My historical novel Wolf Catcher will be published by TouchPoint press on February 2, 2022. Here’s a sneak peek. I hope you enjoy the read.
In 1939, on the last day of excavation, a shovel broke through the floor of a pit house at the Northern Arizona site archeologists called Ridge Ruin. The burial chamber overflowed with fabulous funerary objects: four hundred and twenty carved arrowheads, twenty-five decorated pottery vessels, a large collection of minerals and crystals, reed tubes filled with pigments, myriad baskets, and shells from the far off Pacific Ocean. Then there was the man, bedecked in fine turquoise jewelry and intricate beadwork, his body surrounded by wooden swords with handles carved as animal hooves and human hands. The Hopi workers stepped back from the grave, knowing what the Moochiwimi sticks meant. This man, buried nine hundred years earlier, was a magician.
The azure sky revealed no signs of the violence that had changed the world. Only a pine-scented breeze pressed through a gnarled stand of junipers that stretched along the wash. He closed his eyes and remembered the ragged band of refugees, the lingering sulfur smell of them, and the story they told. The ground, they said, had heaved and broken open, a fissure splitting the earth in a roar of steam and brilliant flames that shot straight into the high desert night sky.
The horizon burned with a rainbow of fire, not just orange and yellow, but greens and blues, the heavens saturated with blazing pillars. Red clouds rose up, then settled upon the earth, building the mountain. Thick clods of burning stone burst forth, raining on the terrified people who had tried to save the sacred corn. Tongues of flame battled with lightning strikes that zigzagged across the sky. Streams of orange liquid ran in burning rivers, devouring everything. Had the villagers not moved a good distance away earlier, they would certainly have been consumed by the angry creature living beneath the earth.
Surely it was a sign that the People had been behaving badly.
A brightly-colored blue jay squawked and alighted onto a twisted branch above him. The bird jerked its head, glaring with an obsidian eye. The man smiled at the creature, then turned his thoughts back to the volcano, the place his father had instructed him to go. He glanced at the western sky. The journey from his village had taken several moons. It had been a difficult and lonely trek.
An animal’s howl reverberated off the stone slab on which he sat and melted away grisly visions of his village and the people he left behind.
He howled back, the sound indistinguishable from that of the animal. Moments later, a huge snow-colored kwewu bounded up the boulders to his side. The beast raised her snout and sniffed the air.
The man pointed to the northwest where he hoped to find the Volcano God’s home. “We will go that way, early in the morning.” He scratched the animal between the ears.
A short time later, he spread his bedroll in a shallow cave fronted by a dry wash and a small, twisted pinyon. He placed the bundle of carved sticks to his left and the shiny stone blade to his right. Clutching the leather bundle he wore on a thong around his neck, he silently renewed his promise to complete his quest and then prayed to the dead for their help.
When he finished, he stretched out in the soft sand, closed his eyes, and reached one last time for the blade. The kwewu turned in three circles before dropping down at his side.
Two men were crouched close by, silent behind a thick screen of prickly pear. The scarred one—the right side of his face bisected from forehead to chin, the result of a long-ago battle wound—had watched the man and animal go into a cave, unsure of whether the vision was real. The massive white creature was unlike any wolf he had ever seen. Its sleek, snowy fur and thickly muscled body seemed all the more incongruous because it walked beside the man. He, too, was different. Before the sun had set, the scarred one witnessed an odd light shining from the stranger’s eyes. He was exceptionally tall with fawn-colored skin. The two watchers nodded to one another and moved off to the far side of a short hill, careful to remain downwind, lest the animal catch their scents on the breeze.
The kwewu stirred and lifted her head. She raised her snout and sniffed at the breeze. A low, malevolent growl came from deep in her throat. In one motion, she rose and surged toward the sound.
She attacked the scarred watcher from behind, leaping onto the man’s back, knocking him to the ground. The warrior rolled and fought to protect himself, but was unable to reach the blade he wore secured in a sheath at his waist. The animal’s teeth tore a bloody gash in his forearm. He tried knocking the white wolf away, but her weight pinned him to the ground. The warrior forced his mind to slow as he faced the beast, keeping his chin down to protect his neck.
“No! No!” a voice called out. “Stop!”
Instantly, the wolf froze, pink drool oozing between lethally sharp teeth whose sole purpose was to rip flesh.
“Come!” the tall pale man ordered. But a moment later his world evaporated, a stone-headed club ending his attempt to call the animal off. A sickening thunk sounded and he rode the high-pitched cry of the kwewu into the darkness.
Flagstaff, Arizona 2005
Kate Butler and Jack Cooper met in the lounge of the Hotel Monte Vista.
“I got the Bon Jovi Room.” She smiled, holding up the keycard to room 305. “It seems he once slept there.”
Cooper smiled and tried to remember the last time he’d seen Kate. “I’m in the Zane Grey Suite. There are copies of his book covers all over the walls—”
“I once read Riders of the Purple Sage.” Kate eyed the offerings behind the bar.
Cooper motioned to a twenty-something woman drying glasses. Even in late May, tinsel and brightly-colored Christmas lights decorated the room. A jukebox was positioned near one wall and a round glass machine filled with Reese’s Pieces sat on the bar. The dispenser delivered a handful of candy if fed a quarter. Humphrey Bogart’s sagging mug stared from a Casablanca poster.
After the drinks were delivered, Cooper sipped a twelve-year-old Scotch on the rocks. The Yuma County Deputy Sheriff leaned back on the stool. “How long has it been, Kate?”
“I can’t remember, Coop.” She sipped her beer from the bottle.
Cooper fingered the rim of his glass. “So, fill me in on your archeologist friend. Will Doctor—”
“Perkins. Dr. Perkins.” Kate didn’t notice she’d cut him off. Again.
“You didn’t let me finish.”
Kate dropped her head to her chest. “I’ve been trying to stop interrupting people, Coop.”
Cooper twirled the ice in his drink with a small red plastic straw, ice cubes clinking against the glass, and gave her a wry smile.
“Really! I’ve been practicing. Taking a breath. Pausing before I jump in.” The former television reporter seemed sincere.
“I’m guessing your well-honed ability to cut in served you well as a journalist.”
“Sometimes.” Kate’s blue eyes flashed. “Especially in press conferences. If you didn’t ask fast, your question didn’t get answered. But those one-on-one interviews were always hard for me because I—”
“Was always finishing other people’s sentences?” Cooper raised both eyebrows and leaned his chin on one hand. “Go on, Butler. Fill me in on what I’m doing here.”
Kate took a breath. “I’m in Flagstaff to work on a freelance magazine article. I thought you might be interested in doing some … research.”
Cooper grinned, admiring Kate’s simple white T-shirt, straight faded jeans, and well broken-in cowboy boots. A pair of silver earrings inlaid with turquoise and black onyx dangled down her neck. She was fibbing. “Is it my interest in archeology or something else?
Kate frowned and took a deep breath. Then she shrugged. “I’m still adjusting, Jack.”
“I can’t believe they fired you.”
“I’m too old.” Kate laughed, though she sounded sad. “I’m no longer pretty enough to be on the front end of a camera.”
“What about all those Emmys for investigative reporting, Kate?”
“They’re gathering dust in my closet. I just have to face it, Coop. Women broadcasters have a shelf-life, and, like a loaf of bread, mine has expired.”
He shook his head. “And then you missed me.”
She fiddled with the label on a sweating bottle of Coors.
When Kate didn’t respond, Cooper let her off the hook. “You mentioned something about a magician,”
“Yes!” The spark returned to her eyes. “But let me backtrack a little. I worked with Dr. Perkins on my last story, the one about the ballcourts.” Kate took a quick sip of chilled beer.
“I’ve read about ballcourts. As I recall, Native Americans in Central and South America played games with their enemies’ heads.”
“That depends on where they were playing. They think the ball game comes originally from Mesoamerica. In fact, when the early explorers arrived from Europe, they found the Indians playing with rubber balls, all decked out in their padded uniforms and helmets. An entire team was escorted back to Spain to play for the king and queen. And there’s evidence that some of those vanquished in the ball game did, in fact, lose their heads and had them booted around the court.”
“To the raucous cheers of the victors!” Cooper pumped his arm into the air.
“No doubt,” Kate said. “But here in the U.S., there’s nothing that points to that ever happening. In fact, for a long time, no one even thought there were any ballcourts here. Archeologists had only found them in Mexico and farther south. They’ve now identified almost two hundred ballcourts in Arizona, and there are probably many more. They’re really hard to find sometimes.”
“I’ve seen the one at Pueblo Grande Museum in Phoenix.” Cooper took another drink of Glenfiddich and pictured the anachronistic Hohokam ruin that rested near Sky Harbor Airport in the eastern section of the city. “It kind of looks like an oval swimming pool without the water.”
“That one is pretty typical. A ballcourt is a depression carved out of the ground and plastered with a stucco-type material to make the floor and sides smooth. But there are also some made of stone. The ballcourts average about eighty feet wide and are sometimes longer than a football field. The walls are about nine feet high. There are different types of goals at each end. Think basketball or hockey.”
“I like your hair,” he said.
Kate reached up, tucking her shoulder-length auburn hair behind her ears.
“Back when you were covering the police beat for Channel 10 your hair was short. I liked that, too.” Cooper grinned. “When we get back to Phoenix, I want you to point out the guy who said you’re too old and not attractive enough to be on TV. I think I’ll have a friendly chat with him.”
Kate blushed. “Don’t do anything you’ll regret.”
“Of course not. Now, go on. Tell me more about this game.”
“From what we can tell, the players had to pass a ball, sometimes rubber or leather, or even stone, through the goal. Dr. Perkins is the one who took me out to Ridge Ruin to see the ballcourt.”
Kate remembered the day she’d learned about the man she was now unable to forget. The site of the ruin was about ten miles east of Flagstaff. Cold raindrops started to fall on the scattered junipers, their piney scent mixed with rain-dampened earth. The ground was rocky, a mixture of small chunks of red basalt and black cinders left from the eruption of the Sunset Crater Volcano almost nine hundred years earlier. But it was the man-made objects that had captured Kate’s imagination. Though the remains of Ridge Ruin had been backfilled to keep what was left of the pueblo hidden from view and safe from looters, the ground was littered everywhere with beautiful pottery fragments: potshards with ornate black-and-white patterns, pieces scattered everywhere that Kate knew she wasn’t even supposed to touch.
She looked at Cooper and lost her train of thought for a moment. After all those times she’d picked up the phone and put it down again, she’d finally called and invited him to join her. Was it a good idea? Maybe not.
“And?” Cooper rubbed his finger around the edge of the rocks glass.
“And … that day at Ridge Ruin, Dr. Perkins explained what little we really know about the ball game. I tried to imagine the people back then, excited, urging their favorite players on. And then he turned and pointed to the hill behind us. ‘That’s where The Magician was found,’ he told me. ‘Who?’ I asked. Then the rain started falling really hard and we bolted back to the truck. We’ll meet with Dr. Perkins tomorrow and see The Magician’s funerary objects.”
“I don’t want to bother you while you’re working,” Cooper said. “I see my role as faithful puppy, following around adoringly at your heels.”
His blue eyes twinkled. They perfectly matched his cashmere sweater. Jack Cooper was the best-dressed cop she’d ever met.
“Why don’t you tell me what you know about The Magician, so I can pretend to be your assistant.”
“I thought you were tired of undercover work, Coop.”
“Don’t want to let those valuable skills just rust away, darlin’.” He signaled to the barmaid for another round.
“No more beer for me,” Kate said. “I’ll have some tea. I have to work tomorrow.”
“However, I do not.” Cooper grinned and ordered their drinks.
A short time later, Kate filled her teacup from a round white pot. No sugar. No cream. Kate Butler, unlike her Irish ancestors, liked her tea—which she was as devoted to as much as any soda or coffee drinker was to his beverage of choice—black and straight.
“After Dr. Perkins pointed out The Magician’s burial place at Ridge Ruin that day in the rain, I forgot about it for a while. No, forgot isn’t the right word. I put him in the back of my head because I had the ballcourt story to write. And I had classes since I was working on my masters.”
“I’m proud of you.”
“Yes, Kate. Going back to school. Getting a master’s degree. Not an easy thing for an average middle-aged American.”
Kate frowned. “Let’s drop the middle-aged reference, shall we?”
Cooper patted her hand. “Tell me about The Magician.”
“I did some research to see if I could get the magazine to let me do a story on him,” Kate said. “I found a paper by John C. McGregor titled ‘Burial of an Early American Magician’ that was presented to the American Philosophical Society in 1943.”
“I think I’ve read about McGregor. He was an archeologist?”
“He was. He led the group that exhumed The Magician in 1939. So, he was there at the discovery of the tomb. I’m not sure of his official title at that time, but when he presented the paper, he was the Archeologist and Curator of Dendrochronology at the Museum of Northern Arizona.”
“Ah, dendrochronology.” Cooper sipped the single-malt Scotch. “Dating past events through the study of tree rings. Lots of rain—thick rings. Drought—thin rings. Archeologists count the rings to determine the tree’s number of growing seasons and the weather patterns during that time. Right?”
“Is there nothing you don’t know something about?”
“I am a Renaissance Man, Kate.” Cooper grinned.
The past and present collide when a tenacious reporter seeks information on an eleventh century magician…and uncovers more than she bargained for.
February 2, 2022
In 1939, archeologists uncovered a tomb at the Northern Arizona site called Ridge Ruin. The man, bedecked in fine turquoise jewelry and intricate bead work, was surrounded by wooden swords with handles carved into animal hooves and human hands. The Hopi workers stepped back from the grave, knowing what the Moochiwimi sticks meant. This man, buried nine hundred years earlier, was a magician.
Former television journalist Kate Butler hangs on to her investigative reporting career by writing freelance magazine articles. Her research on The Magician shows he bore some European facial characteristics and physical qualities that made him different from the people who buried him. Her quest to discover The Magician’s origin carries her back to a time when the high desert world was shattered by the birth of a volcano and into the present-day dangers of archeological looting where black market sales of antiquities can lead to murder.
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