Fiendish Father’s Day Challenge Winner
Esther Logan sat in a rocking chair on the front porch of their small house on the rolling plains. A full moon, unbelievably white, floated in the eastern sky, lighting up the fields as if at midday, and a warm spring wind bent the grass and riffled the leaves in the trees. Gazing into the peaceful distance, she felt a moment of simple pleasure. Esther didn’t get much pleasure these days, or leisure either. As her grandma used to say, she was born tired and never got rested.
But at least Walt wasn’t around. Esther wasn’t sure where he was–he never told her anything. Which was sometimes just as well. This way she could hope he stayed gone all night. All day tomorrow too, would be fine with her. Walt Logan was the sorriest excuse for a husband and father she’d ever known, and she had only herself to blame for marrying him. Her first husband, Richard, had died suddenly and far too early, thrown from a horse during a trail drive, and Esther’s ma had thought the only thing worse than having never been married was being an unmarried widow with an ten-year-old son to raise. Little had she known.
Esther touched the most recent bruises on her cheek and wondered how far she and Ricky–now almost thirteen–could get, if they packed up and left now. Not far enough, she figured. And when they were caught and brought back it would be even worse for them both.
Esther looked out over the moonlit plains and whispered a prayer. “Give me a sign, Lord,” she said aloud. “Tell me what to do.”
But she saw no signs, and heard no answers. What she heard was the pounding of footsteps on the hardpacked dirt of the side yard as Ricky came charging around the corner of the house. He leaped up onto the porch and stood in front of her, sweating and panting.
“What in the world’s the matter with you?” she said to him. “Why ain’t you in bed?”
Ricky took off his hat and blurted, “I caught him, Ma. He was in the barn.”
“What? Caught who?”
“Lucifer. I locked him in.”
Esther just stared. “Lucifer,” she said, “is in our barn?”
Ricky nodded. “He almost got me. I left my pocketknife there this afternoon, and I was about to walk in and get it when I smelled something funny. I stopped, swung the door shut, and latched it just as he hit it from the other side, growling and snarling at me.” He looked down at his hands. “I’m still shakin’.”
Esther rose from her chair, her drying-towel from the supper dishes still in her hands. She stood there a moment and then sat down again. She opened her mouth to say something but couldn’t seem to get it out. Her mind was whirling.
Lucifer was a legend in these parts, something parents told their kids about to make them stay close, something you heard about but never saw. Some said he was a panther like those in the tales of foreign lands with jungles and elephants, others said he was a giant black mountain lion. The few who had seen him said he was four feet high at the shoulder and ten feet from nose to tail. Many had heard him scream in the night, a sound that chilled the blood, but never, ever, had he been known to venture into a settled area.
But on a night like this . . .
Everyone knew bad things happen with a full moon.
Finally Esther found her voice. “Can he get out?”
“No ma’am, he’s shut in tight. I even ran around back and made sure the other door was latched. He’s pitching a fit and plenty mad, but he can’t bust through that door. And I don’t think he can chew or scratch his way out either.” Ricky swallowed and added, in a trembling voice, “What do we do?”
“I guess we wait for your pa to get back.” She turned to look east, where the wagon path entered a stand of pitch-dark trees. “He rode his horse into town a while ago, to do some business.”
Ricky’s face, usually so animated, went still. “He ain’t my pa, and that ain’t his horse. And I can imagine what kinda business he’s doing.”
Esther held her tongue, mainly because he was right. Walt was probably at the bar of the saloon, or in one of the rented rooms on its second floor. Finally she said, “Your stepdaddy, then. He rode your horse into town, and when he gets back–”
“What’ll that be? Tomorrow?”
“When he gets back we’ll tell him about it.” She rocked forward, took both Ricky’s hands in hers, and said, “Right now we got bigger problems than Walt. This cat, this–thing–in the barn, he’s killed half a dozen folks, and who knows how many head of livestock. Maybe Walt can knock a hole in a wall and stick his rifle through, or something. Or go get more help.”
Ricky fell silent then, looking out into the night as Esther had been doing earlier, and what he said next shocked her. He seemed to have read her mind.
“I think I should go out to the back pasture, catch Mary and Roscoe, and hitch ’em to the wagon,” he said. “You and me could pack up and leave. I bet we could get to Dodge ’fore sunup.”
“But what then?” she asked. Tenderly she touched his smooth cheek with her palm. “Even if Walt didn’t come find us, what would we do? This is our home, I was born in this house and you were too. You think your real pa would’ve wanted us to leave?”
“My real pa woulda killed Walt years ago, when we found out what kinda man he was.”
She closed her eyes and sighed. “I made a mistake, Ricky, and I know it. But I’m telling you again, right now we got to think about what you locked in the barn. You understand? And as worthless as Walt is, he can probably handle this. He’ll find a way to kill it–”
“If he ain’t too drunk.”
“–and when he does, maybe that’ll change him. At least for a while. He’ll feel like he’s important, with people everywhere talking about him. The man who killed Lucifer. Maybe that’ll keep his mind off you and me. We could both use a little of that, right?”
Ricky had gone quiet again. Probably thinking about how bad things were for their little family, for her to be saying such things. Esther felt herself wishing, for the thousandth time, that her precious first husband was still here. He had been a fine father, the best ever.
Before she could come up with anything else to say, she saw her son look past her, and when she turned she saw Walt Logan loping out of the trees and down the winding path from town. He had to have been drinking, to be riding that fast in the dark.
He reined Ricky’s horse in beside the front steps and sat there leaning on his saddlehorn, trying to focus on Esther. He was indeed drunk.
Before he could speak, she said, “Walt, listen to me. We need your help. Something’s–”
“Where’s that little coffeepot you used to have?” he growled.
“The fancy one with the long spout. I found somebody wants to buy it.”
Esther felt her face grow warm. “That pot was my mother’s, Walt. I can’t sell it.”
“Well, I can. I already did. Fella in town’s waitin’ for me to bring it to him.”
“In the middle of the night?”
“It’s barely nine o’clock, Esther. Where’s that coffeepot at?”
She stared at him. “Are you really going to do this? When I’m begging you not to?”
He spat into the dirt. “I’ll ask you one more time,” he said. “Where is it?”
Slowly Esther turned to look at Ricky. What she saw in his eyes broke her heart: it wasn’t anger, or hate. It was just sadness. For her and for him too. Both of them were helpless and hopeless. And then, all of a sudden, she knew what she had to do.
Maybe it wasn’t bad, that big white moon. Maybe it was a sign.
She turned again to face her husband.
“It’s in the barn,” she said.
John M. Floyd’s work has appeared in more than 350 different publications, including Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Strand Magazine, The Saturday Evening Post, Best American Mystery Stories (2015, 2018, 2020), and Best Mystery Stories of the Year 2021. A former Air Force captain and IBM systems engineer, John is an Edgar finalist, a Shamus Award winner, a five-time Derringer Award winner, a three-time Pushcart Prize nominee, and the author of nine books. He is also the 2018 recipient of the Edward D. Hoch Memorial Golden Derringer for lifetime achievement in short mystery fiction.