The Grave on Peckerwood Hill
by James Gary Vineyard
All Charlie Eastman wants is a home on the range, but he’s a magnet for everything he’s trying to avoid: crazy people, dead people, people who kill people, love… and his own death.
Tall, laid-back Eastman proudly wears a cowboy hat awarded to him by the late Ann Richards, governor of Texas. Unfortunately, everyone repeatedly mistakes Eastman for a Texas Ranger in this fast-paced, contemporary authentic Texas mystery. Set in West Texas today, The Grave On Peckerwood Hill is chock full of authentic dialogue, historically accurate facts and geography, and natural humor.
The story begins with two teenage boys from drastically different backgrounds sneaking out of their homes after midnight during an ice storm and unwittingly videoing their own murders. Lacking clues, a sheriff begs the help of Eastman, a retired corruption investigator for the governor’s office. Eastman declines, citing a recent mental breakdown. Unluckily, Eastman has an auto accident that traumatizes Austin Blackie, a champion stud bull owned by the wealthy widow of Red Pirtle, a simple plumber who launched the home improvement store craze in the fifties. After convincing Eastman that he rendered the bull impotent, the old woman and a mysterious tattoo artist scam Eastman into searching for her brother, whom she hasn’t seen for seventy years. The case partners Eastman with Doc Page, the red-haired town doctor whose terrible, swift tongue and smell of Noxzema cleansing cream drives him wild. A statue of three enormous peanuts on the town square that locals call Gooberhenge and a cockeyed promise Eastman makes atop a windmill, sets off an uncontrollable chain reaction of violence. The Grave On Peckerwood Hill is second cousin to No Country For Old Men, yet it is more than the pursuit of an evil force across Texas. The protagonist, Charlie Eastman, is a catalyst for trouble, and the story is as multifaceted as a Curb Your Enthusiasm episode with a mix of humorous, psychopathic characters. Fans of Elmore Leonard should find it to their liking.
TAA Sale Price: $13.95
Eastman dragged the barbed wire gate out of the way and held it while Ester Pirtle let the Lincoln roll between two scrawny cedar posts. In the backseat, Little Noodle vaulted from side to side, barking through the cracked windows. After the car cleared, Eastman pulled the gate back, drew it taut, and secured it with a wire loop.
“Who owns this property?” he asked when he was in the car.
“It’s mine,” Ester said. “Red bought it for me thirty years ago. A thousand acres, sight unseen. I wanted it, and that was good enough for Red. He never cared about real estate or playing the stock market. He liked monkeying with ideas.” When she saw the look on his face, she said, “That’s what he called it. Red thought it was miraculous to dream up something, then make it exist. It made him feel like he was pulling a fast one on God. Of course, most of his ideas were about plumbing, so I doubt if God minded too much. Red would think up a gizmo that could unstop your toilet and, in a couple of weeks, you’d see him in one of his dumb TV commercials, wearing a superhero outfit and waving the thing around.” She smiled. “Called himself The Drainiac.”
The road they were on was no more than a firebreak, and the car bobbed along until they came to a hog-wire fence running up a rise. She buzzed the down the windows, and Little Noodle sprung out like a cuckoo leaving the clock.
“What do you think?” she asked when they stopped.
He was looking out at acres of burned trees that never regenerated. “Not what most folks consider prime real estate.”
She thumbed behind them. “Years ago, there was water in the ravine we just crossed. Now, the grass burrs will eat you alive.” She shook her head. “Hard to believe this was the biggest pecan orchard in the county. Now, it’s just acres and acres of . . .”
“Nothing,” he said.
“That’s where you’re wrong, Charlie,” she said and got out. “I want you to see something.”
He followed her up the rise until she stopped at the drip line of a starving mesquite. She looked around, then started in the direction of a lopsided cube of sandstone that struck her about the knees when she got to it. She patted it.
“Think you can move this thing without killing yourself?”
“Maybe,” he said. “You hide something under it?”
“No, somebody else did.”
“Well, I can’t wait to find out what it is. You’ve been priming me for something all morning.”
He walked around the stone, shoveling debris away with his boot until there was a clearing big enough to accommodate the rock. He handed her his hat and gripped the corners of the stone and twisted it onto the little clearing. When she returned his hat, he said, “Looks like we’ve struck dirt.”
She snapped off a handful of sage and whisk-broomed the newly exposed ground. “Can you make it out yet?”
“I make out a dirty rock.”
“It’s a headstone. There’s twenty or thirty of them around here.”
“You bought a cemetery?”
“That’s right. Bet you think I’m crazy.”
“Not if you have family here.”
“Could be,” she said and swatted the stone some more. “All right, see if you can read it.”
He moved closer, studying the surface, then moved around to the other side.
“I’ll give you a little lesson about graveyards, Charlie. In most places, especially the South, Christians are buried with their feet to the east. That’s so they can sit up straight and be looking at Jesus on Resurrection Day.” She pointed to the horizon. “The Bible says He’s coming from thataway.”
“Jesus is coming from Fort Worth?”
“Not from Fort Worth, silly. He’s supposed to return from the east on the clouds. Or maybe it’s with the clouds. Anyway, there’s clouds involved. But He’s definitely coming from the east. I remember that much.”
He took two paces and said, “Okay, then if I stand over here facing east, I should be able to read the inscription.”
“Not with this grave. It’s just the opposite.”
“I don’t get it, Ester. That means the person buried here will sit up with his back to Jesus.”
She pointed at him. “That’s right. His back will be to Jesus.”
“Surely, you didn’t buy a thousand acres of burnt trees and diamondbacks because of a backward grave.”
She paced around, looking at the ground. “Look at the other headstones. They all face the other direction. Whoever buried the person you’re standing on was trying to tell Jesus something.”
He put on his glasses and squatted in front of the stone. He raked his palm across it. “Capital I. Capital S. And this looks like a semicolon.”
“It’s a Bible verse,” she said. “Book of Isaiah. Chapter thirteen, verse thirteen.”
“I assume you looked it up.”
“It says, ‘I will make the heavens tremble and the Earth will shake from its place.’”
“Who’d put that on somebody’s tombstone?” he asked.
She shrugged. “I can’t figure it out. It’s a strange graveyard. If my theory’s right, this is where they used to bury the undesirables. Folks who were lynched or died in jail without any kin-people.”
“Peckerwood Hill,” he said.
She looked puzzled.
“That’s what convicts in the state prison call the cemetery for unclaimed bodies. Peckerwood Hill.”
“Then maybe that’s what this is,” she said. “A peckerwood’s hill. I did some research on the place right after I bought it. Didn’t learn much except the family who lived here before the Civil War helped runaway slaves. And since people around here hung abolitionists, there’s bound to be some under us.”
He was looking down. “Then we’re standing on evidence of 150-year-old lynchings.”
“Could be,” she said. “None of the markers have names. Some have initials hen-scratched in sandstone. Some, just a little bois d’arc cross.”
He squatted and raked the headstone with the heel of his hand. “This one’s good hard rock.”
“Yes, it is. And if you don’t mind getting more animal doody on your hands, you’ll find it’s hand-chiseled granite.”
He stared at his palms when she continued. “I bought the property in 1970, and the marker was already there. I took a Kodak of it and showed it to the man who made Red’s headstone. He didn’t know any more about it than I do. That’s why I brought you out here. I want you to find out who’s down there.”
“You think it’s your brother,” he said.
She started back in the direction of the car. When he caught up, she said, “I need to tell you some things I should’ve at the start. You can wash off that doo-doo with Noodle’s water.”
The dog was asleep when they reached the car, and Ester crawled into the backseat with him. Eastman drove, and when they were through the gate, she said, “Remember I told you about Josh and me being orphans?”
“And I told you about the Lafoon family and how the old man treated Josh?”
“Uh-huh. And you two ran off.”
“Sort of. Now, this next part is hard for me to talk about. It’s something I’ve never told another living soul.”
She sat quietly, looking out at the landscape. “When I told you Josh took me away from the Lafoons, it wasn’t true. Truth is, the court put him away. Committed him to the insane asylum.”
“Because of the old man’s abuse?”
“No, he got used to that. He liked living in the shed. He was away from the old man and was free to do whatever he pleased. He could stay up all night and read his books, or sometimes he’d just wander the woods until sunup. Nobody cared as long as he got his work done.”
“Then why was he committed?”
“Because he killed the old man.” She began to pat the dog. “Shot him dead on the spot. You can imagine how that went over with folks here. Lafoon was a deacon in the church and everybody saw him as a saint with a feeble-minded wife, trying to raise two orphans. Cute little me and an ungrateful misfit of a boy.”
“What about the shooting?”
“Well, when good Christian Lafoon wasn’t in town serving the Lord, he was at home drinking his liquor. And one day in late October, it started raining like nothing you’ve ever seen. We couldn’t do anything but sit and watch it. Lafoon had taken to bathing inside because of the cold and one night after he’d been drinking, he decided it was bath time. So the old woman and I fixed his tub, and when he stripped to get in, I saw him staring at me. I was twelve and was beginning to blossom out, so I was keen to the fact that he might try something. I didn’t know what to do, so I told them I was going to the tool shed to tell Josh goodnight. As soon as I got to the door, he hollered for me come back, but I made out like I didn’t hear him. At first, I didn’t let on to Josh what was happening. But after a minute or two, Lafoon was shaking the tool shed door and hollering. So I told Josh.”
“What’d he do?”
“Never said a word. Just walked over to the wall and took down a nosebag.”
“A feedbag. Like you put oats in and hang around a horse’s head. Anyway, Josh ran his hand down inside it about the time the old man kicked the door open and stomped in stark naked. At first, I thought he was wearing a pair of black socks, but he’d come across the fall garden, and there was mud up to his knees. When he saw Josh, he covered his privates and told Josh I’d been a bad girl and he was taking me back to the house. But Josh’s hand was still in the bag, and he told old Lafoon real calm-like to get out. The next thing I knew, Lafoon grabbed a pair of fire tongs and came at him. When he got close, the nosebag came up, and BOOM! Lafoon went down and started jerking like a gut-shot deer. Then he pointed up at Josh and said, ‘You’ll go to Hell for sure.’ I begged Josh to run, but he shot Lafoon again. The old man just lay there, trying to stop the red foam coming out of his chest.”
Eastman glanced at the mirror and saw that her eyes were closed.
“That was ages ago,” she said, “but I remember the smell of gun smoke rising out of that nosebag and see those red bubbles like it just happened.”
“But if it was self-defense, why’d they commit him to a mental hospital?”
“At first, everybody wanted him tried as an adult. There were no papers showing his true age, and the gun had been stolen off a deputy constable’s corpse at a funeral home. The DA made it look like old man Lafoon caught Joshua with a stolen pistol, and Josh killed him when he tried to take it from him. There was a big trial.”
“But you witnessed the whole thing. What did you say?”
“That’s the worst part of all. I didn’t say anything. Josh told me to tell the sheriff that I was up at the house when it happened. He was afraid people would think I was in on it.”
He heard the patting again.
“I’ve kept quiet about it all these years.”
“What about the old man’s wife?”
“She was bad off to begin with, but she started speaking in the unknown tongue and they sent her to live with relatives.
“Which left you by yourself.”
“Right. So the town doctor took me in.”
She looked at him in the mirror.
“I saw his name in a book in your library,” he said.
She smiled. “It was Doctor Guttman. He’s the one who saved Josh from Old Sparky. That’s what they called the electric chair. Doctor Guttman told the jury that some of the orphan train riders had it so bad they went crazy. He told how Josh took care of me on the streets in New York, then how his genius brain went to pieces from being mistreated. The jury must’ve believed it because they sent Josh to the bughouse instead of the chair.”
“That was the last you saw of him?”
“No, he was released two years later and joined me in East Texas, where I was living with Doctor Guttman’s brother and his family. That’s the last I saw of him.”
She lay back. “I’m tired now. It’s not easy talking about my brother killing somebody. Even if the somebody was up to meanness.”
He dropped the subject and punched in an easy-listening radio station. Then he smiled at the idea of working for a woman who blackmailed him with a bull’s pecker, a woman convinced that Jesus would buzz into Texas on a cloud—or with the clouds—and the dead would sit up to say howdy. All the dead except the unknown soul under the animal doody stone.
Doc had been right. He couldn’t wait to see what happened next.
TAA Sale Price: $13.95