The Old Gray Wolf

Charlie Moon Mysteries (Volume 17)

James D. Doss

Minotaur Books

CHAPTER ONE

THE UTE ELDER’S WILDERNESS HIDEAWAY

 
Imagine yourself miles from the nearest human settlement, hiking along a dusty trail. All cares forgotten, you are whiling away a balmy autumn day in a wilderness which is both picturesque and forbidding. To the north, a slight blue haze shimmers over round-shouldered mountains. From those ancient peaks, miles-long brown mesas stretch out like a fallen giant’s fingers, clutching at crumbling earth. Between the steep sandstone cliffs of those flattened heights, the patient forces of nature have worked for hundreds of millennia to shape the landscape that you see today. Gurgling little springtime streams, gray winter rains freezing in sandstone cracks, and howling grit-laden winds—all those relentless forces have combined to carve out deep canyons, wherein are multitudes of secluded, shady glades where direct sunlight has never beamed an incandescent ray on lichen, moss, or fern, nor shall it ever. Away to the south, beyond the mesa’s grasping fingertips, the sun-drenched topography is gradually transformed into a jumble of rugged hills, isolated buttes, rolling arid prairie, and huge patches of nasty badlands that provide suitable habitat for those scaly, slithering serpents who will (when they are of a mind to) hiss, rattle—and then fang you.
But let us not be overly concerned about where we are stepping. (That coiled object half concealed in the dead grass is probably a discarded hank of manila rope. Or so we hope.)
This image is etched indelibly on your consciousness? Good.
While distracted by the panoramic Big Picture, you have passed right by the most important feature of this remote landscape. We refer to the well-known residence of that notable citizen who—excepting a few fleshless exceptions to be described in a moment—is the only human soul who has a settled homestead within the vast neighborhood already described, which comprises approximately forty-four square miles of the Southern Ute reservation.
But do not fault yourself for this understandable oversight. But just so you’ll know where to look should you ever pass this way again, Aunt Daisy’s home is situated right over there. Yes, on the sunny side of that low ridge and near (very nearly in) the yawning mouth of Cañón del Espíritu, wherein (so the tribal elder assures us) dozens of ghostly presences lurk. (We refer to the aforementioned “few fleshless exceptions.”) Not only do these spirits lurk, they also (so Daisy claims) often appear to her in a more or less bodily form. Why are they drawn to the cantankerous old woman? There is no one-size-fits-all answer. As each year of our lives is recalled by unique events and distinguishable seasons, so the spirits have their various and sundry reasons for rubbing elbows with Daisy. But, that said, the lonely souls of the long dead reveal themselves to the Ute shaman primarily for the purpose of conversing with a warm-blooded human being. And the oftentimes cold-blooded Daisy Perika is, in a somewhat twisted sense, what a roving poker player might call “the only game in town.” Way out here at the mouth of Spirit Canyon, the Southern Ute tribal elder is simply the only person around.
Except when she has company.
Which Daisy does at the moment. Which fortuitous circumstance enables us to focus our attention on three more of the four primary participants in the forthcoming adventure—which has already begun (only they don’t know it). Namely …
CHARLIE MOON, SCOTT PARRIS, AND SARAH FRANK
By way of introduction to those who have not yet been formally introduced to the citizens listed above, they are, respectively:
The amiable nephew of the notoriously cranky Southern Ute tribal elder. Charlie is that long, lean, lanky fellow who is toting Daisy’s circa-1935 leather suitcase from her front door to his Ford Expedition. Mr. Moon is a former SUPD officer, a part-time tribal investigator, current owner of the Columbine Ranch in Granite Creek County—and sometimes deputy to Scott Parris, a tough ex-Chicago cop who is chief of the Granite Creek Police.
The aforesaid tough cop has opened the rear hatch of the SUV and is pushing a cardboard box in between a heavy toolbox and a gallon jug of well water. What’s in the cardboard box? Four quarts of Daisy’s homemade peach preserves, two loaves of m’lady’s baked-in-her-oven rye bread, three pints of green-tomato relish, some leftover walnut fudge, and miscellaneous other delectables to spice up the meals at Charlie’s ranch. Parris has the enviable distinction of being one of the few Caucasians (matukach) whom Daisy Perika is fond of, which means that she does not spit in his eye just for the fun of it. Speaking of eyes and distinctions, the blue-eyed lawman is also the only paleface who has seen physical evidence of that legendary dwarf who presumably resides in the shadowy inner sanctum of Spirit Canyon. (Several years ago, the white man spied some tiny footprints in the snow.) Gently suggest to Daisy that these might have been the paw prints of an adult raccoon and she will very likely knock your block off and then kick it down the road a furlong or two.
Sarah Frank is that lissome youth who has just locked the front door of Daisy’s house and is now approaching the automobile to help the tribal elder into her customary seat behind the driver, i.e. Charlie Moon. Speaking of whom, the twenty-one-year-old Ute-Papago orphan (Sarah) lives in the continual distress of being deeply and passionately in love with Mr. Moon, who—when he bothers to reflect on the pretty, willowy young lady at all—thinks of Miss Frank as his semiadopted daughter.
These cursory introductions complete, we return to the action already under way—which has to do with Hester “Toadie” Tillman’s designated messenger, who is on his way to deliver the alleged witch’s threat to Aunt Daisy. Will Officer Bignight arrive after they are long gone? Hard to say. We hope not. If Danny doesn’t take care of business today, there’s no telling what the consequences might be. (The tension is almost palpable.)
But wait a minute … About a quarter mile away to the east-northeast, isn’t that a puff of dust on the lane? Yes, it is.

 
Copyright © 2012 by James D. Doss