Line of Blood: Uncovering a Secret Legacy of Mobsters, Money, and Murder: A Short Review

Line of Blood: Uncovering a Secret Legacy of Mobsters, Money, and Murder by Jana Marcus

A Short Review by Rickey Pittman

I discovered the writing of Jana Marcus in my review of her earlier book, In the Shadow of the Vampire, which you can read on this blog. That review led me to read and review this work. But first, a word about Jana Marcus. Marcus is the author of two photodocumentary books, “In The Shadow Of The Vampire: Reflections from the World of Anne Rice” and “Transfigurations,” which received the Gold Award for Best LGBT Non-Fiction Book of 2012 by the Independent Book Awards of New York. She is a multi-award-winning photographer based in Santa Cruz County. You can discover much more about her and many illustrations of her exceptional photography at her website.

I am happy to have discovered her, a careful writer who has a fantastic inner theatre, an imagination no doubt fueled by her expert photographer’s eye. The subtitle of the writing gives the reader a strong hint of what is found in this murder-mystery-memoir–there is much here about mobsters, money, and murder. This is a tale of a Brooklyn family with their histories, their family trees, their secrets, and their faults and strengths. There is a section of family photos that bring places, family members, and graves into focus and helps the visualization of the narrative.  Marcus’s years of obsessive and careful research led her on her tedious quest for answers for unsolved murders. She found answers to many of her questions, but her discoveries were often painful, heartbreaking, and disappointing. I encourage you to read this fine book to discover for yourself what she found. She obviously knows how to create a documentary.

As a reader, I most enjoyed learning from this read.  Marcus used a psychic in her search and I learned much about how a psychic works in their communication with the past and with the dead. There certainly seemed to be some very haunted places connected to the murders. Marcus and her friends help her expose the massive corruption that had taken place in the DA’s office and the Brooklyn police in the 30s and 40s. The reader meets the Italian and Jewish mob leaders who, along with the corrupt law enforcement agencies, controlled the gangsters, the businesses, as well as the region’s prostitution, gambling, and murder for hire. Her narrative made me realize better than any crime movie of that period how corrupt things can become. Marcus says, “What was extremely evident to me was just how rampant corruption ran within the ranks of the police department and the higher authorities in the 1930s and 1940s” (p.111).

Here are some interesting discoveries I made:

Murder Incorporated. – an organized crime group in the 1930s and 40s that enforces the crime groups in the greater New York City area. Marcus covers their history from their formation to their end.

I learned much about Jewish gangsters. They were much more formidable a crime force than I had realized before this reading. Marcus also introduced me to many Jewish/Yiddish words and customs.

Marcus spent half her life in her search for answers. To conclude, I think this is the most memorable quote in the book: “I’ve learned the dead do talk…if you listen.”

You can order Marcus’ book HERE: 






Stonewall Jackson: A Great Christian, General, and Inspiration PART TWO

Stonewall Jackson: A Great Christian, General, and Inspiration PART TWO

My children’s picture book, Stonewall Jackson’s Black Sunday School is out of print, but don’t despair! I will gladly email a free part one HERE:  Download part two HERE:

Here is the original cover.  Perhaps you’ve seen it around. It received an award from the Colonial Dames of America.


Jackson was a deacon in the Presbyterian Church. He started a Sunday school on Sunday afternoons for free blacks and slaves. He taught them to read, (when it was illegal to do so) gave them Bibles, and taught them their catechism. One student in Jackson’s Sunday School became a pastor and he raised money from the black community for a stained glass window to honor Jackson with his last words on it. Here’s an image of that window:

Here are two videos that honor Stonewall Jackson in song. The first is a song written and performed by Jed Marum:

The second song that honors Stonewall Jackson is “Christmastime in Washington” that Jed Marum and I wrote and recorded. Considering the. current Cancel Culture and the politically correct war on Southerners, tradition, statues, and history, this song has an appropriate message.

You can listen to the song HERE:

Here are the lyrics!

Stonewall Jackson: A Great Christian, General, and Inspiration PART ONE

Stonewall Jackson Facts

  • The United States Navy submarine U.S.S. Stonewall Jackson (SSBN 634), commissioned in 1964, was named for him. The words “Strength—Mobility” are emblazoned on the ship’s banner, words taken from letters written by General Jackson
  • Stonewall Jackson appeared on the CSA $500 bill (7th Issue, February 17, 1864).
  • “Let us cross over the river, and rest under the shade of the trees.” —Jackson’s last words
  • “You may be whatever you resolve to be”—Stonewall Jackson
  • It was during the Battle of Bull Run in the Civil War when Jackson assumed his nickname. Amidst the tumult of battle, Brigadeer-General Barnard E. Bee stated, “There is Jackson standing like a stone wall.”
  • Jackson also appears prominently in the enormous bas-relief carving on the face of Stone Mountain riding with Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee. (In Georgia)
  • Stonewall’s steed, Little Sorrel (the Confederacy’s 2nd most famous horse)
  • Jackson was said to be especially fond of lemons. Visitors frequently leave them
    at his gravesite.

“Stonewall” Jackson has two separate burial sites. His left arm, which was amputated after the battle of Chancellorsville, was buried on a nearby farm. A week later, Jackson died and was buried in Lexington, Virginia. Stonewall died on a Sunday. He had prayed that he would be allowed to die on the Sabbath.

Songs and poems were written about Stonewall Jackson even during the Civil War. One of those was “Stonewall Jackson’s Way.”  According to a book, War Songs and Poems of the Southern Confederacy, “these verses were found written on a small piece of paper, all stained with blood in the bosom of a dead soldier of the old Stonewall Brigade after one of Jackson’s battles in the Shenandoah Valley” (47).  According to it was later discovered that the author was John Williamson Palmer (1825-1906).

COME, stack arms, men! Pile on the rails,
Stir up the camp-fire bright;
No matter if the canteen fails,
We’ll make a roaring night.
Here Shenandoah brawls along,
There burly Blue Ridge echoes strong,
To swell the brigade’s rousing song
Of “Stonewall Jackson’s way.”
We see him now, — the old slouched hat
Cocked o’er his eye askew;
The shrewd, dry smile, the speech so pat,
So calm, so blunt, so true.
The “Blue-Light Elder” knows ’em well;
Says he, “That’s Banks, — he’s fond of shell;
Lord save his soul! we’ll give him —;” well,
That’s “Stonewall Jackson’s way.”
Silence! ground arms! kneel all! caps off!
Old “Blue Light’s” going to pray.
Strangle the fool that dares to scoff!
Attention! it’s his way.
Appealing from his native sod,
In forma pauperis to God,
“Lay bare Thine arm; stretch forth Thy rod!
Amen!” That’s “Stonewall’s way.”
He’s in the saddle now. Fall in!
Steady! the whole brigade!
Hill’s at the ford cut off; we’ll win
His way out, ball and blade!
What matter if our shoes are worn?
What matter if our feet are torn?
“Quick-step! we’re with him before morn!”
That’s “Stonewall Jackson’s way.”
The sun’s bright lances rout the mists
Of morning, and, by George!
Here’s Longstreet struggling in the lists,
Hemmed in an ugly gorge.
Pope and his Yankees, whipped before,
“Bay’nets and grape!” hear Stonewall roar;
“Charge, Stuart! Pay off Ashby’s score!”
In “Stonewall Jackson’s way.”
Ah! Maiden, wait and watch and yearn
For news of Stonewall’s band!
Ah! Widow, read, with eyes that burn,
That ring upon thy hand.
Ah! Wife, sew on, pray on, hope on;
Thy life shall not be all forlorn;
The foe had better ne’er been born
That gets in “Stonewall’s way.”

Thirty Days to Halloween, Day 30: Psychobilly Music

Thirty Days to Halloween, Day 30: Psychobilly Music

Some time ago, I stumbled onto the song, “Psycho” by Elvis Costello. It was my first introduction to the genre of Psychobilly music. The song is terrifying and disturbing and as it’s sung in first person, the listener feels like the killer himself is singing. Texas Music Magazine has a great article about the story behind the song. Read it HERE:

HERE is a great and extensive article about Psychobilly. And here is Elvis Costello singing the song.

Elvis Costello and the Attractions – Psycho (1981)

Here is a video that discusses the history and importance of Psychobilly!

Thirty Days to Halloween, Day 29: Gothic Horror

Thirty Days to Halloween, Day 29: Gothic Horror

Gothic literature has always fascinated me.  Ever since I discovered the writings of the Gothic authors (You can see a complete list of these authors and their works HERE) I keep returning, rereading, and rethinking their hauntingly powerful prose.  I discovered a fine article that lists the elements of a Gothic novel. Read that HERE: And here is a video that discusses the features of Gothic literature.

In college, I discovered the Southern Gothic genre in writing of Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, The Oxford Research Encyclopedias says that the characteristics of Southern Gothic include the presence of irrational, horrific, and transgressive thoughts, desires, and impulses; grotesque characters; dark humor, and an overall angst-ridden sense of alienation. You can read that fine article HERE:  And here is a video devoted to Southern Gothic literature:

There is even a genre of Southern Gothic music. One source says that: Southern Gothic (also known as Gothic Americana, or Dark Country) is a genre of acoustic-based alternative rock and Americana music that combines elements of traditional country, folk, blues, and gospel, often with dark lyrical subject matter. Spotify has a playlist of Southern Gothic songs HERE:  Try it out for some unique Halloween music!


Thirty Days to Halloween, Day 28: The Ice Caves and the Chindi

Thirty Days to Halloween, Day 28: The Ice Caves and the Chindi

When the unclean spirit is gone out of a man, he walketh through dry places, seeking rest; and findeth none.–Matthew 12:43

          EDUARDO STEPPED UP ON A BOULDER AND SCANNED THE DESERT FOR THE NEXT CAIRN MARKING THE TRAIL. The heat waves shimmered into the sky from the desert ground and the distant mountains moved and bent in the refracted air.  After he spotted the cairn, he lifted his straw cowboy hat and wiped his forehead with the long sleeve of his khaki shirt.  He slicked back his shoulder-length black hair with his hand, then slid down the boulder. Sheridan and Bronwynn, his two fellow hikers, were studying a topographic map spread on the ground.

“I spotted the next cairn, Sheridan,” Eduardo said.  “Shinny up this rock and take a look. The ice cave is an hour beyond the cairn.”

Sheridan spat dry phlegm from his mouth and took a long drink from his water bottle. He stepped up on the boulder and scanned the dark ground surrounding them. “You’ve got better eyes than I do, Eduardo.  I can’t tell which pile of rocks you’re talking about.”

Eduardo squinted his eyes, focussing on blurred movement in the brush.  A roadrunner battled with a rattlesnake.  Both creatures seemed abnormally dark, their midnight-dark coloration a camouflage in the rugged volcanic terrain. A strange contrast to what desert visitors would see fourteen miles south, where the black New Mexico landscape would give way to white gypsum sands, and there the skins of the same animals would be abnormally light.

Edward saw Bronwynn shudder when a scorpion scurried past the toe of her boot.

“God, even the scorpions are black here,” she said.  “It’s so damned hot out here. Are you sure there’s ice caves out here?”

“Yeah,” Eduardo said. “I’ve seen them.  And the temperature in them never gets above 31 degrees. Hard to believe, isn’t it? Ice caves in the Valley of the Fires.” He handed Bronwynn his water bottle.

Bronwynn chugged down several swallows and handed the bottle back to him. “I don’t think I like desert camping. Everything either bites or stabs you. My socks are full of cactus spines. And the landscape looks like Mars or something.  Look at my boots. The rocks have cut them up so bad I’ll have to walk back barefoot.”

Eduardo looked down at his own boots.  They were gouged and cut from their walk as if a madman with a razor had slashed out at his feet. “Yeah, it’s a rough hike, but seeing this cave will be worth the scratches and blistered skin. Think about it. How many people have ever seen an ice cave in the middle of a desert?  And I’ll get some great photos and a good magazine article out of it.”

“What will we get?” Bronwynn asked.

“An unforgettable adventure and my gratitude for your company,” Sheridan said.

“The trip’s already unforgettable,” Bronwynn said. “I’ll never come to the desert again.”

They passed through a thicket of scrub juniper and cactus skeletons and came upon a jacal.  An old woman, her skin wizened and blackened from the sun, sat in the shade of the brush hut picking at her tangled gray hair with bony hands.

Sheridan waved. “Hello.  We’re students from the University of Texas in Austin. Do you mind if we talk to you?” The old woman stared at them but said nothing. Sheridan glanced at the others. “What do you make of this, Eduardo?”

Bruja,” he said. “She’s a witch. They’re the only Indians that live alone in the desert.  Let’s go on.”

“Ah, come on,” Sheridan said. “Let’s go meet her. This might be a real photo opportunity. I’d like to meet a real witch.”

“No, you wouldn’t,” Eduardo said.

“Maybe she’s got something cool to drink,” Sheridan said.

“That’s real funny, Sheridan. There’s hardly any water out here. That’s why we’re toting two gallons of water each for a two-day hike. I wouldn’t eat or drink anything she offered anyway.”

“Why not?” Sheridan said.

“Witches poison people if you’ve got something they want.”

“What would we have that she’d want?  It’s hard for me to understand how you can spend all your money getting a journalism degree, yet still be eaten up with Indian superstition.”

“Shut the hell up, Sheridan. Alright, we’ll go up to her and you take your picture, but we can’t stay long if we want to reach the cave before dark.”

Eduardo walked up to the woman. He bowed his head slightly and greeted her in Navajo.

She shook her head.  “Soy Apache. Sientate,” she said.

“What did she say?” Bronwynn asked.

“She’s Apache,” Eduardo said. “But I think she knows enough Spanish to talk to us.  She said we could sit down.”

They pulled off their packs, sat down in the shade near the woman, and gulped down some water from their bottles. Sheridan took his camera from his pack and pointed it at the woman.

The woman straightened herself and smiled, revealing a few jagged and yellow teeth. After Sheridan took the picture, she slumped back against the hut wall.  “Donde van?” the woman said. She held out a rusty tin cup that Eduardo filled with water from his bottle.

“To the ice caves,” Eduardo said.  The woman shook her head, so he repeated himself in Spanish. “A las cavernas del hielo.”

The old woman nodded. “Frio, muy frio. Lago de invierno. Lago de muertos.

The woman held out a basket filled with fruit-like pods. “Quiere las tunas?”

Sheridan picked out one. “Gracias,” he said. “Looks like prickly pear apples.”

“You idiot,” Eduardo whispered. “It may or may not be prickly pear. A witch can poison or drug you.”

Sheridan took a bite. “It tastes like prickly pear. Don’t be so paranoid.” Sheridan reached into his pack and pulled out a Granola bar and handed it to the woman.

She unwrapped the bar, threw the paper to the ground, and stuffed the bar into her mouth. After wiping her mouth with her arm, she pointed to Bronwynn’s ponytail.  “Damelo,” she said. “Damelo.” She reached over and fingered the elastic band holding back Bronwynn’s hair.

“She wants you to give her the band,” Eduardo said.

Bronwynn smiled, slipped off the band and handed it to the woman, then reached into the pocket of her hiking shorts and for another band to use on her own hair. The woman grinned and pulled back the tangled mass on her head and slipped on the band. “¿Está bien?” she said, turning her head from side to side.

Está bien,” Eduardo said. “Okay, Sheridan, you’ve met your witch. We better hit the trail.”  He stood up.

The woman held up a small serpent-shaped stick, pointed it at a javelina skull hanging on her hut, then pointed in the direction they were going. “No va allá,” she said. “Chindi, mal, mal.

“She says we shouldn’t go to the cave,” Eduardo said. “Says something about the chindi being there.”

Sí, sí, chindi, chindi,” the woman said. She raised her hands like they were claws and growled.

“What are chindi?” Bronwynn asked.

“Ghosts,” Eduardo said. “The earth-surface dead. I’m not sure what the Apache think, but Navajos believe that when someone dies, the evil part of their spirit often returns to torment travelers and settle grudges with people they knew.”

“Do you believe that crap, Eduardo?” Sheridan said.

“I’m half Navajo, so I guess I half believe it. Grandmother said the chindi killed Grandfather. One night they chased their flock of churro sheep into the desert and attacked and mutilated several of them. Grandfather went out to herd the flock back, and a chindi jumped out and clawed him.  Gave him the ghost sickness.”

“Oh, that’s great, Sheridan” Bronwynn said. “You’ve brought us to a haunted desert. What happened to your grandfather when he got this ghost sickness?”

“First, he got really sick. The family knew he was dying, so they carried him out of the hogan and laid him under his favorite shade tree. Two nights later he died. Then we brought him here to the desert and buried him near the ice cave we’re going to.”

“They let him die outside alone?” Bronwynn said.

“What else could they do?” Eduardo said.  “He had the ghost sickness. If he had died inside, she would have had to burn the hogan to keep the evil spirit from coming back.”

“But to die alone!” Bronwynn said.

“We all die alone, Bronwynn,” Eduardo said. “Every culture has its demons. Navajos have the chindi. I guess if one demon doesn’t get you, another one will.”

Sí, sí, chinde, chinde,” the old woman said. “Ustedes van a jornado de muertos.”

“What did she say, Eduardo?” Bronwynn said.

“She said we’re going to a dying place.”

*         *        *

AFTER they passed the next cairn, they came upon a string of kipukas.  Past volcanic activity had chemically altered the large sandstone islands’ color so that they had yellow and pink surfaces, and in other spots, the sandstone had metamorphosed into giant blocks of quarts. Beyond, black volcanic rock and obsidian covered the ground.  Many of the stones were green-streaked with a patina of red and purple, and the colors danced like flames in the sunlight.

They crossed a barbed wire fence, with a NO TRESPASSING sign wired to one of the old mesquite posts. “We’re trespassing,” Bronwynn said as they slipped through the wire.

“What the owners don’t know won’t hurt them,” Sheridan said. “Besides, the NPA has prohibited access to all known ice caves and won’t even reveal their locations. It’s actually good this cave is on private property. The government might not even know it exists.”

When Sheridan heard a snort and a sharp barking sound, he looked to his left and saw several javelinas bedded down in the shade of some junipers. He stomped his foot and the javelinas jumped, crashed into the brush, and vanished.

Bronwynn jumped forward and grabbed Sheridan’s arm. “What was that?” she said.

“Javelina,” Eduardo said. “They’re all over this part of the country. Watch out for them. They’ll tear your ass up with those long teeth.”

“They didn’t seem dangerous to me,” Sheridan said. “I thought I scared them off rather easily.”

“This time,” Eduardo said.

Bronwynn pointed to a deer carcass under one of the junipers. “Yuk!” she said. “They were eating something dead.”

“They’ll eat anything,” Eduardo said. “Live or dead.”

At sundown, they came to a rise of ground with a tumbled mass of boulders and volcanic rock, and Eduardo set down his pack. “Okay, we’re here. The cave’s right up there in those rocks, by the two biggest boulders.”

A thick black stream swirled from the rocks and then separated into specks that vanished into the sky.

“Look at all those birds,” Bronwynn said.

“Those are bats,” Eduardo said. “They live in the caves.”

“Sheridan, you didn’t say anything about bats being in this cave,” Bronwynn said.

“Don’t worry, they don’t bite. I just hope we don’t have to wade through a lot of guano. Let’s go take a look at the cave,” Sheridan said.

“Wait till tomorrow,” Eduardo said. “The ground’s rough and it would be easy to break a leg in the dark. There’s a bunch of lava tubes up there and since I haven’t been here in a long time, I’ll need daylight to find the right hole to crawl into.”

After a supper of crackers and sardines, Sheridan pulled a bottle from his pack. “Hey, I brought some mescal,” Sheridan said. “Let’s celebrate reaching the cave. You want some, Eduardo?”

“Sure. But I can’t believe you’d bring that rot-gut stuff when you could have bought some perfectly good whiskey.”

“Just felt mescal would fit the setting.” Sheridan poured some into each of their cups. “Here try a sip, Bronwynn.”

Bronwynn took a small swig and shuddered and handed the cup back to him.  “God, it tastes like kerosene. How can you drink that?”

As darkness fell, stars blanketed the sky and the moon rose. Sheridan lit a lantern, and they listened to the wind as it wound its way through the brush and rock formations.

“Listen,” Bronwynn said. “Sometimes the wind sounds like someone’s laughing or talking. It’s weird.”

“Desert’s a strange place. Maybe it’s the chinde,” Eduardo says. He stood, stretched his arms, and smiled. “Or it could be skinwalkers. Maybe they don’t like us camping here.”

“You mean they might think we’re trespassing?” Bronwynn said. Her white face glowed in the light of the lantern and the moon.

“Would you like someone camping on your front lawn?” Eduardo replied. “I read about people disappearing out in the desert. Some places possess evil powers. Witches will gather in secluded places like this take over the corpses of travelers who die to harm people who anger them. They can shapeshift into animal form.”

Bronwynn shuddered. “Shut up, Eduardo. You’re creeping me out.”

“No more ghost talk,” Sheridan said. “Let’s get some sleep.”

When Sheridan stood up, he staggered and nearly fell. “Whew! That mescal’s pretty stout.” After he recovered his balance, he and Bronwynn spread out their sleeping bags on a bare slab of sandstone. They took off their boots and lay down. Sheridan could feel the hardness and coarseness of the stone against his back even while he felt the softness of Bronwynn’s arms around him. Some coyotes howled neared them.  Sheridan sat up and saw two coyotes sitting on their haunches on the large boulders Eduardo said marked the entrance to the cave. Sheridan lay down again and when he closed his eyes, he felt like he was tumbling, and when he opened them, the stars spun wildly. “God, I hope I don’t get sick,” he whispered to Bronwynn. “I think this stuff is fermenting in my stomach.”

“You’ll be alright,” Bronwynn said. “Just don’t drink anymore. You always try to do too much of everything. Just quit talking and go to sleep.”

*         *        *

EDUARDO could hear Sheridan snore. He poured himself another full cup of the mescal. He drained it, then turned off the lantern and lay down on his own sleeping bag. As he drifted into sleep, he heard a snort and felt hot breath on his face. He jerked up and saw javelina by his bedroll. Its eyes glowed red in the moonlight and the coarse hair on its back bristled.  The javelina snorted again and its nostrils flared as it popped its long front teeth. Eduardo kicked out at the javelina, grabbed a rock and hurled it.  The rock struck the pig on its thick collar and ricocheted to the ground.

“Shoo, you sorry excuse for a pig. Git out of here!” Eduardo shouted.

The pig turned and ran into the brush a few feet, then stopped and turned around again.

When Eduardo jumped up and ran at the pig, it disappeared into the brush. Eduardo picked up two more rocks and followed. He threw the rocks hard at a dark spot of ground where he thought the pig might be. He heard movement and strained his eyes to find the shape of the javelina in the shadows. Instead, he saw a human shape rise and walk toward him.

“Who’s there?  Bruja, is it you?  Even a kook like you should know better than to come into a camp at night!”

The shape stepped back into the shadows.

“Why don’t you show yourself?” he shouted.

Bronwynn shook Sheridan.

“What is it, Bronwynn?”

“Listen. What’s wrong with Eduardo?”

Sheridan sat up and willed his mescal-beaten eyes to focus on Eduardo who was standing and shouting at the darkness.

“God he must be really drunk,” Bronwynn said. “Listen to him. Who’s he talking to?  Maybe the desert really does make people crazy.”

“He’s probably just had too much mescal.  Hey! Eduardo, you okay?”

Eduardo wobbled on his feet and pointed at the desert. “A javelina came into camp and after I ran him out, I saw someone in the brush. I can’t find my flashlight, or I’d go out and kick their ass.”

“You’re drunk, Eduardo, and you’re seeing things,” Sheridan said. “No one’s out here.”

Eduardo sat down on his sleeping bag, still looking out into the dark. “I tell you someone’s outside our camp. I can hear him moving in the brush now. Right behind me. Put your light on them. For a moment, I swear I thought it was my grandfather.”

Sheridan stood, turned on his flashlight, and scanned the ground behind Eduardo. The beam caught several pairs of red eyes close to the ground. “It’s feral pigs, Eduardo. That’s all it was.”

“It could be skinwalkers or a chindi.” Eduardo picked up another rock and threw it. The herd of javelinas squealed and snorted and ran wildly away from the camp. Sheridan followed them with the beam of the MAG-LITE. The herd stopped for a moment as another one joined them and then they vanished into the desert night.

*         *         *

SHERIDAN woke in the gray twilight of dawn, shook out his boots to make sure they contained no scorpions or snakes, and made coffee.  Eduardo lay sprawled on the bare ground, the empty bottle of mescal in his hand. Sheridan sipped his coffee and watched the sunrise, and when the soft reds of the dawn sky disappeared into an explosion of light, he woke Bronwynn and Eduardo.

“Up and at’em, campers. Let’s get on to this cave.” He took each a cup of coffee.

Eduardo sat up. “I don’t know if I can get up.”

“Maybe it’s true what they say about Indians and firewater.”

“Screw you, Sheridan. Got any aspirin?”

They ate a breakfast of oatmeal and orange drink and enjoyed the cool of the desert morning.  Then Eduardo led them to a pair of basalt boulders near the mouth of the cave.

Sheridan glanced at the towering rock surface and smiled. “Look, petriglyphs.” Carefully etched onto the smooth surface of the stones were geometric symbols, a seven-foot horned rattlesnake, a javelina, and several masked people. “You didn’t tell me about this, Eduardo.”

“I’d forgotten about them.”

“How could you forget something like this?” Sheridan said.

Bronwynn put her finger on one of the human figures and snickered. “Look, he’s anatomically correct. So what tribe of Indians lived out here?”

“The Jornodo Morgollón,” Sheridan said. “Most of them were eaten by the volcano that made this valley and the ice caves. I don’t know if they were the ones that made these though.”

“What does Jornodo Morgollón mean?” Bronwynn asked.

“The stupid ones,” Eduardo said. “No one in their right mind would live out here. My father and grandfather came to the ice cave once or twice a year. I always hated it when they brought me with them. But they said there was big medicine here and that I needed to make peace with the desert.”

Sheridan smiled. “Did you?”


Sheridan laughed and after he finished taking pictures of the petroglyphs, Eduardo pointed to a small hole in the ground near the boulders.

“There’s your ice cave entrance,” Eduardo said.

“That little hole is a cave?” Bronwynn said.

“It’s a lava tube, and it’s deep. It gets a little wider once you’re inside.”

“How far down is the ice?” Bronwynn said.

“Seems like we crawled an hour or so before we reached the ice.”

“Let’s go in,” Sheridan said. “I want to be first.” Sheridan stuck his head inside, turned on his mag light and peered down the shaft. After he put on his leather gloves, he slid down the lava vent feet first.  He felt the jagged and rough surface of the lava against his legs.  A few yards down the tube widened. “So far, so good,” Sheridan said. “The slant is not too bad. You two might as well come on. Be careful. The rocks are sharp.”

Eduardo and Bronwynn joined him, and they crept slowly down the lava tube.  The cramped size of the tunnel slowed down their progress. As they went deeper, the temperature gradually decreased, and in spite of the exertion of moving, Sheridan felt chilled.  The cave widened into a large room and there they found the ice. A thick layer covered the walls, floor, and ceiling of the cave.  Sheridan had heard that the ice in some caves was up to twenty feet thick. The ice had a blue-green tint and the color reminded Sheridan of the color of the ocean. “Look at how blue the ice is, Bronwynn, blue as your eyes, bluer than the sky.”

“I thought it would look more like Carlsbad Caverns and have ice cycles,” Bronwynn said.  “I’m cold now. How long do we have to stay in this icebox?”

“You two can go back to the camp if you want, but I’ve got a lot of work to do here. This is fantastic,” he said. “Do you know how old this ice is?” He pulled his camera, tape measure, and note pad out of his daypack.

“I’m ready to go too,” Eduardo said.

“So go. I’ll be up later.”

“Better hurry, it will be dark soon,” Eduardo said.

*         *         *

SHERIDAN finished his last roll of film, made some final notes, put a small sample of the ice into a jar, and began the long crawl back to the surface. He rolled out of the opening and walked into their camp. Bronwynn and Eduardo looked to be fast asleep in their sleeping bags. Exhausted from his journey into the ice cave, he drained the bottle of Mescal and fell into a troubled sleep. He didn’t hear Bronwynn and Eduardo call out to him.

*         *         *

AT sundown the next day, the Apache woman stood over the bodies of the campers.  Sheridan had been staked out spread-eagle to the ground.  Ants covered much of his body and thorns and cactus spines had been pressed deep into his white flesh, but he was not dead yet.  The mutilated bodies of Bronwynn and Eduardo lay on either side of him.  She stripped the bodies of their clothes and emptied their backpacks on the ground and filled one of the packs with everything she wanted.  She looked toward the cave and saw the two coyotes sitting on their haunches by the entrance, and the bats rising from the dark holes of the earth into the sky.  The wind stirred and she heard the malignant whispers of the chindi and knew they were near.  For protection, she fingered the amulet pouch around her neck, a pouch containing the gall bladders of a bear, coyote, and deer. Sheridan moaned loudly, and she could hear the herd of javelinas crashing through the brush toward him. “Sí, sí, chindi, chindi. Voy,” she said.  She rose, and dragging the heavy pack, hurried back toward her jacal while the javelinas fed on the three travelers.





Thirty Days to Halloween, Day 27: Ghost Fires: The Windigo of the Cree

Thirty Days to Halloween, Day 27: Ghost Fires: The Windigo of the Cree

The Cree Indians of Canada have one of the most horrifying legends of horror–the Windigo. Because of this story, I was the 1998 Grand Prize Winner in the Ernest Hemingway Short Story Competition. In addition to the prize money, I was able to fly to Sarasota Florida and meet the Hemingway family. This trip was definitely one of the highlights of my writing life.

“GHOST FIRES” by Rickey Pittman

Sheridan leans against the large conifer to catch his breath and seek relief from the icy, septic claws of the wind.  Whenever the wind changes directions, he moves around the tree adjusting to the new attack.  As the nylon surface of the Eddie Bauer down parka rubs the tree’s rough surface, Sheridan, blank-faced, watches the brittle bark crumble and fall to the indifferent snow.  The relentless, moaning wind pushes him in a circular dance around the tree, and a cloud of swirling snow powder engulfs him.  He holds the microcassette recorder close to his mouth so that the wind-sounds do not overpower his voice.  The metal and plastic surface of the recorder scrapes the bristles of a new beard
and a sore on his frostbitten face.  The ghost fires of the Aurora borealis dance above him, dance sadly, and the iridescent colors evolve and twist into eerie, chaotic patterns, images that disturb and distract him.

Sheridan holds up the recorder and stares at the slowly turning reels through red and watery eyes.  He shakes his head, lowers the recorder to his mouth, and resumes his diary.  How did he get here?  Sheridan strains to remember, and wills himself to talk, to sift through layers of jumbled memories.

* * *

He was a history major in the graduate class of his favorite professor, a beautiful Chippewa, who taught Native American literature at the University of Minnesota.  Sheridan thought her incredibly intelligent, and a striking lady, especially when she pulled her straight, shoulder length black hair behind her ear, crossed her arms, and leaned against
the wall in her favorite lecture position.  The silver jewelry she liked to wear jingled softly whenever she gestured and sparkled when light hit the rings and bracelets at the right angle.  In class, she frequently flashed a smile Sheridan’s way, and would often thank him for his comments.  She lectured with intensity as her dark eyes searched the faces of her students and challenged their apathy and ignorance of things Indian.  One day Sheridan  flipped through a Reader’s Digest coffee table book on the Indians of North America and he came upon a word that caught his attention.

“Can you tell me anything about the Windigo?” he asked after a class lecture about the Cree.

“Many Cree today still believe in the Windigo,” she said.  “These spirits are invisible, and the most terrifying creatures of the northern forest.  The Cree describe them as superhuman beings, thirty feet tall, with slavering, lipless mouths, and hearts of ice.  These spirits have an insatiable appetite for human flesh.  No man-made weapon can destroy them, and only the most powerful of shamans can provide protection against them.  The Windigo begin stalking the forest in search of lone hunters at the onset of winter and flee north at spring.”

A week later Sheridan met with his instructor in her office. “I’m considering writing a thesis on the Cree legends.  And to help my research, I’m going to take a winter camping trip to northern Saskatchewan. I’ve always wanted the winter experience of the northern lights, and I think the solitude will lend perspective to my writing about the Cree myths.”

“I’m impressed, Sheridan.  It’s really quite a creative idea. A trip like that should be quite illuminating and give you many insights into the Cree hunter’s mind. I’d like for you to share your experience with the class when you return.  It is a good quest.”

Quest.  The word hit one of Sheridan’s mental buttons, and he saw himself as a man on a quest and even imagined writing a best seller based on his experiences and research entitled,  A Hunter of Legends in the Land of the Cree.  The next day, his instructor shared Sheridan’s idea with the class.

When the class took a break, one student said, “So, you’re going to search for the wily Windigo, Sheridan?”  He said this loudly, and the slobber he allowed to run down his pocked face added to the effect of his sarcasm and the other students in the class howled with laughter. he said, “Sheridan, you are such a brown noser.”

“Piss on you, Brad.  I don’t know how a moron like you could even get into a graduate program.  Try being serious about something for once.”

Sheridan prepared for the trip carefully.  He read every book he could find on winter camping and studied several issues of Backpacker Magazine. John, a friend who owned a sporting goods store, sold him his equipment, taught him to use a compass and topographic maps, and demonstrated how to walk in snowshoes.  When Sheridan explained his thesis idea and how he wanted to view and experience the land through the eyes of a lonely Cree hunter, John frowned thoughtfully but nodded as he placed a red, plastic, square sign on the store’s stuffed grizzly, its mouth frozen in a permanent snarl.  The sign advertised a sale on wilderness survival kits.

“Well,”  John said, “You’ve picked a harsh area to camp in. Going alone, you’ll experience the loneliness–and more.”

Sheridan flew into Prince Albert in northern Saskatchewan and rented a four-wheel-drive Subaru station wagon.  He drove to the Canadian police station on Highway 905.  From the station, he planned to go north until he reached Lake Deception, then trek southwest until he reached an abandoned Hudson Bay outpost, then he could circle back to the highway. He estimated the total distance of his trek to be no more than ten miles.  He guessed one could walk at least five miles a day on snowshoes, and concluded he could easily complete the trek in a week.

No one was at the station.  After waiting for two hours in the gravel parking lot, he assumed that the Mounties were out on business.  He left a note on his vehicle which detailed his itinerary, loaded up his red toboggan, and hiked north from the station into the Canadian forest toward Lake Deception.

Hiking on snowshoes was much more physically demanding than he had expected, and the thrill of adventure quickly waned.  After only a few hours of walking, his legs ached and cramped, his eyes were irritated from the caustic wind, and his head hurt. He stopped for a moment to jot down some notes. He pulled his small writing pad and pen out of his parka pocket. When he removed his mitten, his hand stiffened immediately in the icy wind.  When he tried to write, he discovered the cold had thickened the ink, so he tossed the useless pen into the snow.  He dug around in his pack until he found a pencil.  After he had written a couple of lines, the point broke. He opened his pocket knife, but his hand shook so badly that he couldn’t sharpen the pencil. He gave up on the idea of writing anything and walked on.  Everything, even the smallest of tasks, seemed so complicated here–in the hungry land of the Windigo.  An hour later, exhausted, he pitched his tent, climbed in his sleeping bag, and fell into a deep sleep.

After six hours of hiking on the second day, he neared a creek bottom and heard an approaching snowmobile.  As the black Skidoo topped a hill, Sheridan observed how it sped along smoothly over the same snow he had fought with to the point of exhaustion.  The snowmobile carried two passengers and towed a toboggan bearing a large buck.  A young boy sat behind the adult driver.  A white dusting of snow covered their red wool coats.  When they spotted Sheridan, they drove into the creek bottom and killed the engine.  The moaning and whistling sounds of the wind quickly replaced the sewing machine noise of the two-stroke engine.  The pair lifted their arms in greeting and waited patiently for Sheridan to trudge down to them. By their dark hair and skin, Sheridan thought they must be Indians.

“Hello.  You are far from the road.  You are hunting also?”  The voice of the father sounded warm, and the English  better than Sheridan had expected.

“Not a hunter of animals. I am doing research for the University of Minnesota.”

The father nodded and said, “My son and I were going to stop and build a fire.  We would be happy to share our food with you.”  The Indians stared at his snowshoes and toboggan.

“Thank you,” he said, panting. “I am ready for a break myself, and I could use some company.”

The father took the Remington bolt action rifle slung on his back, laid it on the snowmobile, turned to his son, and said, “Gather some wood.”

The boy made two trips to some nearby trees and broke off armfuls of dead branches which he brought to his father.  The father removed his mittens, stacked the sticks in a teepee shape on an exposed rock, and used a cigarette lighter to start the fire.  He stood up, dusted some snow from his ragged wool coat, and nodded to the boy who kneeled down and steadily fed the small fire larger sticks until they had a good bed of coals.  The father then stepped to the snowmobile and picked up a burlap bag from which he removed a square foil package.  He unwrapped it and dropped the frozen square into a pan which he placed on the coals.

The pre-cooked venison stew quickly thawed, and the aroma made Sheridan’s mouth water.  The spoons scraped the side of the aluminum bowls as the stew filled and warmed Sheridan’s stomach, and he thought it tasted much better than the MRE’s, oatmeal, and granola bars in his pack.  The sun vanished, and they found themselves under the stars of a beautifully brilliant Arctic sky.  Orion, the hunter, majestically dominated the portion of sky in Sheridan’s frame of vision.  The stars sparkled in the clear sky and reminded him of the silver jewelry on his professor’s arm which flashed with every gesture in the warm, sunlit classroom.

After the meal, the boy fetched a battered Stanley thermos and tin cups, and poured each a steaming cup of coffee.  Sheridan reached into his pack and pulled out a fifth of Crown Royal he had brought along for special moments.  He poured a good dose into their cups, then turned on the microcassette recorder. He thought the moment a perfect opportunity to gather information about Indian legends.

“Tell me about yourselves.  Where do you live?  How often do you hunt out here?” he inquired.  He drank down his coffee quickly, and the edge of the tin cup burned his lip and the coffee scalded his tongue.

“We are Cree, and we now live on the reservation.  Sometimes my family lives in Prince Albert when there is work.  Some of my cousins are steelworkers and have moved to New York.  During the winter, my son and I often take hunting trips.  I have never seen one . . . like yourself–walking and camping alone in the winter.  Where are you going?”

“I am looking for Lake Deception. Do you know if  I am close?”

“There are many lakes in Saskatchewan, but I do not recognize such a name. You should go back.”

“Maybe you know the lake by an Indian name?”  Sheridan was puzzled; the map showed the rather large body of water to be somewhere in this locale.  Sheridan was also somewhat disappointed in the Indians.  Not only because they didn’t know their geography, but they did not resemble the image of Indian hunters his professor had created in class.  Much too modern.  Sheridan briefly took a mental side trip and imagined the same father and son living as the Cree did a hundred years ago: when they spoke Cree instead of English; took long hunting treks across the subarctic to return with bundles of furs which they would trade to the Hudson Bay outposts for guns, beads, and whiskey; when the Cree families lived in smoke-filled birch bark homes; and gnawed leather in the worst winters because there was no food.  He served himself and the father more whiskey.  After the Crown kicked in, Sheridan questioned the father about the legend of the northern lights which flashed and swirled above their heads.

“My ancestors believe these lights to be the campfires of lost spirits, doomed men who died in battle or alone on hunting trips.  Now, these warriors–sad, lonely, and lost–are nomad spirits who must forever travel the dark skies above the cold land of the Cree.”

Sheridan was impressed with the eloquence and heartfelt emotion of the father’s speech.  His son nodded to his father’s words as he occasionally added another stick to the fire.  Sheridan, excited, stared at the northern lights as the father spoke, and for a moment imagined he actually saw a Cree warrior spirit on the border of the horizon stumbling and weaving his way toward them.

“Tell me about the Windigo,” he said.

“It is bad luck for hunters to talk about the hungry spirits. If you even mention their name, they come hunting for you,”  the Indian whispered. Something in his tone changed.  The Indian swept his arm toward the shadow-filled forest.  “There are many of them, and they feed on lone hunters.  Sometimes one can hear them fighting among themselves in the woods.  The trappers have left, our people now live on reservations, only the hungry spirits remain.  We need to return home now.”  He glanced nervously toward the woods, abruptly turned to his son, and spoke sharply in an Indian dialect. Without another word to Sheridan, they packed up and sped away on the snowmobile, the buck in tow, his frozen legs straight up in the air.  Sheridan stared at the fire as the sound of the machine faded and its lights vanished in the darkness. As the boy had done, Sheridan fed the small fire an occasional stick.  He realized that he must have committed a faux-paswhen he asked the Indian about the Windigo. Nothing like ruining a good
conversation. Their reaction revealed how slowly Stone Age superstition dies. Maybe later he could take a trip to the Cree reservation and arrange some interviews with the less reticent and more enlightened of the tribe. Sheridan put up his tent, crawled into its protection, and slept.

After an oatmeal breakfast and cups of tea, Sheridan broke camp. He marked his estimated location on the topographic map, set his compass, and waddled and shuffled awkwardly through the snow.  Sheridan did not understand why he could not find Lake Deception.  Maybe the lake was covered with snow and he had unknowingly walked over it. Perhaps he had figured the compass declination incorrectly. If he had made a significant declination error, he might not even be close to where he wanted to go.  His stomach churned.

Sheridan decided to return; the trek had nothing more to add to the thesis.  He had experienced the harshness of the Cree’s land sufficiently to write with understanding and empathy.  The decision made, he set his course south, hoping to find the way back to his
starting point at the Mountie station or at least to the highway.

Sheridan walked on until exhaustion set in. He set up the Eureka four-season tent and for comfort more than warmth, built a small fire on an exposed rock. He heard wolves in the distant darkness in between the roaring gusts of the demon wind. Sheridan crawled into his tent and slept an hour until the silence awoke him. He glanced outside the tent and saw that dark clouds had rolled in and the air felt warm and humid.

Before long, the snow began. Big flakes drifted slowly to the earth. Sheridan unzipped the top section of the tent door and wrapped in the down sleeping bag, watched the snow fall for a half-hour. As the snowfall thickened, visibility shrank to a few yards.  Sheridan decided to wait the storm out. He zipped up the tent door but left a small bit
open for ventilation. The heat of his butane lantern made the tent almost comfortable.  He lay down and had just dozed off when he heard some growls outside the tent, followed by snapping, popping sounds.  Sheridan guessed that some wolves fought over supper–a deer, rabbit, or some other unlucky creature of the northern woods.  Maybe the wolves were fifty yards away, but distance and location were difficult to measure with certainty in this country. A man from Ontario once told him that pilots often crashed in the north country in whiteouts or even on the gray winter days because there was no clear horizon.  Unable to distinguish between the ground and sky, between what was real and what was hallucination, the pilots lost their bearings.  Sheridan opened the flap of the tent, and strained his eyes to scan the area around the tent and thought he saw the dark shadow-shapes of wolves move through the tree line on a nearby ridge.  Sheridan lay down, slept, and dreamed of the warm Louisiana swamp he once hunted and camped in as a young boy.

When Sheridan awoke again, so much snow had piled up that he had to leave the tent and use a snowshoe to dig away snow from the top and entrance of the tent.  Finally, the snow stopped, but gale force winds followed.  When Sheridan went to his food bag which he had hung in the branches of a nearby tree, he found it on the ground, most of its contents eaten and trampled.  He thought he had put it high enough to keep animals out of it.  Frustrated and hungry, Sheridan poured the last of his fuel into the stove and lantern, finished the bottle of Crown, and realized he didn’t have many moments of heated comfort left.  The wind steadily grew in intensity, and angrily whipped the tent with its gusts, as if it were a creature that wanted to rip through the thin fabric.  Even with his lantern’s heat, the cold seeped deep into his bones, and his teeth chattered constantly.  Some lines from Milton’s descriptions of hell flashed in mind. “Beyond this flood a frozen Continent. . . Thaws not. . . all else deep snow and ice. . . cold performs th’ effect of Fire. . . fierce extremes. . . to starve in Ice. . .”  Sheridan cursed his luck, cursed the weather and recorded some ideas for a personal essay entitled: “My Journey into the Hell of the Cree in Search of the Windigo.”

When he heard more growls and cracking noises, Sheridan again looked outside the tent, but could see nothing.  He decided to break camp.  The station and highway could not be far away; he resolved to walk until he reached something civilized.  Sheridan dug his frozen tent from its icy vault and loaded it onto his sled.

Sheridan jerked the toboggan and began the monotonous and exhausting hike again.  His eyes burned from the brightness of the snow and the wind. Each time the malicious talons struck his face, he felt as if someone poked at his eyes with an ice pick.

The darkness of this land was surreal. It didn’t seem natural for the sun to emerge, skim the horizon, and then disappear so quickly. It unnerved Sheridan to see the few moments of light fade to an aberrant twilight and then shortly find himself dumped again into a choking and extended Cimmerian darkness. Sheridan had heard that a man can go nuts if he stays too long in the dark.

Sheridan felt his body weaken as he walked. He knew he needed food for energy and body heat.  Sometimes experience forces redefinition of terms.  Sheridan decided that hunger is not the minor discomfort one feels when a meal or two is missed.  Hunger, real hunger, is a creature with beaver-like teeth that hatches and gnaws constantly on your stomach.  He reflected on an article in the New Yorker about a doctor who said his experiences in Bosnia documented that one chocolate bar could add eleven more days to a child’s life.  And he thought about the Antarctic explorers he heard on NPR who said on their trek they ate a pound of butter of day.  . .

* * *

The recorder clicks and Sheridan lowers it from his face to his side. His arm and back are sore.  He rewinds the tape and plays it back, but after a few minutes of rambled journal entries, all he can hear is the wind.

Sheridan tries to count the exact number of days,  extending fingers one by one within his mittens, but his numb brain loses count.  He can’t recall the last time he had eaten or even what day it was.  What if he was late to class? What if he was lost? The wind changed directions again and bit his windburned face and snow blind eyes like a beast.

“This cold is eating my ass.  Christ, how could the Indians have stood this?”

Sheridan hears laughter and a loud hiss.  He peers around the conifer in the direction of the sound of crunching snow; he sees a large shadow-like shape streak through the trees a few yards away. Once again, the wind whips across his exposed face, and his eyes water and burn.  He concentrates and focuses his vision in the twilight.  In his peripheral vision he sees the shape again, only now it is much closer, within a few feet.  He jerks around; nothing is there, but he sees bloody footprints in the snow.  He pulls off a mitten and fumbles for his knife, his microcassette recorder still in his left hand.  The wind dies and Sheridan feels lost in the silence.  Another streak.  He wheels again,  still trying to find his lock-blade.  Again, he hears laughter.

“Playing with me, are you?”  He awkwardly attempts to run in the snowshoes. His right jaw suddenly explodes and the force of the blow knocks Sheridan on his back. A cloud of powdery snow flies upwards.

The stars swirl in a tracer-like pattern. He touches his jaw with his right hand; it is wet and warm, covered with blood.  Slow footsteps crunch in the snow.  More laughter.  An Indian, dressed in the old style of caribou skin garment worn by the Cree in the paintings he studied in school, towers above him, a bloody wooden war club in his
hand.  His lipless face smiles wickedly, and his eyes roll in blood. Sheridan sees the jagged teeth.  Hearts of ice,  she had said.  Sheridan closes his eyes to the hallucination.  Sheridan orders his tired and weakened limbs to move.  They won’t.  He can still feel his recorder in his left hand and he hears the tape turning.  He opens his eyes and can see the multicolored ghost fires dance brightly in the dark sky above him, and the sad, shadowy form of a Cree warrior, the horizon-walker, materializes.  He beckons Sheridan with his hand to join him at his campfire.  He whispers some words in an Indian dialect and points toward the horizon.  There is a sad, understanding tone in his voice.

As he comes closer, Sheridan sees a scarred face, and leather clothes torn and bloody as though a wild creature had torn and fed on his body. Something cold grabs Sheridan’s arm and drags him roughly out of the snowdrift. A large foot rests heavily on his chest, and huge, strong, claw-like hands rip off his parka.  The wind whips across his face, torn stomach, and exposed body.  Sheridan hears the tearing of his flesh and the crunch and snap of bones as the Windigo devours him. . . .









Thirty Days to Halloween, Day 26: Skinwalkers and Chindi, Horror of the Navajos

Thirty Days to Halloween, Day 26: Skinwalkers and Chindi, Horror of the Navajos

I’ve read everything I can find about Native Americans for most of my reading life. The Navajo have two legends that are appropriate for us to consider during Halloween. First, there are the Skinwalkers, witches who are capable of great evil and who can shapeshift into the forms of animals or of dead people. This site is the best description of the Skinwalkers that I’ve found.   Here is a short video about the Skinwalkers.


The next Navajo legend is the evil, demonic ghost of the Chindi, a ghost left behind when a person who dies doesn’t receive proper burial rites. Witches can inflict a “ghost sickness” upon others.   HERE is a good site with some information about the Chindi. And here is a good video about the Chindi.