Wednesday, November 30, 2016

BLINK OF AN EYE - Chapter 1

Late for dinner and a movie with his steady girlfriend Lynn, Buck McDivit raced down I-35. Almost sundown, snowflakes from a late spring snowstorm dusted his windshield. As sunset began turning the sky red, an old pickup appeared over the rise in the northbound lane.
Almost out of control, the driver flashed his headlights when he saw Buck’s truck. In less than a moment, he realized why the old pickup was in such a hurry. A black truck doing ninety or more crested the rise behind it. The speeding vehicle slammed into the pickup's rear bumper, swerving it.
“What the hell?” Buck said.
Tapping his brakes, he slowed just enough to cross the grassy median in a sliding skid. When he hit the pavement, he floored the gas pedal in an attempt to catch the two speeding vehicles. The big V8 in his Navigator responded with a revving engine and squeal of burning rubber.
The speedometer reached a hundred as he crested a rolling hill and caught up with the two vehicles in front of him. The truck kept banging the old pickup, finally spinning it and sending it into the ditch. It flipped in the air doing a slow-motion tumble before hitting a sandstone outcrop. Buck dialed 911.
“Got a bad one about six miles south of Guthrie on I-35. Need an ambulance, and quick.”
The black truck slowed just enough to give Buck time to read its license tag. The personalized plate said BladeRunner. With other things more pressing on his mind, he watched as it disappeared over a rolling hill.
Slamming the brakes, he slid to within thirty feet as the truck caught fire and started to burn. Without bothering to shut the door, he raced to the burning vehicle.
The truck lay on its side; the hood popped and dark smoke billowing from the engine. Jumping on the running board, Buck grabbed the door handle and yanked.
An old man lay crumpled behind the wheel, his eyes closed. He felt light as a feather as Buck wrestled him from the cab. Dragging him, he tried to get as far away from the burning truck as he could. They almost made it.
When the truck exploded, the concussion knocked him off his feet. Slamming into the pavement, he skidded on knees and elbows, his face scraping asphalt. Hot air warmed his neck as it blasted over his head. The old man opened his eyes when he patted his face.
“I knew it was you when I saw your truck,” he said in a whispered voice.
“Do I know you?”
The old man’s eyes closed and he grew silent without answering the question.
Scant minutes had passed before sirens began screaming. An emergency vehicle from the Guthrie fire department skidded to a halt behind them. Two EMT’s that Buck recognized raced to help.
Clint was short, had a pug nose and a fireplug body. His partner Bones McGee was twice as tall and half as wide.
“Ain’t got much pulse,” Clint said, slipping an oxygen mask over his face. “You okay?”
“Don’t worry about me,” he said. “How’d you get here so quick?”
“Just down the road when the call came in. Lucky for you.”
The two EMT’s loaded the old man into the back of the ambulance and then returned to check on Buck.
“You look like hell,” Bones said.
 “Where you taking him?” Buck asked.
“Guthrie Hospital,” Clint said. “Come with us. You got burned hands and blood all over you.”
“Meet you there,” Buck said. “Can’t leave my truck on the side of the road.”
“Okay, tough guy. Just don’t pass out on the way.”
Traffic had begun stacking up on I-35, police vehicles and rubberneckers slowing traffic. At least until a semi racing toward Wichita crested the rise. By the time he saw the congestion, it was too late. The big truck careened full throttle into Buck’s Navigator.
Both vehicles ended up in the ditch as firefighters rushed to check on the driver. Buck would have helped but the collision had knocked him smooth out. Ammonia beneath his nose opened his eyes.
“Your truck’s toast and ain’t going no place but the junkyard,” Clint said.”
Buck was in no position to argue. After assisting him to the ambulance, they raced away in a blast of sirens and screech of burning rubber. He recovered enough to touch the shoulder of the old man on the gurney as Bones adjusted the IV in his veins.
“How’s he doing?” Buck asked.
“Don’t look so good,” Bones said. “You got a hell of a knot on your head. Hang on, and I’ll clean the blood off your arms and face.”
“Just take care of the chief,” Buck said. “I’ll be fine till we get to the hospital.”
The old man’s bone structure and hooked nose pegged him as a Native American. He opened his eyes and smiled when he saw Buck.
“I knew I’d find you,” he said.
“You know me?” Buck asked.
“Esme sent me. She said to give you this.”
He fumbled with something in the pocket of his faded shirt. Buck took the object, turning it in his hand.
“What is it?” he asked.
The old man didn’t answer, his eyes closing again.
“We’re losing him,” Bones said, pumping his chest.
The faint blink of a dark Indian eye showed them he was still alive.
“Hang in there, Chief,” Buck said.
A wisp of a smile appeared on the wizened face of the old Indian as he grasped Buck’s hand and squeezed. When his hand relaxed, Buck knew, he was dead. Bones checked his pulse, and then covered his face with the sheet.
“You knew him?” he asked.
“Never saw him before,” Buck said.
“Who is Esme, and what did he give you?”
“A beautiful woman I once knew. Don’t have a clue what this thing is,” he said.
“Looks like some Indian relic to me,” Bones said. “What happened back there?”
“Driver of a black truck ran him off the road. I got his tag.”
“Let me have it, and I’ll call it in,” Bones said.
“BladeRunner. Oklahoma vanity tag.”
Buck glanced at his skinned elbows and blisters on his palms. After wiping the blood from his face with his blue bandanna, he wrapped it around his right hand. Bones didn’t let him finish, moving around the cot to check him out.
“Where does it hurt?” he asked.
“All over,” Buck said.
“Least you’re alive,” Bones said, glancing at the body of the old man covered with the sheet.
“More than I can say for the chief.”

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.

Wednesday, August 03, 2016

CHICKEN FRIES - a short story

Years ago, I worked up a geologic prospect in Grant County, Oklahoma and sold it to a company that bought it under the condition that I would personally sit the well. This means I would stay near the location while the well was drilling and personally study the drilling samples as they came to the surface. This occurred before Anne and I were married, but not before we were living together. Deciding to make an adventure of it, we rented a thirty-three foot recreational vehicle. Country and western singer Wanda Jackson’s former RV, according to the man we rented it from. Heading north to Grant County, we took along our good friend Ray.
The well was in the middle of a wheat field, without a tree in sight. The drilling rig, we soon learned, didn’t have enough power to generate enough electricity for the RV, so we had to run the generator full time. It was hot that summer, one hundred to one hundred and five degrees every day. Although the weather was steamy, the wheat field dusty and the drilling rig noisy, we had a daily respite, three actually. There was a little eatery in Pond Creek called the Curb Café. The County sheriff owned the place and the specialty of the house was chicken-fried steak. Soon, Anne, Ray and I were eating chicken-fried steak and eggs for breakfast, the chicken-fried steak luncheon special, and the dinner that included a fully-loaded, baked potato. Sheriff Archie’s chicken-fries weren’t his only claim to fame. He was also the state expert on witchcraft, crop circles and cattle mutilations, of which there were many during that particular summer.
The month was July, the temperature hot. There were no trees at the drilling location for shade. The height of the eighty’s drilling boom, every man on the drilling rig was a weevil (translation: a person having no earthly idea what they are doing). Anne, Ray, and I weren’t worried because we had our chicken fries to look forward to three times a day. Returning to the rig after breakfast on the second day of drilling, a state trooper, directing traffic and pulling selected cars to the side of the road, halted us.
“Where you folks headed?”
“We’re drilling a well about a mile from here. What’s the deal, Officer?”
“Someone cut up a cow out there last night,” he said, pointing to the fenced pasture. “Sliced its udder smack-dab off and not a drop of blood anywhere.”
Anne glanced at me, and I looked at Ray. “What’s going on?”
“A coven,” he said. “Last night was a full moon.”
Ray grinned as he glanced first at Anne and then at me.
“You are kidding, aren’t you?”
The question earned him a dirty look. “Mighty big RV you got there. Mind if I take a look inside?”
“Help yourself,” I said, my easy acquiescence earning another dirty look, this one from Anne.
The trooper did not wait for a second invitation, hurrying up the short flight of stairs to the RV’s opened door. He glanced inside the tiny bathroom and the bedroom in back before satisfying himself that Anne, Ray, and I were not part of the coven that had mutilated the cow the previous night. We were soon on the road again to the drilling rig.
“Why did you let him look inside the RV? He didn’t have a search warrant,” Anne asked.
“We have nothing to hide,” I answered. “I thought that he might give us more information about what happened last night.”
Ray shook his head. “Fat chance of that! He probably couldn’t get his mouth open because of that frown on his face.”
A dust devil blowing across the location as we turned off the highway ended our talk of covens and cattle mutilations. The location, a bare four acres, bulldozed from an Oklahoma wheat field, lay miles from the nearest town or farmhouse. The roar of a giant diesel engine accosted our hearing when we stopped and opened the RV’s door.
Ray and Anne relaxed as I walked across the location to the drilling rig known as a double because it drilled with stands of pipe consisting of two thirty-foot sections. The mast poked seventy or eighty feet into clear Oklahoma sky. The doghouse and drill floor were twelve feet above the ground, and reached by climbing a steep flight of metal stairs. The sample man had tied my drilling samples to the handrail at the base of the stairs. I decided to check the drill floor anyway before returning to the RV with the samples.
I sprinted up the steep twenty-four steps leading to the doghouse. Three roughnecks acknowledged my appearance by melting away without a word. Ralph, the driller, stared across the wheat field, rubbed his oily hand through his equally oily three day-old beard, and spat tobacco juice on the ground below. I glanced at the Geolograph, the mechanical device on the rig floor telling how deep we had drilled. Ralph continued to ignore me.
This wasn’t my first rodeo. I hadn’t been on a drilling rig in more than a year, but I knew the hierarchy and flow of a drilling hole as well as I knew my own name. Ralph looked older than his thirty-odd years, the shirt he wore as black as his oily hair. Still, he had drilling intelligence, maybe more than me. He knew more about the subsurface of Grant County, Oklahoma than any person I knew. He could immediately pick “pay dirt” and he didn’t tolerate fools. Neither did I.
“Was that last drilling break in the Layton?”
“Yep,” he said.
“You heard about the cow cutting, up the road?”
“Yep,” he said again.
“And?” I asked, trying to draw him out.
Ralph spit a wad of tobacco over the railing and started away, toward the rig’s diesel engines.
“Weren’t no alien spacecraft,” he said, his words quickly overcome by the mechanical drone of the giant diesel outside the door.
“Then what was it?”
Ralph turned and looked at me. He wasn’t smiling. “Don’t pay to ask too many questions around here about such as that.”
He gave me no chance to ask any more questions, hurrying down the steep stairs as fast as his gimpy leg would let him. I glanced again at the Geolograph and then followed him. I found Anne and Ray watching a portable television while eating potato chips and drinking Coke, Anne’s omnipresent drink of choice.
They both gave me looks of apprehension when I said, “Maybe we better lock the door tonight.”
Many strange and eerie events had already occurred in Oklahoma that summer. When one occurred, the news stations always interviewed Sheriff Arch, the owner of our chicken fry café in Pond Creek. That evening, we had a lively discussion as we drove to Pond Creek for our nightly feast.
“Let’s confront Sheriff Arch,” Anne said. “He’ll tell us what he thinks is going on around here.”
“Maybe he knows what’s happening because he’s a Satanist himself. Maybe we should keep our questions to ourselves.”
“Bull,” Ray said. “I agree with Anne. Let’s ask him. You think he’ll put a hex spell on us, or something?”
Anne snickered when I said, “Maybe.”
“Well it’s two to one,” she said. “Tonight we talk with Sheriff Arch.”
True to its name, the Curb Café sat just north of a big bend in the highway as it passed through Pond Creek. The café was large and almost always crowded. When Sheriff Arch was around, he held court at a big booth in the corner near the kitchen.
Every farmer, rancher and shop owner entering the restaurant paid him homage, shaking his hand before taking a seat for dinner. An imposing figure, he ruled the County by his mere presence. Maybe, but intimidated is how I felt, as apparently so did Ray. Not so Anne. Walking straight to his booth, she extended her hand and introduced herself. She was also an imposing figure and had the savvy and intelligence to play to his ego. It was easy to see, he was immediately impressed.
“I’m Anne, Sheriff, and these are my friends Eric and Ray. May we pick your brain a bit?”
“About what, little lady?”
“Satanists and cattle mutilations. You are the expert and everyone in Oklahoma knows that.”
“Slide in here, little lady,” he said.
Anne slid into the booth beside Sheriff Arch. Looking skeptical, Ray followed her and so did I.
“The usual,” Ray said to Chloe, our regular waitress.
She smiled and walked away toward the kitchen, knowing without asking that we all wanted chicken fried steak dinners.
“I see you like our specialty,” Sheriff Arch said. “We like to think it’s the best in the state.”
“Best I’ve ever had,” I said.
“What do you think, little lady?” Sheriff Arch asked Anne.
“Are you kidding? I have gained three pounds in the last week.”
“A pound of that came from your bread pudding,” I said. “It’s Anne’s favorite desert.”
“Good, good. Now what can I do for you?” he said.
“There was a cattle mutilation just west of here last night. State police stopped and questioned us. The tool pusher on the rig we are on said it wasn’t aliens responsible.”
Sheriff Arch chuckled. “More likely the Blackwell Coven. They been fairly active lately.”
Ray said, “The Blackwell Coven? You mean there is more than one?”
“Depends on who you ask,” he answered.
Anne gave me a glance I knew meant "how does he know how many covens there are unless he is a member?" She must have been afraid to ask. Both Ray and I were.
Instead, she said, “Can you tell us exactly what a cattle mutilation entails?”
Sheriff Arch rubbed his grizzled chin and nodded. “It’s always the same. The farmer finds the cow dead and drained of blood, its sexual organs surgically removed. Its eyes and tongue also gone. No blood on the ground. Not a drop.”
“Is the tool pusher on our rig correct when he said the mutilations aren’t related to aliens?” I asked.
“You don’t really believe in little green men from Mars, do you?” he asked, staring me straight in the eye.
“No, but . . .”
“Then give me a little more credit,” he said, his tone suddenly stern, as if he were a teacher admonishing a slow student. “These mutilations are done by Satanists, plain and simple.”
“But how do you know that?” Anne asked.
“I know because the mutilations always happen during satanic holidays or eves to holidays.”
“Such as?” Anne goaded.
“Yesterday was the first day of July, when Satanists and pagans celebrate the Demon Revels. It’s a celebration of female sexuality and the udder of a cow is often taken for the ceremony. That’s what happened last night.”
“You mean Satanists have celebrations, like Christians?”
Our chicken fried dinners arrived before Sheriff Arch could answer Anne’s question. After the waitress left our table, he said, “All the Christian holidays are based on pagan activities that preceded them by centuries.”
“Even Easter?” Ray asked.
“Son, do you know what estrus means?”
Ray stuttered a bit and said, “Well, not really.”
“It’s when an animal goes into heat. Eastre was the Anglo-Saxon Goddess of fertility, a goddess associated with eggs and rabbits. Their holiday for Eastre took place around the Vernal Equinox of spring. Does any of this sound familiar?”
“So these Satanists are really pagans, acting out ancient beliefs?” Anne asked.
“That’s right,” Sheriff Arch said.
“Then why are they so secretive? We do have freedom of religion in this country,” she said.
“Because the congregation at the local Methodist Church doesn’t kill cattle that aren’t theirs, then cut them up for use in some pagan ceremony.”
“Is that all they do that’s illegal?” I asked.
Sheriff Arch motioned Chloe to bring us a refill on our coffee. After she had filled our cups and left the table with a smile, he said, “There’s rumor that they do quite a bit more than cattle mutilations.”
“Such as?” Ray asked.
“Sacrifice, of the human variety.”
After hearing Sheriff Arch’s words, Ray and I simply sat there, staring at him with our eyes wide and mouths open. Anne wasn’t so content and asked, “Do you know any Satanists?”
“Yes I do, little lady, and so may you. Ralph Thompson, the daylight driller on the rig that’s drilling your well is an elder in the Blackwell Coven.”
A near-full moon lighted the highway on our return trip to the drilling rig that night, the talk of pagans, cattle mutilations and possible human sacrifices resounding in our heads. The last two weeks of June had seen record rainfall and cool temperatures. That all had changed with the first week of July. The RV’s air-conditioner worked overtime as we pulled onto the location. It was after nine, the sky already dark as I parked the large vehicle and turned off the engine.
Sated by chicken fries and mashed potatoes, Ray and Anne prepared for some light reading, followed quickly by bedtime. I wasn’t so lucky. Leaving them to their idleness, I headed for the rig floor to retrieve my drilling samples. What I found was a moon-bright location and not a single roughneck in sight. Far across the wheat field, a coyote bayed at the moon.
The late seventies drilling boom featured three things—fast money, prominent drugs and rampant inexperience. The most experienced roughneck on the night tower had less than a year of oil field work under his belt. The rest, well . . .
My samples weren’t waiting for me at the usual place and I climbed the stairs to the drill floor in search of the driller. Instead, at the top of the flight I found an empty doghouse and a fresh joint of pipe turning slowly. There was no one in sight. Above the pungent odor of burning diesel fuel, I smelled something wafting up from below: the unmistakable scent of pot. I started down the stairs toward the smell. Following my nose to the mud bin, I found two of the roughnecks. They were young, early twenties, and from the look in their disjointed eyes, both stoned.
“Did you fellows forget to catch my samples?”
The two young men answered me with nervous giggles. Realizing I wouldn’t get much more information from them, I walked around the drilling rig in search of the driller. A large rotary rig, powered by twin diesel engines is very noisy. Most oil patch workers have significant hearing loss after years on the job. A drilling rig is also a very dangerous place to work and roughnecks with missing fingers is a common sight. Fingers aren’t the only things lost on a drilling rig. Those that aren’t careful often lose larger limbs, and even their lives. High pressure gas spewing uncontrollably from a broken wellhead had blown a man’s head off that very year. I hadn’t witnessed the accident, but I knew the man’s father.
As I rounded the drilling rig, a heavy steel cheater bar tumbled off the rig floor, missing my head by inches and bouncing as it hit the ground. With my heart racing from a rush of adrenaline, I glanced up to get a glimpse of what or who was responsible. Seeing no one there, I raced up the steep steps to find the dog house and rig floor deserted. When I retraced my steps down the steep ramp, I found my missing samples had miraculously appeared in their normal place, tied to the bottom rail. Feeling I would get no satisfaction as to how the accident had occurred, I started back toward the RV. Waiting for me at the vehicle’s door was a large pentagram, painted in the sand with oil. On the front step was a headless chicken, its muscles still twitching.
I rushed into the RV, my heart racing. “You’re not going to believe this,” I shouted to get Anne’s and Ray’s attention. “Quick, come see.”
“There’s a good movie on,” Ray said.
“And I’m reading the last ten pages of my book,” Anne added.
“I don’t care. You have to see this.”
“See what?” she asked.
“Hurry,” I implored.
Finally convinced, they followed me out the RV’s side door and I immediately realized something was amiss. There was no dead chicken and the pentagram painted in the sand had miraculously disappeared. Anne and Ray were both behind me and I could feel their staring eyes on the back of my neck. They weren’t the only ones. Every roughneck on the crew, and the driller, had suddenly appeared. Standing on the drill floor, they were all watching Anne, Ray and me, waiting to see what we were going to do.
I didn’t give them the satisfaction. Brushing past Ray and Anne without explaining why, I quickly returned to the RV. After exchanging their own perplexed glances, they followed me through the door.
Anne always had a sharp tongue and Ray laughed when she asked, “Hitting the hooch a little early tonight?”
I made sure the door was closed and the shades down before I answered. And then I blurted, “Someone tried to kill me. They painted a pentagram in front of the door and left a headless chicken for me to find.”
“Okay, Wildman,” Ray said. “You have our attention. What’s the punch line?”
“There is no punch line. I think every roughneck working this rig is a Satanist. I also think we are in danger.”
“You two are in danger. I’m going back to OKC tomorrow, after breakfast,” he said.
“So, you’re just going to desert us?”
“You knew I was leaving tomorrow. I’m not deserting anyone.”
“Have you flipped out?” Anne asked, shaking her head. “You must be making up this entire story.”
“No way,” I said. “It happened just the way I told you.”
I had trouble sleeping that night, half expecting a bomb, or something worse, to fly through the window of the RV. Anne and Ray had no such trouble, both positive I was either pulling their legs, or else partaking of some of the roughneck’s pot. As I lay there, wide awake, I wished I had a little pot to help me sleep. I apparently didn’t need the help and someone banging on the RV’s door roused me from a deep trance. When I glanced at my watch, I saw it was three in the morning.
“What is it?” I asked the excited driller, a kid no older than twenty-two.
“We’re taking a kick. What should I do?”
Pulling on my pants, I rushed out the door and headed for the rig floor. “Stop drilling. Pull up a stand or two and circulate bottoms up. Get a measurement on the mud and add some weight if you have to. Bring me samples every fifteen minutes until I tell you to stop.”
“I’m sort of green,” the young driller admitted. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
There was a gas detector on the rig floor and it was registering somewhere far off the chart. Reaching the dog house before the young driller, I quickly engaged the clutch.
“You got a gas bubble coming up. Hurry and do what I say before this rig lights up like a Roman candle.”
I could feel the roughneck’s stares as they followed my orders, pulling up and circulating. I watched the hydrocarbon detector as it went off the chart, enough unexpected gas to burn the rig to the ground if we hadn’t interceded. By four in the morning we had things under control and I had called for a drill-stem test to determine just how much gas we really had. With the results more than twelve hours away, I slept as Ray drove us to Pond Creek for our morning chicken fry.
“We’re here, Superman,” Anne said, shaking my shoulder to rouse me.
With the groggy head of a person that hadn’t slept much in thirty-six hours, I followed them into the café. We had a surprise when we entered the door.
Ray’s wife Kathy had driven up from Oklahoma City and awaited us in a large booth. “I’ve had all the fun I can take,” Ray said. “Kathy’s here to take me home.”
Forgetting Ray’s pronouncement, we were soon in the throes of, what else but, chicken-fried steak and eggs. Between bites, the three of us conveyed our story to Kathy and she was enthralled.
“Let’s stay,” Kathy said. “I’ve never seen a Satanist before.”
She was serious and Ray soon acquiesced. They followed us back to the drilling rig, Anne and Kathy spending much of the day catching up on gossip. Ray slept while I observed the pulling of the drill-stem test.
After the large kick on the gas detector, I was expecting gas to surface, good pressures and every indication of a potentially fine well. I was totally disappointed when the last stand of drill pipe was extracted from the borehole. As the driller started back into the hole with the drill bit, I headed for the RV for an hour or so of much needed sleep.
Irv was a petroleum engineer and one of the owners of the oil company drilling the well. He woke us early the next morning with a knock on the RV’s door. Anne started a pot of coffee and we all soon had jolts of caffeine coursing through our systems. I needed it. After draining the coffee pot, we headed to Pond Creek for breakfast, Irv’s eyes gleaming when our server brought our usual: chicken-fried steak and eggs with cream gravy.
Between bites, Irv said, “The rig is shutting down and circulating for the Fourth of July. You may as well take a break because they won’t start drilling again until six A.M. on the Fifth.”
“We’re leaving it to you,” Ray said. “Kathy and I are going back to OKC.”
After picking up the tab, Irv headed for the front door. “Ron and I have another well drilling in Alfalfa County. Got to check it out. See you two in a couple of days.”
Anne and I soon found ourselves alone in the large booth. “It’s too far to go home and come back in just thirty-six hours,” she said.
“And too damn hot to stay on location. What say we drive to Ponca City? We could go to the sports car races. Surely there is an RV park around someplace.”
Anne agreed and it felt good to drive in a direction away from the drilling rig and know that we didn’t have to get back in ninety minutes or so. Ponca City isn’t far from Pond Creek and we made the drive in about an hour. I was still worn out from lack of sleep so I took a nap in the passenger seat while Anne drove. We were just pulling into town when I awoke, feeling rested and still full from breakfast.
Ponca City is too far off the beaten path for most tourists, a pity as the city and region are steeped in history. Ponca was the home of oil baron E.W. Marland, a man who arrived in town penniless, soon drilled his way to an enormous wealth. In 1922 he controlled a tenth of the world’s oil supply, yet died penniless. His second wife Lydie was his adopted daughter before he had the adoption annulled. Even before the adoption, she was his niece by the marriage with his first wife, Virginia. Their mansion, built at the cost of more than five million dollars, even in the twenties, remains one of the major attractions of Ponca City. At the risk of sounding like a travelogue, check out Ponca if you ever get the chance.
Anne and I weren’t interested in history that particular day. We had come to Ponca City to get away from the hot and noisy drilling rig, and to partake in the holiday festivities happening there during the Fourth of July. Since the sixties, the Sports Car Club of America had staged races at a one point five mile track, constructed from city roads, just east of town. The track abutted Lake Ponca. During the Fourth of July, the normal 20,000 or so population of Ponca City would double. Anne and I felt very lucky we didn’t have to search for a room to have a place to spend the night.
All the camping facilities around Lake Ponca were taken by racers and spectators so we continued east to Kaw Lake where we found an RV park. We checked in and there we stayed, resting and recuperating, until nearly six when we headed back toward Ponca City in search of a place to eat dinner.
We were apprehensive about finding an equal to our favorite café in Pond Creek. When we reached downtown Ponca City, cordoned off for only pedestrian traffic, we waded into the ongoing street party and quickly realized we had nothing to worry about.
Sports car racing had concluded for the day and it seemed like most of the spectators and racers alike had descended on downtown Ponca City. A rock band was playing on a raised stage, electrifying the summer night with drum rolls and guitar riffs. Street vendors lined both sides of the street selling everything from hot dogs to Indian tacos. Anne and I each got a Budweiser in a plastic cup and a hot dog. Finding a vacant spot on a park bench, we ate, drank and watched the passing crowd. We soon had a pleasant surprise, seeing a couple that we knew from Oklahoma City.
It was Andy and Cathy. Yes, I know, but we knew lots of Cathy’s at the time. This Cathy was Anne’s ex-roommate, the person that had introduced us. Andy was a friend that we had introduced to Cathy. Well, you get the drill. Anyway, Andy raced motorcycles and sports cars but this weekend they were in town only as spectators. The crowd was now shoulder-to-shoulder and we decided to find a pub, drink a few more beers and catch up on what we had done since last seeing each other.
Cathy and Anne were as close as sisters and neither of us took offense when she asked, “Have you two gained weight?”
“Too many chicken fries,” I said.
Anne explained about our new favorite café in Pond Creek. “If we don’t hurry and finish this well, we’ll both be ten pounds heavier by the time we get back to Oklahoma City.”
Andy laughed when Cathy said, “More like twenty pounds, if you ask me.”
“How is the well going?” Andy asked, changing the subject.
“Running high and looking good,” I answered. I explained about the drill-stem test. “The results were less than promising but we had one heck of a show of gas. Maybe the zone was plugged with drilling mud, or something.”
Cathy elbowed Anne. “I don’t want to put a crimp in the conversation, but that man sitting across the room has been staring at us ever since we sat down. Does anyone know him?”
It was Ralph, the day tower driller and, according to Sheriff Arch, the spiritual leader of the Blackwell coven. He suddenly saw us looking, got up from the table and headed for the door. After motioning Anne, Cathy and Andy to wait for me, I followed after him.
“Ralph, wait. I need to talk with you.”
I could tell he heard me but he kept walking without turning around. It didn’t matter because I was younger, and even with an extra ten pounds or so of weight, I was still faster. Pursuing him through the crowd, I soon caught him and grabbed his shoulder.
"Why are you running from me?”
He halted, wheeled around. Crossing his arms, he stared into my eyes. “What is it you want, mister?”
“You know me. I’m Eric, the geologist on the rig.”
“I know who you are.”
“Then maybe you can answer a few questions. Do you mind?”
The street party in downtown Ponca City had reached a crowded and noisy crescendo. Ralph glanced around when a slightly tipsy couple banged into him as they passed on the sidewalk.
“Not here,” he said.
After our ensuing conversation, I left Ralph on the street and returned to the pub to rejoin Anne, Cathy and Andy. They had finished a pitcher of beer or two while I was gone and had started on yet another. They were all happy, to say the least.
“Where have you been?” Anne asked.
“Sorry. I caught up with Ralph but didn’t get any answers to my questions.”
“You two better watch yourselves. Anne told us about the cow mutilation and the supposed accident on the rig. I think you should leave well enough alone,” Cathy said, wagging her finger at me.
She wasn’t always right, but she was never at a loss for an opinion. I took her advice with a grain of salt. Andy had his trademark smirk on his face and motioned our server for another pitcher of beer.
Budweiser, Miller and Coors beer is all three point two percent alcohol in Oklahoma. The breweries had an argument with the State legislature in the seventies over who has the right to distribute their products. The major breweries only want their licensed distributors (read insider deal) to do the distribution. The State of Oklahoma thinks anyone should have the right. To this day, Bud, Miller and Coors sell only three point two percent, and no strong beer, in Oklahoma, and then only in grocery stores, not liquor stores. Even weak beer will eventually catch up with you, as any person stopped for a DUI will tell you. It had already caught up with Andy and Cathy and I was glad they were staying in a nearby hotel within walking distance. Anne and I weren’t so lucky. We still had to return to the RV Park on Kaw Lake and hook up our sewage and electricity. Realizing the problem, I asked the server to bring me an iced tea.
“Ralph didn’t tell you anything?” Anne soon asked.
“No, but I told him where we are staying. He’s coming by later to talk with us.”
“Are you nuts?” Cathy asked. “You two could be tonight’s human sacrifice.”
“She’s right, Wildman.” Andy said. “If I were you I’d stay right here in town tonight.”
“Right on,” Cathy said. “And if you’re too bull-headed to listen, at least leave Anne here. Surely you don’t intend to risk her life as well.”
“I don’t intend to risk anyone’s life,” I answered defensively. “I’m sure Ralph is perfectly safe.”
“Yeah, right!” Cathy said. “One minute you tell us he tried to kill you, the next minute he’s your best bud.”
“Lighten up on him,” Andy said. “Obviously he has a death wish.”
Andy had a smirk on his face and was obviously goading Cathy on. His ploy was working. She was more than slightly tipsy when she grabbed Anne’s arm and said, “My roomie is staying with us tonight. You can go get yourself skinned alive if you want, but leave Anne out of your misguided decision.”
Cathy was a pretty blonde with big brown eyes but when she had too much to drink, her razor tongue became even sharper. That night she was exceeding even her limit.
“Fine,” I said. “I told Ralph I would meet him and that’s what I intend to do. Anne can stay here with you two and I will pick her up tomorrow.”
“Screw that, Tarzan,” Anne said. “You’re not always the brightest bulb in the lamp, but where you go, I go.”
We had barely left the Ponca City pub after saying goodnight to Andy and Cathy, and I could tell Anne was not in a very good mood.
“What’s the matter, Little Honey?” I finally asked.
“We’re about to be killed and you ask me what’s the matter?”
“What are you talking about?”
“You know what I’m talking about. How could you invite a Satanist over to our RV for a late night visit? Are you a total ding-a-ling?”
“Ralph doesn’t seem dangerous to me,” I said.
“Yeah, that’s probably what that poor cow said.”
Like Cathy, Anne had a quick wit and sharp tongue and I couldn’t help but laugh. She wasn’t laughing, turning away from me in the passenger seat with both her arms and legs tightly crossed. If body language could speak, hers was saying, nay shouting, that I was a complete idiot. Anne was also a great judge of character and I began doubting my own decision to invite Ralph to visit us at the RV Park.
Kaw Lake Park was poorly lighted and I had some trouble re-hooking the sewage and electricity. It was already quite late when I completed the task, went inside and relaxed on the sofa, drawing a deep breath of exhaustion. Anne joined me, her smile indicating even if we were about to die because of my stupid decision to invite Ralph to the RV, she didn’t hold a grudge. A good thing, because less than ten minutes passed before we heard the throaty exhausts of a Harley pull to a stop outside the RV. We waited, listening as someone scraped their boots on the ramp leading up the door. Then footsteps . . .
Anne made a face as I opened the RV’s door. “Come in,” I said.
Ralph wasn’t alone. A woman named Goldie accompanied him, and Ralph introduced her only by first name, and as his soul mate.
Goldie had long blonde hair decorated with pink, azure and purple beads, and had big expressive blue eyes. She wore a leather-fringed jacket beaded with the same colors, along with American Indian totem signs. She seemed like a sixties flower child that had put on twenty pounds in the seventies to become the quintessential earth mother. Ralph also wore a matching leather-fringed coat. For the second time since meeting him, I saw him without a hat or helmet. His dark hair was also long, draping almost to his shoulders, and I could see he was much younger than I’d previously thought. Pointing to the built-in seating around the stationary table, I invited the Sonny and Cher look-alikes to join us.
“Would anyone like a beer?” I asked.
Ralph and Goldie both nodded so I brought a round of Coors from the RV’s little refrigerator before sliding in beside Anne. The lighting was dim. When Goldie began rolling a joint on the table top, the atmosphere became suddenly surreal. The hallucinatory odor of burning pot permeated the RV as Goldie lit the joint, took a deep drag and then handed it to Ralph. After taking his own pull from the joint, he passed it to Anne. She took a hesitant puff and quickly passed it back to Ralph. Ralph shook his head and nodded in my direction. I’m a non-smoker and no fan of the effects of marijuana, but I could already see the big picture. If Ralph and Goldie were going to impart their knowledge of Satanism and cattle mutilations to us, they first wanted us to join them in a simple illegal act.
Anne’s eyes grew large as I took the pencil-thin joint, drew a deep lungful of the smoke and held it for a long moment before blowing aromatic smoke rings toward the RV’s ceiling.
“Like it?” Goldie asked. “Home-grown from our own private patch.”
She was grinning, as was Ralph and Anne. I soon realized that so was I. When I arose to get us more beer from the refrigerator I almost fell on my face.
“Creeper weed,” Ralph said. “It takes a while to catch up with you, but when it does . . .”
Anne lit a candle, put it in the center of the table and turned out the lights. Along with the pungent odor of marijuana, rising smoke and flickering candle light, all we needed was a little heavy-metal music. We made do with the chorus of crickets and tree frogs outside the RV. Finally, Ralph spoke.
“Word is going around that you’re meddling in things that aren’t your business.”
“Is that why someone tried to kill me the other day?”
“No one tried to kill you. That was an accident.”
It unnerved me that Ralph knew what I was talking about, even if it were an accident. “The pentagram and dead chicken weren’t accidents,” I said.
“The boys was just trying to warn you to mind your own business.”
“Or nothing. They didn’t mean nothing by it,” Ralph said.
“We wouldn’t turn you in, even if you are Satanists,” Anne said.
Goldie laughed and rolled her eyes. “We’re not Satanists,” she said.
“Sheriff Arch called you Satanists. If he’s wrong about that, then what are you?” I asked.
“We worship the moon, the stars and the cycles of the earth and planets,” Goldie said. “Some people call us pagans.”
“Pagans?” asked Anne.
Warming to the conversation, Goldie spoke up and said, “It’s the oldest religion in Oklahoma, and maybe the world.”
It was my turn to ask, “How could you possibly know that?”
“Because of the excavations at the Spiro Mound sites in southeastern Oklahoma. The site was the hub of religion and government for prehistoric Indians for thousands of miles. The religion is connected to the Druids and Stonehenge and is likely the world’s oldest religion.”
Ralph droned in. “Like the people at Stonehenge and Spiro, we still celebrate the cycles of the earth and stars.”
“You worship cycles?” Anne asked.
“We worship the universal pulse that controls everything,” Goldie said. “We call ourselves the Southern Death Cult, after one of Spiro’s branches. Some of the followers are part of the Buzzard Cult.”
“How many followers are there?” asked Anne.
“Thousands likely,” Ralph answered. “No one exactly knows but there are branches all over the world.”
“And what about cattle mutilations?” I asked.
“We naturally get blamed for lots of things we don’t do. Sometimes coyotes kill cows in these parts.”
“What about the removal of udders and sexual parts with almost razor-like precision? How could a coyote, or any other wild animal, do that?” I asked.
“Bacteria,” Ralph answered. “It’s a proven fact if you leave a carcass outside in these parts, bacteria will remove those parts in a matter of hours.”
Anne caused my heart to skip a beat when she asked, “Yeah, if you aren’t Satanists, then how do you explain your use of human sacrifice?”
The looks on both Ralph and Goldie’s faces told me that Anne had offended them. Like experienced diplomats, they both took deep breaths before speaking. Before answering, Goldie rolled another joint.
After making a production of lighting it, she took a deep drag before passing it to Ralph. Ralph took his own deep drag and I could see by the expression in his dark eyes that Anne’s comment had not made him happy. This time, when he passed the joint to Anne, she also took a long toke, as did I when she handed it to me.
As a Vietnam vet, I am far from a virgin when it comes to drugs. I like beer, but that doesn’t mean that I have never sampled the weed. This weed was different. By my second puff I was stoned. I stifled a giggle when I observed the hurt expressions on Ralph and Goldie’s faces.
“The Southern Death Cult doesn’t practice human sacrifice,” Ralph finally said. He giggled himself when he added, “Maybe a chicken or two, but nothing more.”
At this point, Anne began laughing uncontrollably and Goldie, Ralph and I soon joined her. I staggered up to the refrigerator and got us more Coors.
When I returned with the beer, I asked, “If you don’t practice human sacrifices then why have a name as ominous as the Southern Death Cult?”
“We couldn’t have made that one up if we’d tried. Southern Death Cult is the original name the Indians used. No one really knows why.”
“So why all the secrecy if you’re not really Satanists?” Anne asked.
“Oklahoma is the hub of the Bible Belt. The only Southern most of our neighbors understand is Baptist. What we came to tell you is you got a problem with the well.”
“What kind of problem?”
“The spot you are drilling on is hallowed, an old Indian burial ground.”
“Are you sure? I never found anything in the literature. How do you know?”
“It’s been passed down and there’s a curse against anyone ever making use of that spot of land. You’re drilling almost the exact location.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing and neither could Anne. “What should we do? We’ve spent too much money to quit now.”
“This ain’t about money; it’s about sacred land. You got to make amends.”
“Or what?”
At this point, Goldie’s facial expression went from a pretty smile to an angry frown. Standing from the table, she said, “Seems like we’ve done all we can, Ralph. Let’s get the hell outa here.”
“Now wait a minute,” Anne said. “My father was a Baptist minister. You can’t just come in here and tell us you’re members of a cult called Southern Death and that you are descended from Indians who believe in cycles of the universe and expect to convert us in one fell swoop! Tell us what it is you want us to do. At least respect us enough to give us a chance.”
Anne’s tirade caught them both by surprise, as well as me. Goldie and Ralph exchanged glances and Goldie resumed her place at the table. I went to the refrigerator and got us more beer. Then I said, “Now, please tell us what to do.”
Ralph drank some beer and leaned forward in his seat. “All right,” he said. “If you’re really serious, this is what you need to know.”
By the following night, Anne and I were back on the rig. As a scientist, I was skeptical of Ralph and Goldie’s beliefs, to say the least! As a person that had drilled many very risky wells, I knew better than to think I knew it all. Like Bob Dylan said, “The only thing I know for certain is that I don’t know anything for certain.”
“You have to make a sacrifice to appease the spirits,” Ralph had told us. “Otherwise the well will be dry.”
The sacrifice, according to Ralph, had to be something from the heart, something important to us.
That night, late, I walked out to the borehole. I had brought something from Sheriff Arch’s Café. It was a chicken-fried steak dinner, complete with baked potato and double helping of cream gravy. I said a few words and then returned to the RV. My meager sacrifice, probably fueled by my lack of belief, was all I could convince myself to muster.
When we logged the well, it looked great. Money in the bank, I thought! We sat production casing and began testing the wonderful-looking zones. I could tell you the well came on for a thousand barrels of oil per day. It didn’t. We tested every great looking zone in the hole. Finally, after scratching our heads, we plugged the well as a dry hole.
Drilling for oil is hard. Finding oil is harder. After many years of watching wells drilled into the earth, I have learned one thing, however, that particular thing escapes me at the moment. The well in Grant County should have been a monster discovery. Instead, it was an unexplainable dry hole. Well, maybe not completely unexplainable.

Anne and I returned to Oklahoma City, after a last chicken fry dinner, and moved on with our lives and to other oil deals but I’ve often wondered about the Southern Death Cult well in Grant County. Should we have taken Ralph and Goldie more seriously? Maybe, but if the land we were drilling was really hallowed, I doubt any sacrifice would have sufficed. Later that summer, we visited them at their farm near Blackwell. Hey, but that’s another story waiting to be told


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.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

SOLDIERS - a paranormal short story

Jim and I crossed the state line at noon, black Kansas thunderclouds chasing up behind and miles of highway still ahead.  Swirls of ocher powder daubed the once pale sky and tumbleweeds rolled along the highway like steel balls in a giant pinball machine.  A heavy wind whipped the car and scared pheasant and jackrabbits lolling in the ditch.
Awakening from a fitful dream, I rolled up the windows of Jim’s old beater and pulled a bandanna over my face.  Earlier that morning we’d left Omaha, stopping only once to relieve ourselves by the side of the road.  Jim’s mood, like the weather, was foul and he hadn’t spoken in two hours.  Refraining from disturbing his trance, I folded my arms, braced myself against the seat and closed my eyes, trying to lock out the storm.  Jim’s mood and the piston drone knocking beneath the hood.
Three miles across the border, the storm caught us, turning dust into rivulets of mud on the car’s hood.  Rain blistered the windshield leaving only flashes of visibility between labored swaths of slow moving wiper blades.  Then a billboard, barely visible through the downpour, alerted us to a truck stop up ahead.  When we reached it, we found a weather-beaten filling station beside a roadside juke joint.
Jim said, “I’m tired of fighting this storm,” and eased into the gravel parking lot, but the storm hadn’t tired of jousting us.  As we ran for the front door, it bombarded us with falling missiles, thunder shuddering the walls as we entered.  We removed our wet ponchos and shook ourselves like two retrievers coming out of a pond, then gazed around the room until our eyes adjusted.
Five dismal patrons gazed back at us.  Strobe shadows, cast by neon beer signs, cloaked four dingy walls and through the pallor, a middle-aged bartender behind the counter, mindlessly polishing a glass with a white rag.
In back, a beefy man played pool alone.  The faded rose tattoo on his hairy arm matched the exact hue of his sleeveless T-shirt.  Before turning away to continue his lonely game, he gave us a a quick once-over.  A man and woman, immersed in their own whispered conversation, glanced up when we arrived.  An old man in a wheel chair watched us approach the bar, his rheumy eyes never blinking.
Jim slapped his palm against the counter, stared at the bartender and said, “Two draws, and a tequila shooter.”
“You boys old enough to drink?” the bartender asked.
Jim glared without answering but I said, “We’re both twenty-one.”
Red hair and ruddy Irish complexion melded with Jim’s high Indian cheekbones, and even when he smiled he seemed angry.  He wasn’t smiling.  With a frown on his own craggy face, the bartender glared back at him until he finally noticed our short hair and clean shaves.
“Yes,” I said.
“Infantry,” Jim said.
Muscles twitched in the bartender’s neck and he smoothed the greasy black hair of his head and then his mustache, with his fingers.
“Guess if you’re old enough to fight, you’re old enough to drink.”
He laughed and it quickly drew into a dry hacking cough.
“Damn right,” I said.
Watching us from the corner of his eye, the sullen bartender drew the beer.  As he did, Jim stared bullet holes in his back, even as I nudged him the ribs with my elbow.  The bartender returned with two beers and a tequila shooter and Jim immediately killed the shot/ When he slammed the glass against the bar, sharp sound echoed like the crack of a small caliber rifle through the room.
After finishing his beer in one long pull, he nodded at the two empty glasses and said, “Again.”
Again, errant muscles twitched in the bartender’s neck as he drew another beer from the tap and reached behind him for the tequila.  Jim finished his second shot and glanced around the room like a stray cat in a strange barn.
“Easy,” I said, eyeing his empty glass.  “Got ourselves a long way to go yet, buddy.”
With a smirk, he said, “In a hurry, sport?”
Intent on the couple in the back of the room, he didn’t see me shake my head.  Looking like a middle-aged farmer, the man was dressed in overalls and baseball cap.  The woman’s sallow, weather-beaten face pegged her as his wife.  We watched the farmer slam his hand against the table, hard enough to rattle both of their beer mugs, and glare as if he were about to strike her.
“If you had a lick of sense, woman, you’d know what a fool question that is.”
Apparently, she didn’t and her unspoken reply filled the room with silent reverberations.  As we watched the scene unfold, Jim’s shoulders tensed and he stepped away from the bar.  Grabbing his elbow, I held on.
“Not this time.”
Halting, Jim tried to stare me down, but I stood my ground, shaking my head.  Then, immersed in our trance, we both jumped when the bartender slapped his hand against the counter.  When we wheeled around, we found him leaning over the bar with an amused look on his whiskered face.
“Didn’t mean to scare you boys. ‘Nother beer?”
“Sure,” I said.
He asked our names when he returned.
“I’m Paul and this is Jim.”
“Proud to meet you.  Name’s Ezekiel, but people round here just call me Zeke.”
I shook his hand; Jim didn’t bother.  Instead, he asked, “What’s the story on the old man in the wheelchair?”
“Rivers is his name.  We call him Old Man Rivers,” he said, chuckling at his little joke.
With a lidless stare, the old man in the wheelchair glared at us through the crumpled mass of oblique wrinkles obliterating his withered face.  Large angry gaps pitted his features, weathered and spongy as fallen white cake, and a half-smoked cigarette rested between gray lips.  Like tangles of red snakes on cold stones, broken capillaries veined his nose and eyes.  With gnarled hands clawing the wheelchair and bony arms like the plastic limbs of a child’s discarded doll, he looked like warmed-over death.
“I’m buying,” Jim said.  “Give him whatever he wants.”
After pouring a shot of bourbon, Zeke tilted back the old man’s head and dribbled liquor into his mouth, causing his blotchy tongue to wriggle like an earthworm growing desperate on a sharp hook.
Jim smiled and said, “Give him another.”
As I was watching Zeke whiskey-nurse the old man, someone tapped my shoulder.  Six inches from my nose, a pool shooter blithely invaded my space, smiling insanely and blinking one discolored eye that looked to me like a spoiled eye yolk.  I backed against the bar.  When he spoke, his stale breath smelled like battery acid gone sour.  Stumbling slowly over his words, he said, “I’m Doyle.  Was a soldier once myself.  Ol’ Man River’s my Daddy.”
I said, “That right?”
Doyle grinned and pumped his head like a long-handled water pump.  “Nah, not really, but I like to call him that.”
Noticing Jim’s amused smile, I backed even further away from the counter, but Doyle pivoted and followed me like a machine gun on a swivel turret.  Then lightning struck, shaking rafters and sucking air from the room like a giant accordion.  Doyle grimaced like a frightened child and drifted back to the red glow emanating from the swaying fixture above the pool table.  Raising an index finger, I signaled Zeke to bring more beer.
When Zeke brought our drinks, he grinned and said, “Doyle’s a little nuts.  Myra takes care of him.
“Lives with the Stewarts,” he said, pointing at the couple in the back.  “Looks after Doyle and takes care of Old Man Rivers.  Brings them in every morning.  Comes and gets them every night.”
Zeke’s mention of Myra prefaced her appearance through the back door - a pretty girl with pale skin and colorless blonde hair.  Thin and wispy fabric clung in blue waves to every subtle feature of her diminutive frame.  And, like a low cloud wafting slowly in a gentle breeze, she approached the counter and squeezed in between Jim and me.  Zeke placed a glass of white wine in front of her.
“You must be Myra,” Jim said, suddenly becoming verbose.
“Rain’s a little heavy outside.  We came in to drink beer and wait it out,” he said.
In a lilting, whimsical voice she replied, “Come in and I will give you shelter from the storm.”
As Jim listened to her recite the line from the old Dylan tune, his neck inexplicably flushed crimson.  As if reading my thoughts, Myra turned and studied me with pale, unnerving eyes.
“The storm is dark and frightening.”
“Yes,” I said, suddenly at a loss for words.
“Have you met Zeke, Doyle and Old Man Rivers?”
“Yes,” I said again.
Dismissing me with a coy nod, she daintily picked up her glass of wine and went to the old man, stroking his neck with cashmere fingers.  As Jim’s had done, River’s ruddy skin flushed crimson.  Static electricity, brushed up by her fingers, raised thin hairs on his head as a booming clap of thunder rocked the roof and wind whistled through the loosely fitted windows.  Again, rain blistered the outside walls and darkness began to drape the windows with muted gloom.
“Myra,” the farmer called.  “Come answer Mary for me.  Tell her what a fool question she’s asking.”
Moving fluidly away from the bar, Myra glided to their table and listened as the woman cupped her hands and whispered something into her ear.  After answering, Myra turned away, leaving the woman to rest her head on the table and weep.
When Myra returned, Jim asked, “What’d she want?”
“Her daughter Emily’s gone.  Car accident separated them.  Mary asked if I knew when Emily would join them again.
“Did they take her to a hospital out of town or something?”
“She’s where she has always been,” Myra answered.
“Then -“
Before I could finish the question lingering in my brain, Myra placed a finger on my lips and shook her head.  “You don’t need to understand,” she said.  “The storm’s not over yet.”
Excited by Myra’s perfume, Jim gently touched her cheek.  She didn’t move away.
“I wouldn’t mind getting to know you a little better,” he said.
“Forever?” she asked.
Letting his hand drop, he caressed the length of her willowy arm and said, “For as long as you want.”
“Don’t talk to her like that!” an angry voice said.
Behind Jim was Doyle, his teeth clenched in an irritated scowl.  He quickly wrapped a hairy arm around Jim’s neck and yanked it forcibly back, Jim slammed an angry fist at Doyle’s jaw, then tossed the surprised attacker over the counter and dived over after him.
A weighted club appeared in Zeke’s hand.  With a practiced swing he tapped Jim lightly on the neck, just below the base of his skull.  Jim sank, unconscious, to the floor.
“Ain’t hurt too bad,” Zeke said, glancing up at me.  “Be just fine when he wakes up.”
After helping drag Jim’s inert body to a chair, I rejoined Myra at the bar.  She was staring at the ceiling as she sipped her wine.  She seemed disinterested in the whole affair.
Glancing at my empty beer, I said, “Better have another.”
“Sure you can handle your liquor?”
“Jim didn’t start it,” I said, frowning at Doyle.
Doyle was still on the floor, grinning like an idiot as he rotated his swollen jaw with his hand.
“Maybe not,” Zeke said as he drew another beer.
Myra said, “Where have you been, Paul?”
“Afghanistan.  We just got back and finished our leave.”
“Saw lots of action, didn’t you?”
“Kill many of the enemy?”
Her question, asked with a curious smile, took me by surprise.  “Maybe a few,” I answered.
“And Jim?”
“I’m sure he killed his share,” I said.  “What’s the name of this town, anyway?”
“Don’t you know?”
“Seems a bit familiar, but no I don’t.”
Zeke chuckled and said, “You’re in Inferno.  Inferno, Oklahoma.  Hotter’n hell in the summer.”
“Could you love a girl like me?” asked Myra, interrupting Zeke’s vivid description.
“Guess maybe I could,” I said.
“You love someone else?”
“Life,” I said.  “With the war and all it’s about the only thing I’ve really though about along those lines.”
“Life is a fickle virgin,” she said, her pale blue eyes suddenly glowing like cold pearls.
“And you?” I asked.  “What do you love?”
Myra licked her lips and looked at Jim.  He was conscious, but still moaning as he massaged his neck.  Without answering my question, she turned to leave, but stopped and turned as if having a second thought.  After she touched my hand, I rubbed the icy remnant her touch imparted as I watched her walk through the door, held it open and as she gazed at me.
“Wait, I called.  “Where are you going?”
“Come with me and I will show you.”
“Can’t,” I said.  “Have to get back to the post.”
“Please,” she said, extending her willowy arm.  “I promise, you won’t be sorry.”
I started to follow but remembered Jim, still lying on the floor.  Another clap of thunder struck, closer this time, shattering the trance and causing me to blink.  When I opened my eyes Myra was gone.  Quickly, I downed my beer and tossed some money on the bar.
“Still mighty nasty out there,” Zeke said.  “Better have another drink.”
“Another time.  Not today.”
Bracing Jim beneath my shoulder, I started for the front door.  Curiosity stopped me beside the couple’s table.  I stared at the weather-beaten woman until she glance up at me.
“Sorry about your daughter.  How old was she when she died?”
A single tear trickled down the woman’s face, and she said, “Emily’s not dead.”
“But what about the car accident?”
The woman’s lingering eyes held me locked in place.  “Emily wasn’t in the accident.  Just Ralph and me.”
Breaking her cold stare, I pulled Jim out the front door.  From there, he staggered alone to the car, revived somewhat by the rain.  He took the keys from his shirt pocket, tossed them to me and slumped into the seat.  I gunned the engine and hurried away before the wipers could clear away the ruthless onslaught of the rain.
A mile down the deserted highway, I glanced into the rear-view mirror and searched in vain for the squall.  No use.  It was gone, along with the two buildings, replaced only by silence that seemed to cloak damp earth around us like a shroud.
Far away, behind reality and disappearing foothills, lightning and thunder flared and crashed like distant firefights.  Further still, filtered light mingled with road dust blown up by our racing tires, streaking the waning horizon.  Then, swirling ocher powder obliterated the dying sky, reflecting pale allusions of ancient storms.

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 Soldiers, please check out his AmazonBarnes & Noble, and iBook author pages.