Times are hard along the Sabine River, and the little East Texas town of Ashland is crumbling under the weight of the Great Depression. Families are broke and hungry. For many, their last meal may well have been their last meal. Families are giving up and leaving town. Everyone knows the fate that awaits the scattered farms. No one can save Ashland. It is as isolated as the back side of a blue moon.
Into town comes Doc Bannister wearing a straw boater and a white suit. He is the miracle man. He has a homemade doodlebug machine that, he says, can find oil and make them all rich. Oil, he swears, lies beneath the blistered farmstead of Eudora Durant. She thinks Doc is a flim flam man. The Sheriff believes he is a con artist. Both are convinced that Doc has come to town to swindle every dime he can get before hitting the road again. Ashland knows Doc may be crooked, but he has brought hope to a town that had no hope.
Eudora has everything Doc wants. She is a beautiful woman who owns cheap land. In Ashland, she is known as the scarlet woman. Whispers say she murdered her husband. No one has seen him since the night they heard a shotgun blast on her farm. The town wants oil. Doc wants Eudora. But Eudora is too independent and stubborn to fall for the charms of a silver-tongued charlatan.
She holds the fate of Ashland in her hands. Will she let Doc drill? Is there really oil lying deep beneath her sunbaked land? Can Doc find it? Or is he more interested in finding love than oil? What happens when a man with a checkered past comes face to face with a woman whose past is as mysterious as his?
Back Side of a Blue Moon
THEY WERE MORE like shadows in the night, two lone figures shuffling their way down an empty street of an empty town. The day had long departed, but the sun on its way out of town had not taken the stifling heat of August with it. Doc Bannister removed his straw hat and wiped the sweat from his face. He waited for a gentle wind to cool his head, then figured death would catch him before the winds came.
He could see both ends of the street without turning his head. A hound dog lay sleeping on the top step of a pine-board sidewalk that connected the three-story Maizie Thompson Hotel to a general store. The sign out front said it belonged to Asa Hathaway, Esquire, and sold everything from candy and ladies notions to caskets. The sign was hanging crooked above the door, and the paint was peeling. If anyone had checked into the hotel, they had already gone to sleep for the night. The windows were dark. If Waskom had not been smoking a hand-rolled cigarette, there would be no lights at all in town.
Doc Bannister’s eyes shifted from one store to another. He made a mental note of a corner café, a newspaper office, an ice cream parlor, a bank, a dry goods store, a doctor’s office, and the New River of Life Baptist Church. The street ran into a dead end at the front door of a two-story rock courthouse presiding with a certain dignity over the northernmost end of Ashland. Doc grinned. The law did not exist beyond Ashland.
Waskom puffed his cigarette down to a stub, dropped it to the gravel street, and ground out the dying embers beneath the heel of his work boot. “I’ve heard about it all my life,” he said. “Just didn’t think I’d ever live to see it.”
“The edge of the earth.” Waskom shrugged. “When you get here and want to go someplace else, you gotta jump off to get there.”
“All roads lead somewhere, Waskom.”
“Road stops here.” Waskom removed his World War I military campaign hat and began fanning his face. The street was empty of wind. If there was any breeze, it had remained hidden back among the bramble brush and pine thicket.
“Maybe it does for us.” Doc dropped his valise in the dirt and stretched his muscles. He ached like a man who had been on this earth for too long already and didn’t recall any days past his thirty-fifth birthday.
Waskom slapped the dust off his twill trousers. “Doc,” he said, “I seem to recall something you happened to mention a couple of weeks ago,”
“It was the night you drank one shot of cheap whiskey too many, got yourself distracted by a broken-down brunette who danced for her supper, and lost the car at a poker table, holding a full house, aces high.”
“I was cheated.”
“He had a royal flush.”
“He had a .38 Long Colt.”
“Hard to beat a royal flush.”
“Hard to outrun a .38 Long Colt.”
The dog opened one eye and yawned. Behind them, the rusting voice of a wooden windmill groaned in agony, lying in wait for the wind.
“You said we were headed for easy street.”
“Took the wrong fork in the road.”
“Hell, Doc, you took the wrong road. It didn’t have no fork, and came to this godforsaken town.” Waskom flopped down on the porch beside the dog.
Doc shrugged and jammed his hands in the pockets of his white jacket. “I guess we could have gone to Bossier City,” he said.
“Why didn’t we?”
“You said you were tired of walking.”
“I said I had a hole in my shoe.”
“Same difference.” Doc sat down beside Waskom and scratched the hound dog’s ears.
He waited for the dog to bite.
Good sign, he thought.
He and Waskom had been in town less than ten minutes, and no one had asked them to leave.
It was a good thing they didn’t.
Doc would make them all rich before he left.
He was sure of it.
“I’ve got a good feeling about Ashland,” Doc said.
“You had a good feeling about Ardmore.”
“Preacher wasn’t too neighborly.”
Waskom frowned. “If I remember, you also had a good feeling in Pine Bluff.”
“I made a slight miscalculation about Pine Bluff.”
“I didn’t think Mary Alice would remember me.” Doc shrugged. “I didn’t know Mary Alice owned a shotgun. I didn’t know Mary Alice had married the Sheriff. I didn’t know he was a jealous man.”
“She was fat and ugly.”
Doc grinned. “You should have seen her before she married the Sheriff.”
Waskom spit in the dust.
“What you got planned for this town?” he asked.
Doc leaned back and gazed at the sky. The stars looked close enough to come and sit down on his shoulders. “Ashland is where dreams are made,” he said.
“My dreams or yours?”
Waskom sighed and shook his head. “I was afraid of that.”
“Look on the bright side.”
“This town’s got a lot of sides,” Waskom said. “None of them’s bright.”
Doc pulled a handful of dollar bills from his pocket and slowly counted them. “Waskom,” he said, “we walked into Ashland with thirty-eight dollars and fourteen cents. It’s not much, but it’s enough. I promise you one thing.”
“When we leave Ashland, you’ll be hauling a wheelbarrow full of money.”
“When we leave here, somebody will be shooting at us, and I won’t be moving slow enough to worry about hauling no wheelbarrow.”
“You’re selling me short, Waskom.”
“I’m not selling you short, Doc. I can’t even give you away.”
Doc Bannister stood suddenly and walked toward the newspaper office. “Let’s find out what this one-horse town has to offer a couple of out-of-town and God-fearing businessmen.”
“Near as I can tell,” Waskom said, “Ashland offers three things. It’s got a church to save your worthless soul. It’s got a jail if the salvation doesn’t work out for you. And it’s got a burying ground if somebody shoots a second too fast or you run a second too slow.”
Doc laughed. “We haven’t even seen a graveyard,” he said.
“Maybe not.” Waskom let his voice trail off. “But I know one’s out there in the dark somewhere, and I’m sorely afraid it has a hole already dug with my name on the stone.”
Caleb Pirtle III is the author of more than seventy books, including four noir thrillers in the Ambrose Lincoln series: Secrets of the Dead, Conspiracy of Lies, Night Side of Dark, and Place of Skulls. Secrets and Conspiracy are also audiobooks on audible.com. All of the novels are set against the haunting backdrop of World War II.
Pirtle also wrote Friday Nights Don’t Last Forever, the story of a high school quarterback whose life spins into turmoil during his entanglements with illegal college recruiting, and his most recent novel is Back Side of a Blue Moon, the story of a con man who comes to a dying East Texas town during the Great Depression, promises to drill for oil, and falls in love with a beautiful woman who just may have killed her husband.
Pirtle is a graduate of The University of Texas in Austin and became the first student at the university to win the National William Randolph Hearst Award for feature writing. Several of his books and his magazine writing have received national and regional awards.
Pirtle has written two teleplays: Gambler V: Playing for Keeps, a mini-series for CBS television starring Kenny Rogers, Loni Anderson, Dixie Carter, and Mariska Hargitay, and The Texas Rangers, a TV movie for John Milius and TNT television. He wrote two novels for Berkeley based on the Gambler series: Dead Man’s Hand and Jokers Are Wild. He wrote the screenplay for one motion picture, Hot Wire, starring George Kennedy, and John Terry.
Pirtle’s narrative nonfiction, Gamble in the Devil’s Chalk is a true-life book about the fights and feuds during the founding of the controversial Giddings oilfield and From the Dark Side of the Rainbow, the story of a woman’s escape from the Nazis in Poland during World War II. His coffee-table quality book, XIT: The American Cowboy, became the publishing industry’s third best selling art book of all time.
Pirtle was a newspaper reporter for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and served ten years as travel editor for Southern Living Magazine. He was editorial director for a Dallas custom publisher for more than twenty-five years. He and his wife, Linda, live in the rolling, timbered hills of East Texas. She is the author of two cozy mysteries.
Here's where you can find Caleb:
E.E.: What’s your favorite kind of story to get lost in?
Caleb: I prefer a mystery or thriller set during an earlier time. I am fascinated with the past and particularly with the novels of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and John D. MacDonald.
In historical fiction, sleuths have to solve crimes by piecing scattered clues together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Most present-day detectives solve their crimes with machines: fingerprints in computerized databases, surveillance cameras, facial recognition, and DNA.
It’s easier to create suspense by having your heroine running down a dark alley during the 1940s with a stalker right behind. It’s night. She hears footsteps closing in behind her. She’s out of breath. Her throat hurts. She staggers. She must find a pay phone. It’s her only hope. Today, she would just whip out a cell phone. And suspense flies right out the window.
E.E.: What was the first story you remember writing?
Caleb: I was in the sixth grade. I dreamed up some tale about jungle explorers being lost in Africa as they tracked down the mysteries surrounding a hidden gold mine. I still remember my first sentence. It was that bad. I wrote: “The story you are fixing to read is incredible but true.”
It was neither incredible nor true. And after my English teacher finished chastising me, I never used the word “fixing” again – even though it’s a good, down-home, honest, East Texas, farm-country saying.
E.E.: How did you come up with the idea for Back Side of a Blue Moon?
Caleb: The book has been a lifetime in the making. As a small boy, I grew up Kilgore, which was home of the Great East Texas oilfield. A crazy old wildcatter came to town with forty-five dollars in his pocket and said he would drill for oil and break the back of hard times. No one believed him. No one trusted him. He was little more than a con man, they said, come to town to swindle them out of their money. But the old wildcatter sweet-talked a widow into letting him drill on her farm, and he beat the odds, discovering the greatest producing oilfield in American history. Happy days were here again. During my growing up years, Kilgore had eleven hundred oil derricks rising up within the city limits. The skyline was a spider web of steel.
I’ve known the story all my life. My father came to East Texas in 1931 to work in the oilfield. I lived amongst the oilmen telling their yarns. I packed away the tales they told on street corners and in early morning cafes, and finally decided to sit down and write the book. It’s pure fiction. But the stories and many of the characters are embedded in fractured nuggets of truth.
I began the novel as a romance. But before I ended it, the story had evolved into a mystery. I guess my mind is simply bent that way. But then, I’ve always believed that every good romance has a mystery, and every good mystery has a romance.
E.E.: How do you think you have evolved creatively?
Caleb: I began my career in the newspaper business in an era when we wrote cold, hard facts without expressing any opinions. We were only interested in telling the who, what, where, why, and how of a story. Then I moved on to magazines and began building stories around the people I met and interviewed. I quoted them a lot, and their voices added spice to the stories. Most of my early books, and I wrote more than sixty of them, dealt with history or travel. I quoted a lot of diaries, old newspapers, family histories, and old timers.
When I began writing fiction, I had the privilege of being schooled by a Hollywood screenwriter who hired me to write a couple of teleplays for CBS television and TNT. That’s when I realized the power of dialogue, and I learned how to turn quotes into passages of conversation. I began to write a narrative that set the scene, then turned it all over to the characters, who drove the story from start to finish.
When I began writing novels, I took that characterization one step farther. What makes a book better than a movie? It’s internal dialogue. In a book, we know what a character thinks or feels or fears. We learn his or her ambitions and motivations. We mine the depths of their emotions. The character becomes multi-dimensional. On the screen, we know what characters say but never what they think. Internal dialogue makes the difference. If my writing has grown at all, it’s because of my concern with what lies deep within a character’s consciousness.
E.E.: Do you work to an outline or plot or do you prefer to just see where an idea takes you?
Caleb: When I begin a novel, I know the base story, but I never outline the book or a chapter. I always write the beginning and the ending at the same time. It’s like traveling with a road map. I know where I’m leaving and where I’m going, but the real joy comes in taking the story down every back road, crossroad, or side street I run across.
Just when I think I have the story figured out, it almost always takes a sharp left, and we’re off and running into the unknown again. I wouldn’t write a mystery or thriller if I knew what happened ahead of time. I never know how my hero is going to get out of trouble until the readers do. We can all be surprised together.
E.E.: What’s the hardest thing about writing?
Caleb: Typing the first word. When that word is hammered out on the screen, I’m committed for the next 300 to 400 pages. I will clean my office. I will straighten my desk. I will even go outside and pull weeds. I will do anything to keep from writing that first word.
But I’ve found a solution that works for me. I sit down and begin every novel with the second word.
Caleb is giving away a $25 Amazon gift card to one lucky commenter. Just leave a comment and enter the raffle.
"I’ve always believed that every good romance has a mystery, and every good mystery has a romance."
What are some of your favorite mystery/romances or romance/mysteries?