie Red Bird’s?”

The interruption surprised Brenda Big Shoe. Her smile returning, she turned and faced Buck.

“You a collector?”

“I represent a client in Nevada that has a sizeable Red Bird collection. I don’t like saying money’s no object, but if you have the right piece, then. . .”

He could see that his Pacific-sized lie had caught their attention. The short woman also smiled and extended her hand. It was then he saw the large bandage on her arm.

“I’m Diane Plimpton, art agent for many prestigious galleries on the east coast. Perhaps I can help?”

“My client has a quarter million dollars burning a hole in his pocket for just the right Red Bird. Any ideas?”

Again the two women exchanged glances. “We have an early Red Bird titled Prairie Thunder,” Diane Plimpton said. “We’re asking a half-million dollars, and it’s worth every penny. I’m sure your buyer wants to keep this as discrete as we do.”

“Can I see it?” Brenda and Diane led him to a painting the exact size as the one missing from Johnny Big Shoe’s wall. Bingo! Buck could see it all now. The two had gone to Johnny’s mobile home to bargain for the painting. Greed had overcome good sense, and an argument had ensued.

While Johnny and Brenda screamed at each other, Diane Plimpton had hit him from behind with a brick. Then she’d punctured the couch’s thin fabric with one of her sharp heels as she took the painting. A check of Diane Plimpton’s DNA would likely link her to the killing. He began backing out of the room.

“I’ll call my client and get back with you tomorrow.”

Buck knew the Logan County District Attorney. He also knew every judge on the Logan County bench. He didn’t know for a fact that Brenda and Diane were Johnny Big Shoe’s killers. Didn't matter. He had enough evidence to convince someone with authority to force Sheriff Farnsworth to at least check it out.

The Sheriff had an over inflated opinion of his own intelligence and often jumped to false conclusions. He also had an enormous ego, hated anyone proving him wrong, and he didn’t like Buck. A future with his daughter, Carla, was likely out of the question. It didn’t matter at the moment.

Instead of his truck, he returned to the Azure Pendant. When Beth met him at the door, he said, “You like to dance?”


Eric Wilder is the author of the Paranormal Cowboy and French Quarter Mystery Series. If you liked Prairie Thunder, please check out more of Eric's writing on his AmazonBarnes & Noble, and iBook author pages

Saturday, July 04, 2015

MOTH MADNESS - a short story

A clear New Mexico day, the sky mimicking polished turquoise pierced with veins of crystalline quartz. At the Palace of the Governors, Navajo artists sold malachite rings and squash blossom necklaces. Across the street, non-native artisans expressed their own vision in a more contemporary fashion.

The old town was alive with color. Morning glories and hollyhocks lined the street. Pastels clashing with orange berries of mountain ash and chocolate adobe. Sunflowers, pumpkins, and sacred corn crowned flat roofs.

A message on an old car painted in a splashes of bright, freehand colors, said, “Never pet a burning dog.”

Two couples meandered down the sidewalk, stopping to examine silver baubles and turquoise rings. Finally, Pamela said, “What now, gang?”

Pamela’s husband Don winked at Raymond his male counterpart and said, “A drink at the nearest bar?”

“Honestly, Don,” Pamela chided. “Has the town’s ambiance not caught up with you yet?”

“Just the gas from last night’s frijoles,” he said.

Raymond added, “So spicy, there’s a fart in every bite.”

Pamela frowned and walked ahead in silent protest. Don winked at Raymond and Julie, puffing his cheeks in Dizzie Gillespie fashion to show his distaste for the local fare.

“Slow down, Dear,” he said, words dripping with mischievous inflection. She didn’t, and they hurried after her.

After lunch at a courtyard restaurant, Julie pushed her plate aside and asked, “Where to?”

Don stretched in his chair and yawned. “A nice nap?”

Pamela sipped her mineral water and smiled. “It’s the last day of our vacation, Don.”

“So what?”

“This is the center of New Age. We can’t leave without at least visiting a channeler and summoning a lost spirit.”

Don grinned, playing with his gray mustache. “Dear, you’re crazy.”

Pamela ignored him, turning to Julie and Raymond. “What do you two think?”

Julie glanced at Raymond, “I don’t know. Sounds silly to me.”

“It’s not silly,” Pamela shot back. “If you think it is, Don and I will go alone.”

Don glanced at Julie and Raymond. Then, winking at Raymond, he asked, “How will we decide which channeler to consult, Dear?”

“We’ll ask the waiter.”

Don grinned. “Sounds logical.”

Pamela ignored him. Raymond glanced at Julie and smiled. When the waiter with the Brooklyn accent returned Pamela asked, “Can you direct us to the best channeler in Santa Fe?”

“Depends,” he said.

Her curiosity piqued Julie asked, “On what?”

“How much you’re paying.”

His terse reply raised Pamela’s eyebrows. “Are there some that much better than others?”

“No, but for the right price, I’ll do it myself.”

This time, no one stifled their laughter. Pamela folded her arms, sat up straight and frowned.

“I wasn’t making a joke,” she said, reprimanding the young man.

“Well,” he paused, “If I’m not good enough for you, you might try the Wolf.”

“The wolf?”

“Steinhart, Wolf Steinhart.”

Bob chortled, “Wolf Steinhart?”

“Who’s Wolf Steinhart?” Julie and Raymond asked in unison.

“If you want to know about New Age, Wolf is your man.”

Don leaned back in his chair, folding his big hands behind his head. “Where might we find Mr. Steinhart?”

The waiter glanced at his watch. “Right now, he’s at the Pagan Bar.”

Don’s pale blue eyes widened. “He keeps a schedule?”

The waiter grinned. “Nah, he’s there most of the time.”


They found the Pagan Bar empty and eclectic, even by Santa Fe standards. Small dragons hung from the ceilings. A tree grew behind the bar. Louis Armstrong’s picture decorated the wall, along with crosses, lizards and stained glass dragons. A sign said, “This is the year of the dragon.”

A lone man occupied a pink stone table, his head resting on his arm. As they stood in a semi-circle around him, he began snoring at a level that would have made a tic on the chart at the nearest seismic station.

Don grinned and tried to rouse him. “Ahem!”

A louder snort erupted from the man’s nostrils and Pamela suggested, “Maybe we should come back later.”

“Not on your life,” Don said.

Raymond grabbed her elbow to prevent her exit. “He’s right. Let’s wake him.”

Raymond shook the man’s shoulder. Steinhart brushed away Raymond’s hand like someone swatting an annoying fly. A voice startled them. “You wanna talk with the Wolf.”

A dark-skinned lady wearing a bright red dress draped low over her shoulders stood looking at them, hand on her hips.

“Why yes, as a matter-of-fact.” Don said.

“Then waita minute.”

She disappeared behind the bar, returning with a shot of tequila which she placed beside the man’s head. The Wolf snorted and opened his red-rimmed eyes, glancing up at the five people standing over him. He drained the shot in one gulp and tossed the glass into the adobe kiva behind him. When it shattered, he winced and massaging his left temple.

“Whom do I have the pleasure of addressing?”

“I’m Don Brabham, and this is my wife Pamela. These lovely people are Julie Hamilton and Raymond West.”

The man stretched himself to his full, impressive height. Don was tall but this man taller, at least six-six.

“Wolf Steinhart,” he said, extending his hand. “At your service.”

Steinhart’s spoke with a clipped British accent, khaki shirt imparting the appearance of a big game hunter. A red stain on his shirt dispelled this initial impression. When Pamela edged to the back of the group and eyed the door, Don grabbed her arm.

“We understand you’re an expert in New Age philosophy,” Don said. “May we sit?”

“How rude of me,” Steinhart said, pulling out two of the red lacquered chairs and raising a finger to the woman in the red dress. “Ramona! Tequila and five glasses.”

The dark-skinned woman ignored his request, continuing to polish a glass. “Who’s gonna pay?”
Steinhart glanced at the group until Don raised his hand. “My treat.”

“Then make it Cuervo Gold, pretty senorita,” Steinhart said, popping all five fingers on both hands. He bent over and placed his palms on the table’s pink surface. “Ladies and gentlemen, you have found your man.”

Still beaming, Steinhart plopped down between Pamela and Julie on the pink-cushioned bonco. They wrinkled their noses and edged away as Ramona brought the tequila and five shot glasses.

“I’d rather have a glass of Chablis,” Pamela said.

Julie said, “Make mine a Coke.”

“Well, gentlemen,” Steinhart said, refraining from breaking the glass in the fireplace. “More for us.” He smacked his lips like a contented bovine and added, “My friends. You have arrived at the pith of the maelstrom, the mouth of the volcano, the eye of the needle.”

“The tail of the ass,” Don said.

Unperturbed, Steinhart continued. “Exactly what is it you wish to discover?”

“The address of a good channeler,” Don said.

Wolf’s chin dropped. “Is that all?”

“No,” Pamela said, becoming enthusiastic. “We need a guide through the mysteries of New Age.”

Wolf perked up at Pamela’s words. “A broad and demanding subject. I require a fee.”

“That’s no problem. . .” Pamela began.

Don interrupted. “How much?”

“Thirty dollars an hour and residuals,” Steinhart said.

Don squelched Pamela’s reply. “Residuals?”

Steinhart held up the bottle of tequila. Don glanced at Raymond and Julie. They smiled and blinked.

“You got it, old man,” Don said, taking the initiative.

Steinhart filled Don and Raymond’s glasses and poured another for himself. “As you mentioned,” he said, looking at Pamela. “This is the hub of New Age. The place where everyone’s karma hits the fan.” He chuckled. “In Santa Fe, experts perform diverse functions."

"Such as," Pamela said.

 Synovial fluid equalization, aura balancing, crystal healing, vibrational healing. Need I continue?"

"We're all ears," Pamela said.

 "Connective tissue polarity therapy, colon cleansing, clear light therapy, and bio-energetic synchronization.”

“More like bio-energetic money detachment,” Don quipped.

Pamela ignored her husband’s levity. “And channelers?”

“My dear lady,” Steinhart said, “There are hundreds of mystics, gurus, and spirit channelers in Santa Fe.”

Julie sipped her soda and Raymond fidgeted in his red lacquered chair. “Every waiter in town is a mystic,” Raymond said. “I'm sure most of these people are fakes preying on unsuspecting visitors.”

When he glanced away from Pamela’s glare, Steinhart nodded. “What you suggest is true, but they are here for a reason.”

Raymond asked, “What reason?”

Steinhart poured another shot and answered, “The Native Americans.”

Pamela leaned forward. “You mean Indians?”

“There are fifteen thousand Pueblo in New Mexico, along with the Navajo and Hopi. The Pueblo believe they are here, now and always. This is a fundamental view they keep because it reveals their feelings for bahana.”

“Bahana?” Don said.

“Whites. You and I. The original people have occupied this region for almost eight thousand years. Their culture is quite defined; more so than any in North America. There are things we bahana will never know.”

Julie asked, “Such as?”

“Koshare. . .”

Steinhart’s word died on his lips.

Don glanced at Raymond, then at Julie. “Koshare?”

“Powerful secret societies. Magic, both white and black. The so-called New Age practitioners gravitated here. To the Pueblo this is the center of the universe.”

Pamela’s face glowed with anticipation. “You mean these people could summon a demon, or heal a cancer?”

Wolf Steinhart nodded. “These people, as you call them, are quite capable of almost anything.”

“Then this is for real?”

“As real as you or I,” he said.

Pamela asked, “Can we experience this mysticism, or witness the summoning of a spirit?”

Don turned in his chair. “Dear, this is getting ridiculous. Let’s go back to the hotel and take a nice nap.”

Pamela glared at her husband. “You go, I’ll stay.”

Don frowned but remained seated, pouring another shot from the bottle. Raymond and Julie cast nervous glances at each other. Steinhart folded his arms, silent as he contemplated Pamela’s question.

“It’s possible,” he finally said.

Pamela glowed. “We’ll pay whatever it costs.”

“Dear lady, it’s not a question of money, though there is the matter of my small retainer.”

Don opened his wallet and handed Steinhart a Benjamin, asking, “What else is it a question of?”

“Belief,” he said, finishing his shot. “Where are you staying?”

“La Fonda,” Don said.

Wolf Steinhart glanced at his watch. “If you’re serious, I’ll pick you up in front of the hotel at five.”


The two couples waited, Pamela beaming, Don fidgeting. Julie looked bored as Raymond paced the sidewalk. “This is stupid, Pamela,” Don said. “Steinhart already has our money. He isn’t coming.”

“Of course he is. He’s just a little late.”

An old Land Rover pulled up to the curb, allaying Don’s doubts, Wolf Steinhart at the wheel in the same outfit as before. A broad-brimmed hat completed his big game hunter look. Raymond noted with relief he had at least changed shirts. Steinhart leaned across the front seat and opened the door with a smile.

“Pile in, good people.”

Because of his height, Don sat in the front seat. The others crowded into the back on the narrow bench. Steinhart pulled away from the curb and headed out of town.

Don asked, “Where are we going, old man?”

“First to Taos to secure a guide, and then to visit the witch.”

Julie sat in the back seat, arms folded and toe tapping. “I thought you were our guide.”

“Unfortunately, this excursion requires more than I.”

Pamela was ecstatic. “We’re visiting a witch, a real witch? Please tell us about it.”

“A practice passed through successive generations. Spanish monks introduced Catholicism to the region. Since then, the native’s belief in the spirit world has become intertwined with the Catholic view of god.”

Raymond said, “Such as?”

“The evil eye. The Pueblo and Navajo believe wizards and witches own the power to harm by gazing at you. The power of the evil eye. They wear amulets and talismans, Catholic crosses or votives to protect them from this power. They commingle Catholicism with their beliefs when they invoke spirits of the earth and moon.”

“And our visit to the witch. . .”

“A demonstration,” Steinhart said, finishing Raymond’s question. “It would take our combined lifetimes to understand this region’s mystical culture.”

Purple shadows engulfed the highway. They blended with a hazy orange sunset as they continued north to the Taos Pueblo. Steinhart entered through the back gate. In the encroaching darkness, they approached two pueblos separated by a clear creek. Both structures looked like ancient apartment complexes.

A church bounded the west end of the coyote-fenced enclosure. Steinhart crossed the narrow bridge, careful of the roaming horses and mongrel dogs. He stopped by the largest adobe structure, opened the door and stepped out.

“Wait here. I won’t be long.” Steinhart started away, but returned, as if forgetting something. He removed four crucifixes from his safari shirt and handed one to each of them.

“Wear these,” he said.

They watched him climb a ladder to an upper entrance, disappearing inside. Don glanced at the crucifix, saying. “You think this will work for a Jew?”

“Honestly, Don,” Pamela said. “Just put it on.”

Raymond nudged Julie and she bit her lip to keep from laughing. When Steinhart returned, only the stars and moon illuminated the surroundings. He wasn’t alone.

“This is Sam,” he said, introducing the young man. “He’ll lead us the rest of the way.”

Sam rode on the Land Rover’s fender to his own vehicle, an old pickup truck. Steinhart shadowed him out of the enclosure and into the darkness. They followed the highway several miles before exiting to a dirt path. It jutted into the desert, following a dry arroyo for five more miles.

Julie, Raymond and Pamela held on to their uncomfortable seats as Steinhart shadowed Sam’s truck. At the end of the arroyo, they found a single adobe cubicle, light radiating from its windows. Steinhart helped Pamela and Julie unwind from the uncomfortable back seat. The two couples waited in chilly bleakness, Sam and Steinhart soon returning from the house with a smiling boy. Steinhart took a bag of fruit from the vehicle, handing it to the lad.

“We’re just here to observe,” Steinhart said. “Please don't ask any questions.”

They followed him into the stucco house, finding a young woman standing beside a kiva fireplace. Two little girls giggled, playing ball, and jacks on the earthen floor. When they spotted the sack of fruit, they rushed with pigeon-toed gaits, demanding their share.

Peculiar objects decorated the walls. An old chrome hubcap, several jawbones of indistinct origin, and some shells. Lateral vigas supported the ceiling. Bits of hay in the walls suggested real adobe formed them, not the cement-variety used by local builders.

“This is Rachel Kucate, her daughter’s Verla and Natalie, and son Chester.”

Don, Pamela, Julie and Raymond, followed Steinhart and Sam to a room in back. An old woman sat alone in a rocking chair, a black cat at her feet. Sam closed the door behind them, a dim coal oil lamp illuminating the room. The old woman continued rocking.

The cat arched its back as it moved beneath her legs and the rockers of the chair. Though she looked the picture of antiquity, the brightness and color of her garments clashed with this notion. Withered as a corn stalk ruined by too much sun and lack of rain, a blue flowered bandanna capped her silver hair. Turquoise and silver draped from her earlobes. A flowered shawl cloaked her pink wool sweater. Twisted turquoise graced her gnarled wrist.

“I have brought visitors, Grandmother,” Sam said.

The old woman opened her eyes, one dark and old, the other green and alive. She studied the visitors as Sam brought a small table from the corner, placing it in front of her. He sat on the floor and began chanting and beating a drum he’d brought from the truck. When the old woman spoke, her almost inaudible voice quivered, and she looked straight at Don.

“You brought somethin’ for Grandmother?”

Startled by her question, Don reached for his wallet. Steinhart touched his wrist and shook his head. “She’s not asking for money.”

Confused, Don fished an old gold watch, attached to a length of frayed chain, from his pocket. Without understanding why, he placed it on the table.

“Bring me the cloud blower, my son,” she said.

Steinhart handed her the ceremonial pipe which she lighted with a thin piece of wood in the flame of the coal oil lamp. Acrid smoke of wild tobacco billowed from its bowl. After several puffs, she handed the pipe to Don. Don puffed it, coughing as the harsh smoke filled his lungs. The old woman took it from him, placing it on the table beside the watch.

Soon, her shoulders began to quake. The tremble continued up her neck until her eyes closed and head tilted backwards. Her wrinkled lips parted and emitted a moan that sounded like wind whistling through branches. Trembling enveloped her, and she shook in a wild paroxysm of movement. Her head slammed against the table so hard, Raymond thought she must have killed herself.

When Don moved to help, Steinhart’s upraised palm signaled him back. Her head thrashed against the table before finally surrendering to a few feeble palpitations. Finally, she was quiet, her motion ceasing completely. A voice spoke, her lips unmoving. The voice, coming from the bowels of her soul, sounded masculine and tinny, as if awakened from a long sleep.

“I plunged from the sky, embraced by icy blue water. Now I am free and can say goodbye little brother. Live your life in peace.”

The voice died away like an echo in an empty cavern as they watched, mollified and frozen in place. Sam stopped drumming and filled a ladle with cool water. He and Steinhart helped the old woman back into the chair and held the water to her lips until she opened her eyes.

Steinhart hugged the old woman and gave her a pouch of tobacco, then exchanged a silent farewell as he motioned them to leave. Raymond was the last out, stealing one last glance at the old woman before shutting the door behind him. He noticed the cat beneath her feet had only one eye, green and alive. In the cheery outer room, Steinhart gave Sam and Rachel twenty dollars each. Sam nodded and faded into the darkness.

“That’s the strangest experience I’ve ever had,” Pamela said, returning along the dirt path to the Land Rover.

“Amen to that,” Julie said.

Raymond asked, “What’s the story on those people?”

“The old woman is a witch, as is her granddaughter Rachel and the two little girls. They suffer from genetic epilepsy, and the foot abnormality you noticed. Navajos call the epilepsy moth madness—witch frenzy. This is because in the throes of a seizure, they move their limbs like the wings of a moth near a flame. The Navajo believe women possessed by moth madness are magical and able to converse with spirits. What you saw is its own explanation.”

“Fascinating,” Pamela said. “Whose voice did we hear and what did the message mean?”

“Maybe you should ask your husband,” Steinhart said.

Confused by the Wolf’s reply, Pamela put her hand on Don’s shoulder. “Don, are you all right?”

His usual joviality had flown out the window. “The watch I gave the old woman was my older brother’s, a tail gunner during the war. His plane crashed over Germany, his body never recovered. We were close, and I never told him goodbye when he left to go overseas.”

Pamela started to comment. Caught instead between reality and a dusty desert road, she reclined against the bouncing seat of the Land Rover. With his arm around Julie, Raymond gazed at the sky. As he did, a shooting star lighted the darkness before disappearing forever behind a distant mesa.


Eric Wilder is the author of the French Quarter Mystery Series. If you liked Moth Madness, please check out more of Eric's writing on his AmazonBarnes & Noble, and iBook author pages