Category Archives: writer

SHORT TALES

Great Balls of Fire

The Lore:

The Hornet Spook Light, Near Joplin, Missouri

I was raised in Northeastern Oklahoma and knew about the Hornet Spook Light long before investigating the area for my book. As a child, we referred to the mysterious phenomena as the Joplin Spook Light because sightings occurred along a rural county road just 12 miles southwest of Joplin, Missouri. Those who viewed the light describe it as a ball of fire the size of a basketball. Others say it is a blue orb that hovers in mid-air with the ability to divide or separate. While descriptions vary, one thing most people agree on is the spook light’s capacity to frighten unsuspecting travelers.

Explanations for sightings typically lean toward the paranormal – the ghost of two young Quapaw Indians with a Romeo and Juliet type ending. A decapitated Osage Chief looking for his head. A miner with a lantern destined to search for his missing children through eternity. But skeptics will tell you it’s nothing more than swamp gas or headlights from a passing car.

Most local residents believe the light has been around since the late 1800’s. Others say it was first documented in the mid 1930’s. As with most legends, origins are murky and details vary. During the 1940’s, the Army Corps of Engineers conducted a study on the Spook Light, hoping to curb the intense public interest. Their final determination only created more questions when they cited it as “a mysterious light of unknown origin.”

If you’re ever in northeast Oklahoma near sundown, wander over to East 50 Road, four miles south of the tristate junction. Stop and sit a spell. Chances are you won’t be in the dark long.

The Story:

Great Balls of Fire

by Debra S. Sanders

Henry Tuttle peered through heat radiating off the road in a scintillating haze. It was hot. What Okies call the “dog days of summer”. He dropped his chin so the bill of his faded John Deere cap blocked the afternoon sun from his eyes then watched a white Prius slow and turn into the long drive leading to his farmhouse. Dust formed in a thick, brown cloud behind the vehicle as it crept over potholes and ruts on a road more suited for high clearance vehicles. The right side of Henry’s mouth lifted. Settling into a corner of the wooden porch swing, he began to rock back and forth in a slow, steady rhythm.

The Prius stopped in a wide gravel area next to the house. A young man emerged, running his finger across a layer of dust coating the shiny paint. Seconds later, the passenger door opened and a girl with puffy red lips and large sunglasses stepped out.

“City folk,” Henry muttered with a quick assessment of the man’s baggy pants and loose t-shirt. The woman wore skinny jeans over even skinnier legs. Massachusetts plates confirmed his suspicion.

The man looked up, spotted Henry on the porch and waved. “Hello,” he called in a distinct Bostonian accent. “Fine day, isn’t it?”

“Almost over,” Henry grunted.

“Yuh, it is.” His chuckle sounded forced. “You lived here long?”

“All my life.”

“Ah, that’s great. I wonder if I could ask you a few questions.” The man glanced at his companion. “We’re journalists, researching a bit of local lore.”

Henry took a deep breath then let it out with a whoosh. He knew the minute they pulled into his drive what they wanted – information about the spook light. It wasn’t as if they were the first out-of-towners who fancied themselves ghost hunters.

“I reckon I got a few minutes.”

“Super! Do you mind if we join you on the porch?”

“Suit yourself. Supper’s in an hour. You need to be gone by then.”

The woman giggled. “Yuh, suh. We promise.”

They brushed dried leaves from two wicker chairs before settling onto the worn seats. The man leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. “My name’s Peter. This is Emily. We’re writing an article for our travel blog about Devil’s Promenade . . .”

“The spook light,” Henry corrected. “Figured that was it.”

“Yuh, well, we’re researching paranormal activity in the heartland and this particular myth kept popping up so we thought we’d look into it.”

“Have you seen it?” Emily chimed.

Henry pursed his lips, staring at a spot above her head as if conjuring up a memory. “I’ve had my share of run-ins with the damn thing. Most everyone around these parts has seen it at one time or ‘nother.”

Peter licked his lips. His pupils turned to pinpoint as he shifted in his seat. “We’ve read several theories about the light but since you live right here on the road where it is seen most often, we hoped you would have the inside scoop.” His laugh faded into silence. “What is it? Swamp gas? Light refraction? Some sort of geophysical anomaly?”

Henry kept a straight face as he met the young man’s gaze. “Ain’t none of those things.”

“Well, what is it . . . exactly?”

“Riley Crow’s ghost.”

Silence greeted Henry’s announcement. Emily was first to respond, keeping her voice low and pleasant. “We’ve actually heard a few of those myths. I think one source said it might be the spirits of an ill-fated Native American couple. Another suggested it could be a Civil War soldier. However, I don’t think anyone mentioned the name Riley Crow.

“Riley passed on about ten years ago.”

Peter cleared his throat. “But people first reported seeing the light during the 1800’s.”

“Oh, I’m sure it was around back then. Some say this area is cursed so I figure it holds a lot of souls who won’t move on, just like the Quapaw lovers you heard about. Legend goes they wanted to get married but her pappy didn’t think the young brave had enough dowry. He refused to let them join up so they eloped. Pappy sent a hunting party after ‘em. Rather than be separated, they ran to a cliff and jumped off. Died right away.”

Peter cast a condescending smile. “Part of our paranormal research involves debunking stories like that. I mean, there’s really no factual evidence to back up the myth. Is it true the Corps of Engineers investigated the light?”

“Yep, back in the thirties or forties. They ran a bunch of tests and came up empty handed. Look, son, if you talk to ten people around here, you’ll probably get ten different stories about the spook light but one thing’s for sure – anyone who has seen it, don’t want to see it again.”

“Why do you think that is?” Emily inquired. “What makes it so frightening?”

“The unknown, I reckon. I’ve had the damn thing run right in front of my truck. Then in a matter of seconds, it was behind me. One time, it floated towards me, broke into four different orbs and then went and sat in a tree. It’s a crazy sight to see.”

“Have you ever touched it?”

“Nah, but George Stoddard tried to shoot it. He can’t hit the broad side of a barn in daylight so I don’t know why he thought he could hit a moving fireball in the dark.”

Peter chuckled. “Tell me about this Riley Crow. Why do you think the light is his ghost?”

Henry pushed his cap back, scratched the top of his head then reset the hat to its original position. “I have a theory. I think this area is a sort of purgatory for souls who can’t rest.”

“That’s an interesting concept. Why do you think Riley is not at peace?”

“He’s searching for his balls.”

Emily’s eyes widened. “His . . . balls?”

“Yep. Old Riley was missing his testicles when he died.”

Once again, Emily and Peter exchanged looks. “I don’t suppose you’d care to expand on that?” Peter said.

“It’s a pretty gruesome story. Sure you want to hear it?” They both nodded. “Well, okay, then. Riley was a bit of a womanizer. Everyone around here knew he had a strong appreciation for the ladies – everyone except his wife, Lulabelle. She was a big, full figured gal. Good looking in her own right but real jealous. Needless to say, she watched Riley like a hawk.”

“One night, he came home after cozying up with Nancy Brown. Lulabelle took one sniff of the perfume on his collar and knew it wasn’t hers. After an all-night brawl, Riley finally confessed to his indiscretion. He promised never to see Nancy again. ‘Course, Lulabelle’s green eyed monster was all riled up by then. She just couldn’t find it in her to trust him.”

Henry paused to catch his breath. Peter instantly encouraged him to continue.

“About a month went by before Riley got the itch and started tom-cattin’ around. One night, he told Lulabelle he had to go back to the office for a late meeting. She decided to follow him and sure ‘nuff, Riley met up with Nancy at the No Tell Motel up in Joplin.  Lulabelle was fit to be tied. She hid in the backseat of Riley’s car and waited. When Riley came out and started the engine, she popped up and scared the poor man half to death. He listened to her rant all the way home. There was no denying his tomfoolery. She’d caught him red handed.

After they got home, Lulabelle kept readin’ the riot act to him, not even pausing to take a breath. Riley finally told her to shut up. He’d had enough. Vowed to file for divorce the next day . . . which sent Lulabelle right over the edge.

From what I heard, the first thing she did was knock the poor man unconscious with a cast iron frying pan. When Riley woke up, Lulabelle had duct taped him to a kitchen chair. He was nekkid as a jay bird and scared half to death. He tried to reason with her but she didn’t want to hear it. Taped the poor man’s mouth closed. All he could do was sit there and listen. She’d cry, then curse, then cry some more, accusing him of all sorts of things. I’m sure he was guilty of most of ‘em but that weren’t no reason to do what she did next.”

Peter leaned in even further, eyes wide. “What did she do?”

Henry shook his head, staring at the toe of his boot for a full minute before conitinuing. “It was awful, just flat out mean. Lulabelle ran down a list of names of every woman she could think of in a fifty-mile radius, asking Riley if he’d slept with them. I suppose he said yes to just about all of them. He probably thought if she got mad ‘nuff, she might get so disgusted she’d let him go. But there ain’t no one more vindictive than a woman with a broken heart.”

Emily’s hand flew to her mouth. “Oh, dear. What happened?”

“She castrated the man. Cut off his balls with a kitchen knife right where he sat.”

Peter’s complexion paled. For a minute, Henry thought the kid might vomit but then he swallowed and urged Henry to continue.

“Riley passed out, of course. I think any man would. He was bleeding real bad. While he was unconscious, Lulabelle took his testicles, pounded ‘em out flat with a mallet, rolled ‘em in a little cornmeal and flour and fried ‘em up in lard– just like calf fries. I think she intended to feed them to Riley.”

“Nuh . . .” Peter ran to the far end of the porch, leaned over the railing and heaved. When he returned, his shirt tail was wet and stained. “Sorry, man. That was more than I could handle.”

“No problem. I had the same reaction when I first heard it.”

“What happened to Riley?” Emily’s voice was barely more than a whisper.

“He bled out right there in the kitchen while Lulabelle was cookin’.”

“Was she arrested?”

“Nope, and that’s the curious part. She really loved the old scallywag. Once she realized Riley was dead, she slit her wrists and died on the kitchen floor next to him.”

“That’s an . . . interesting story but what makes you think the spook light is Riley Crow?”

“I hear Lulabelle wailing some nights, usually when the spook light is out there bobbin’ around. I think she’s chasin’ Riley, trying to beg forgiveness. Ain’t gonna happen, not for a while. He’s still pretty mad. I reckon they’re stuck in purgatory for the time being.”

Peter sucked in a deep breath and glanced at Emily. “I appreciate you taking the time to speak with us.”

“But you don’t believe me.”

“It’s not that I don’t believe you. The legend of Devil’s Promenade has been around for over a hundred and forty years. Logically, it doesn’t make sense it would be Riley Crow’s ghost.”

“Son, nothin’ about that spook light is logical. You kids believe what you want. That’s all I got.”

Emily was first to stand. “It’s getting late. If we’re going to film the light, we should be going.”

“Don’t keep anything sharp in your vehicle. Lulabelle has been known to throw knives and scissors through the air. Wouldn’t want y’all to get hurt.”

Peter swallowed, joining Emily at the top of the steps. “Perhaps we should discuss our research at the motel. We can return in a few days.” His suggestion met no resistance.

Henry waved as the Prius drove away, travelling down the lane much faster than when it arrived. He lingered on the porch after it disappeared, staring off into the distance. The front door opened and a grey haired woman emerged, wiping her hands on a dishtowel.

“Supper’s almost ready. Better wash up.”

“Sure thing, Mama.”

She narrowed her eyes suspiciously. “Who were those people?”

Henry shrugged. “Just some city folk wanting to know about the spook light.”

“Have you been making up stories again, Henry Tuttle?”

“Now, Mama . . . I was just havin’ a little fun. No harm done.”

Her eyes rolled upward. “I swear, old man. Some days I don’t know what to do with you.”

“I was tryin’ to keep the peace. I don’t think those kids will be back,” he chuckled, “but if they do park down the road, I’ll get out my big spotlight and really give ‘em something to write about.”

His mirth was met with a warning scowl from his wife. She turned on her heel and marched inside, slamming the door behind her.

Henry waited a few minutes longer, enjoying the quiet of the early evening. As he turned, a hazy blue orb bobbed near the far end of the porch. Henry paused, arched a brow, then shooed it away with his hand. “Go on, now git, Riley. I ain’t got time for you and Lulabelle tonight.” He watched the orb float into a tree followed by a low wail in the distance. “I don’t reckon you two will ever get along.”

Shaking his head, Henry shuffled inside and closed the door.

Fun Is Over . . . Back To Work!

Living on the road is an unstructured lifestyle, certainly not conducive to routine activities . . . like writing. I don’t exercise enough self-control when it comes to hiking or exploring because immersing myself in such awe inspiring beauty motivates my spirit – which is good for creative endeavors. Daytime was play time because I would write at night. But a funny thing happened during the past few months – my insomnia dissipated . . . and so did my writing.

Yosemite, California

Not that I had much time to write, anyway. March was a whirlwind of activity filled with author appearances, presentations, gatherings, and making a mad dash to California to visit the hubmeister’s family. I managed three book signings, one at the prestigious Tucson Festival of Books, a successful Gold, Ghosts and Gravel Roads presentation before almost two hundred attendees, spent four days at the Escapees Escapades – a gathering of over 2000 RVers, and enjoyed great fellowship with some new friends in Tucson. I also was awarded a signed copy of Red Steagall’s book, “Ride for the Brand” featuring his poetry and songs when I won the Cowboy Poetry Contest at Escapades57.

The Colorado River below Hoover Dam, NV

But all that is behind me now and it’s time to get back to business. Starting May 1st, we’ll be “workamping” at Ruby’s Inn in Bryce Canyon, Utah. Even though I’ll be settled in one place for five months, my job in the Rock Shop will compete with writing time. I’m hoping my psyche will respond to the newfound “structure” and re-ignite good writing habits to take with me after we leave. Keeping my fingers crossed.

Follow me on Facebook or Instagram for updated posts and photos from my travels.

Here’s the poem that won the Cowboy Poetry contest . . . based on the legend of the ghost horses from Palo Duro Canyon in Texas. You can read the history behind the lore in my Road Tales book.

 

The night was as dusty as an ol’ wrangler’s chaps

After rounding up strays on the West Texas flats.

As I searched through the darkness for Camp Cookie’s fire

The wind cut right through me like a strand of barbed wire.

My horse gave a whinny, his eyes grew real wide

Hooves pawed the ground as he danced to the side.

Something was out there. It was too dark to see . . .

But the ground rumbled ‘neath us and I whispered . . . “Stampede!”

I pulled my horse next to a stand of tall trees,

Praying we’d survive the oncoming steeds.

I tugged down my hat and held the reins tight

As thundering hooves galloped past us that night.

A hundred wild ponies, fast on the run . . .

I heard them. I felt them. But saw not a one.

When the sound faded into the folds of pitch black

I spurred on my horse, and never looked back.

Now I’m an old cowpoke with my share of strange tales

But I never had nothin’ turn me death pale

Like the Devil’s ghost herd on that cold Texas trail.

Tucson Festival of Books and Other News

On March 11th and 12th, an amazing annual event takes place on the University of Arizona campus in Tucson – The Tuscon Festival of Books. This star-studded gathering (as far as authors go) offers something for everyone in nearly every age group.

This year, I’m excited to participate as both a signing author and a volunteer. On Saturday, I’ll be in the Author Pavilion from 12:15 to 2:15, then presenting a short “Tent Talk” at 3, discussing research and writing on the road. Sunday will be my volunteer day to assist other presenting authors with their programs.

sandfordWhen not “on the clock”, be assured I will peruse campus grounds and attend workshops by some of my favorite writers such as John Sandford (be still my beating heart) and “Longmire” creator and author, Craig Johnson accompanied by series star, A. Martinez.

I promise to post lots of photos and regale you with my adventures after the event. Be sure to check my Instagram and Facebook pages for the most up-to-date news. If you are attending, be sure to download the free “app” to help navigate the festival and events.

During the week of March 19th, I’ll be attending Escapee’s Escapade, also taking place in Tucson. For those not familiar with RVing, Escapees is a membership club of fellowship, activities and learning. This year, I’ll be conducting a workshop entitled, “Gold, Ghosts and Gravel Roads” where I hope to entertain with my adventures and teach from experience about how to enhance the RVing experience. The presentation will be loosely based on my research for ROAD TALES, Myth, Lore and Curiosities From America’s Back Roads. It will also include a few stories from the upcoming Volume Two.

The hubmeister and I decided to workamp at Ruby’s Inn outside of Bryce Canyon, Utah for the summer months. It’s a win-win since we planned to visit the area anyway. Now we can explore Bryce, Zion, Canyonlands, Monument Valley and so much more while keeping a centrally located base camp, and earn a buck or two along the way. We’ll only work part time and have the same off days.

roadkillthumbAnd now for my big FAIL…I played entirely too much the past few months and didn’t finish my second book in th e Dead Men series, Dead Men Can’t Dance. By the time I took a breath and realized time had passed me by, I needed to focus on my upcoming author appearances. I hope to release Book Two by April.

One more piece of exciting news, I’m working on an episodic thriller, Road Kill. It’s gritty, not light and fun like my Dead Men books so I hope readers won’t ding me too hard for changing genres. It’s a project I’ve wanted to do for a long time. Episode One will release in mid March. There should be four to five episodes to reach the conclusion, and then I may combine them into a single title. Hope you like serial killers!

Happy New Year!

I don’t know about you but I’m sooo happy for a new year. It’s not that 2016 was horrible. More like unstructured. As in Murphy’s Law unstructured. Few of my plans came to fruition in the way I had hoped. Some of those “detours” turned into delightful experiences. A few . . . meh, not so much. There were ups and downs as there are in any year but 2016 just felt awkward.

I’m not a big New Year’s resolution gal. As much as I like having a “plan” for my activities, resolutions feel more like prison i.e. I’m being forced to comply. My gypsy spirit flat out rebels! Kind of crazy since I’m the one making the rules but that’s how my brain works. (I’m sure I could drive a psychiatrist nuts with that one!)

So here’s the deal. I’m not making a resolution but I will “plan” to diligently promote some facet of my author life every . . . single . . . day. Oh, geez . . . the pressure! It’s already starting so please consider this blog my good intention promotion for Jan 1, 2017.

I just added a sidebar calendar for author appearances in 2017. If you plan to be in Arizona during one of my events, I’d love to meet you. If not, I understand. “Plans” sometimes don’t work out the way we hoped.

You Might Be A Yooper If You Can Climb A Frozen Waterfall

A “yooper” lives in the Upper Peninsula  of Michigan – which is where we’ve been camping for the past couple of weeks. The UP is an outdoor enthusiast’s playground at any season. Since I’m not keen on freezing temperatures, I’m glad we got to experience it in the summer.

Lake Superior forms the northern boundary of the state, and is also the border to Canada. First of all, it’s more like the ocean. I’m talking HUGE! Secondly, when you’re that far north, you expect something akin to Alaska . . . not sand dunes and blue green waters typical of the tropics. It’s crazy! Crazy beautiful!

Part of the coastline is made up of the scenic Pictured Rocks – a line of gorgeous bluffs with waterfalls that plummet into the lake. During the warmer months, a group of boating outfitters will happily take you on a cruise so see the storied Pictured Rocks or even treat you to a glass-bottom boat ride over some shipwrecks. The water is that clear and pristine. But during the winter, this vacation paradise turns into a winter wonderland. People actually ice climb many of those towering waterfalls!

Inland from the coast, lies an abundance of small lakes which offer boating, swimming, fishing or just colorful sunsets. Oh, and mosquitoes. There are definitely some ravenous little critters flying around which means homemade repellents probably won’t cut it. Camping in the UP requires DEET . . . and perhaps a shotgun filled with buckshot. The mosquitoes are that big. You might take out a few biting black flies, too.

The insects were the only negative to this vast, pristine land that I could find. I suspect it takes a hearty individual to live in upper Michigan year round and the ones I encountered were some of the nicest folks you could hope to meet.

Will I ever be a yooper? Possibly . . . but only if seasonal visitors qualify for the title.

 

 

Exploring Mark Twain’s Boyhood Haunts


I’m back! It’s been a while and I apologize. Now that family visits, medical issues and whatnot are out of the way, we are back on the road enjoying new adventures. So here goes . . .

Hannibal, Missouri . . . just the name evokes visions of lazy riverboats puffing down a wide river, Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer atop a wooden raft, and the man who gave them

20160711_131846

Historic Hannibal

life – Samuel Clemens aka Mark Twain. I’m not exaggerating when I say I almost piddled myself in excitement when the day finally arrived to explore this quaint, historical town. After all, Hannibal’s rolling hills and riverfront access provided the inspiration for Mark Twain’s most famous works. It flavored his writing as it flavored his wit. And I was about to see all the places I’d read about in my youth! How cool is that?

Reality seldom matches expectations. The more we dream and visualize about what lies ahead, the more we risk disappointment. Hannibal is a perfect example. The town itself should be renamed “Mark Twain City” because everywhere you go is reference to the famous author and humorist . . . understandable. One might never venture to Hannibal were it not for Mark Twain’s legacy. And everything tagged with his name comes with a price.

20160711_130333

Mark Twain Memorial Lighthouse

Yes, Hannibal is a tourist trap. But if all I came to see were paid attractions, I’d miss out on the true ambiance of a historical town.

Driving into the outskirts from Highway 36, it was as if we entered a time warp. Hannibal is firmly rooted in the past and the period architecture reinforces that aura, beckoning with untold stories of days gone by. Had I never heard of Samuel Clemens, I would still be lured to this incredibly picturesque albeit decaying community. A great many of the clapboard houses and brick storefronts remain unrestored which supports the character of an aging 1800’s riverfront town.
I enjoyed a short walking tour along the river and railroad tracks, meandered along scenic Cardiff Drive to where it meets the lighthouse replica erected in Mark Twain’s honor, absorbed majestic views from Lover’s Leap, explored Mark Twain’s childhood home and the wooden fence still fresh with whitewash. What I wanted to do and didn’t was visit McDougal’s Cave, popularized in Twain’s 1876 novel, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. The property is part of an adjoining campground and gift shop and is only viewable on special

MarkTwainRiverboat

Mark Twain Sightseeing Riverboat

tours. Adult tickets ran about $20 and I just couldn’t bring myself to pay for what I felt should have been free. Perhaps if I’d visited the nearby winery and tasted a few glasses, I might not have been so put-off by the entrance fee. Bottom line is I’m a cheapskate.

I suppose the real reason I wanted to see the cave, aside from a trip down Tom Sawyer memory lane, is the wickedly strange events that took place there. During Twain’s childhood, the property where the cave is located was owned by a St. Louis surgeon, Dr. Joseph McDowell. The man was brilliant by all accounts, and genius sometimes borders on the edges of insanity. When Dr. McDowell’s fourteen-year-old daughter died of pneumonia, he decided to “petrify” her body. After constructing a copper tube lined with glass, he filled it with alcohol and placed the corpse inside, suspending it from the ceiling of the cave.

According to Twain, the local youth discovered the contraption and began to gather there, telling ghost stories to frighten each other in the flickering light of their torches. Even more macabre, the top of the cylinder could be unscrewed so the girl’s face was visible. After two

20160711_123607_Burst05

View from Lover’s Leap

years, the adults in the community got wind of the girl’s unofficial interment. They complained, forcing the doctor to relocate his daughter’s body to the family mausoleum in St. Louis. However, some people believe the girl’s spirit is still there, following tourists as they navigate the dark cavern.

The cave is not the only place where hauntings occur in Hannibal. A year-round ghost tour features many allegedly active sites for adventurous souls. If we had planned a longer stay (and might have if the weather were not so damnably hot and humid), this cheapskate would have coughed up the bucks for the tour since I’m fascinated by the paranormal.  Perhaps another time.

Would I return to Hannibal for an encore visit? That’s hard to say. I love the ambiance and historical significance of the area. Unfortunately, this area of the Midwest doesn’t generate the same fascination as other places we’ve visited. We like less populated areas like mountains, remote coastlines, and high desert.

That being said, we’re enjoying our slow loop around the Great Lakes through Wisconsin, Michigan and Indiana. We may not venture this way again so if you know of any unusual, oddball or off-the-beaten track destinations, please let me know. I’m always up for an adventure!