(We hope to have the next episode of the Luna City Chronicles out by Christmas this year. Here, a chapter from A Fifth of Luna City, wherein Richard makes a new friend, and takes on an obligation a little more challenging than a potted plant and a female significant other.)

 

A Sky Full of Stars

“Richard … I have to tell you. I have bad news – the most appalling news. I don’t quite know how to say this, but …”

That was Kate, his super-dainty Kate, her face expressing a mixture of horror and regret. Only his own sense of shock and possibly his own gentlemanly upbringing belatedly coming to his rescue – miraculously coming down from the heights of his prolonged classical venture into French cuisine on her behalf – kept him from blurting out his initial reaction: “Jesus, Kate – you can’t be pregnant! We’ve never even slept together!”

Instead, he just looked at her as if pole-axed, and said, “Well, tell it to me, Kate. I’ve had a long day, starting with being bullied in an open boat by an OAP with a bad attitude, and coming close to drowning in a flooded river. Frankly, I don’t think there is any more bad news you can tell me.”

“Well then,” Kate drew a deep breath. “My informant is one of the techies involved with A La Carte with Quartermayne. It’s a traveling TV food show. If you don’t know anything about it, Abuelita does, and so does everyone else who watches the Food Channel. They’re coming to Luna City at the end of summer, for a food showdown…”

“No, absolutely not,” Richard was stone-faced. “I will not participate in one of those travesties. I will not be a performing monkey on a lead for the entertainment of the masses. Again. If I see a TV camera within half a block of me, I will turn around and go home. I’ve been there, Kate. It’s Hell. I’ve learned my lesson – and won’t do it again.”

“No, it’s not for the Café,” Kate swiftly reassured him, those amazing beryl-green eyes huge with sympathy. “The showdown will be between the Pryor’s Meats and BBQ, and the Mills Farm Country Kitchen. But the co-host of Quartermayne this season is someone that … well, you know. And according to my informant…”

“Your spy in the enemy camp,” Richard amended, dryly.

“Whatever. You and he have a long history – Phillip Noel-Barrett.”

Richard broke out in a cold sweat, despite the residual heat in the kitchen.

“Stone the crows, not him – that unregenerate tosser! What malignant plan is that unmitigated arse-monger up to now? Nothing good, I’ll warrant. And those Quartermayne berks better be on their guard, because if he does half the damage to the immediate vicinity as he did with that wretched movie…”

“I see that you remember him fondly also,” Kate commented with just the faintest touch of acid. “It looks like he will be up to some nasty tricks with regard to yourself. In a moment of …”

“Alcohol-fueled frankness,” Richard supplied and Kate grinned.

“Exactly what I assumed. He is planning to reveal you as the Bad Boy Chef – not resting serenely sedated in some expensive loony-bin, but working happily away in an obscure little town café. My contact says that Noel-Barrett is practically slavering at the chops in his eagerness to do you a bad turn.”

“He always was a malicious little git,” Richard sighed. What a way to finish an evening – a beautiful evening, which had topped off a very long and fraught day. “I’ll do my best to stay out of the way, Kate. I don’t want to be outed, much less by Pip Noel-Barrett. I like it here. I like the Café, my little caravan, Luna City and all. I don’t want to leave. But I cannot go back to the old life. I won’t go back. It wasn’t good for me. I know that now.”

“Don’t worry, Richard,” Kate shrugged her outsized overcoat over her shoulders once again. Her face bore an expression of adamantine determination, fearsomely like that of Abuelita Adeliza Gonzales when that formidable lady put her foot down. “We’ll see that you are kept safe, doing what you love to do, and doing it in Luna City. You have friends here, not just me … although Acey McClain – he’s my boss, you know? At the Beacon. He might just begin to wonder about where my loyalties lie, if he ever hears about this caper.”

“Thank you, Kate,” Richard wondered if he was being honestly grateful for the very first time in his so-called adult life. They stood very close, at the back door to the Café, near to the vast pot-washing sink and the industrial dishwasher, which smelled very faintly of dishwater and drains. But they stood so close, as he intended, somewhat reluctantly, to see her out – and he detected the perfume that Kate was accustomed to wear. On an impulse, he leaned down – not very far down – and kissed her, intending the kiss to land in a brotherly, even an avuncular manner. But the minx turned her head at the last second, and it landed on her lips. For a brief eternity, he was lost – Kate, his wonderful Kate of Kate Hall, his super-dainty Kate, before whom all his previous passions, or whatever they had been – were momentary shallow flirtations. Until she pulled back, grinned at him and said,

“That was a kiss to set all records, Richard – perhaps one day, we’ll set another one like it. But I have to go now. ‘Celi will wonder where I am. If I don’t get on my way this instant, she will call Joe to go and get me – and Jess will be furious. Good night, sweet prince; blessed angels see the to thy rest. I have to go.”

“Indeed,” Richard gave a wistful sigh for the night that might have been – but no, it wouldn’t have been right. He and Kate had worlds enough and time. The thought of a wrathful Joe Vaughn, the Luna City chief of police, bashing down the door of the Airstream to haul a weeping and half-dressed Kate into the cruiser was a thought to banish all erotic fantasies, right then and there. “Do you want me to walk you to Patrick and Aracelis’? It’s not far.”

“No, mon cher Richard – you must be exhausted after all this. I’ll be all right. We’re in Luna City, after all.” She stepped neatly out of his half-hearted embrace and opened the outer door. Outside, a shy quarter moon rationed silver light on the back of the Café and the buildings adjoining it on Town Square. A few small lights from the back windows of the Stein’s place, and from the rooms over the small businesses in the other direction, rented out on BnB to those who wanted a small-town Texas experience, cast a dimmer and more golden light. “Oh, look – your cat is still here.”

“I don’t have any pets…” Richard insisted obstinately. “It must be one of the Steins’ perishing little beggars. Wretched things – they pee all over the carpet inside, and crap all over the garden outside.”

Kate peered at the small, shadow-shape lurking in the depths of the hedge between the Stein’s garden – a garden groomed to a state of perfection with a Teutonic devotion to detail, in vivid contrast to the space of crumbling macadam interspersed with weeds and rubbish bins behind the Café. That space was currently interrupted with the Airstream, and a couple of timber-framed raised beds, in which Richard nourished cooking herbs and a crop of exotic salad greens.

The small shadowy shape mewed at her. It sounded commanding, rather than querulous and pathetic, as Richard would have expected a lost or temporarily discommoded cat to sound.

“It’s too small for Beethoven, Bach or Mozart,” Kate observed. The Stein’s musical trio were sheltered, spoiled, well-fed and of considerable size. “Annise would never let them outside in this weather anyway.”

“The flood brought in all sorts of animal flotsam and jetsam,” Richard sighed, thinking on the outsized dog, miniature pony, bantam hen and stray goat, confined in a makeshift corral by the VFD. “A stray, I suppose.”

“Be kind,” Kate said, and in the shadows behind the Café, Richard was sure that she was smiling at him. “Give the poor little thing some of that lovely chicken, or whatever. Good night, Richard – sleep well.”

“I will, even if lonely,” Richard sighed. Quite suddenly, the burden of total exhaustion fell upon him, a burden which rocked him to his knees. “Honestly, I couldn’t have done justice to the occasion if you had even wanted to spend the night with me. I’ve got some pride left in me, Kate.”

“I know,” Kate blew a kiss in his direction, and departed without another touch of her hand or lips, walking swiftly to the bottom of the desolate patch which was the Café’s back garden. Richard thought that she turned and waved at him, before she vanished around the corner of the Stein’s garden-shed/garage.

The evening was over.

And on the whole, it had been a success beyond his dreams, Richard thought, as he turned out the lights in the Café, and sent the last of the dishes and glasses into the commercial washer. A long day, and a hard day; a supper with Kate, and space enough and time to meditate upon where their mutual attraction should go. Bad news about Pip Noel-Barrett’s malicious intentions … but that was consummation months in advance. Sufficient unto the day were the evils thereof, as the school chaplain used to say. Today’s troubles were enough for today.

He got out one of the folding chairs from the Airstream, and sat beneath the inconsistent moon, with a glass of Sefton Grant’s marvelous elixir, contemplating the day, in all of it’s exhaustion and glory, obscurely grateful that he didn’t have to get up on the bicycle and pedal all the way back to the Age of Aquarius. Because of the flood and the good offices of Roman Gonzalez, the Airstream caravan that he called home had been temporarily moved from the campground and small farm where it had sat for at least three decades. His daily commute was reduced to a matter of fifteen steps … and the cat suddenly interrupted these meditations. It emerged from the dividing hedge, and sat not five feet from him.

“Mrrow?” It said. Startled out of his reverie, Richard answered.

“What’s that, old chap?”

“Mrroow!” replied the cat, one eye reflecting the pale moonlight. “Mrroow!” it said again, with added emphasis and air of cold command, which well those passions Richard read.

“All right, then!” Richard set aside his glass, and went into the Café kitchen, to the walk-in cooler, where reposed the container with the last of the chicken from his glorious supper with Kate. He brought out a small bowl, filled to the brim with some-barely cooled shredded chicken and crumbled bits of pate, and carefully locked the back door after him – wondering why he bothered at all, since Luna City was one of the most casually law-abiding places that he had ever set up residence in, however temporary. He set the dish down, and the cat fell upon it with every evidence of glutinous pleasure. When it had polished the dish clean, it approached Richard, still nursing half a glass of Sefton’s mustang white, and sat at his feet. A small pink tongue polished its’ whiskers, one swipe a side, as the cat assumed the expectant posture of one of those ancient Egyptian statuettes of cats.

“Mrroow,” it commented, sounding slightly less commanding.

“You’re welcome,” Richard replied. “But no, I don’t care if you want some wine to go with supper. This is all mine.”

“Mrroow!” The cat sounded slightly disappointed – as if it had hoped for that, but was sporting about being turned down. Seen now in the dim interior light shining through the Airstream’s screen door, it stood revealed as a small brindle animal, with one eye as pale and lifeless as the moon overhead, the other dark and brimming with feline mysteries. Richard was no great judge of cat-flesh, but he thought it was a young animal, despite the blind eye. It regarded him steadily with the other eye, as Richard communed with his glass of wine, coming down from the mighty cloud of terror or exertion expended during a day only a little longer than what he had been accustomed to in his early days as an apprentice chef. Since he didn’t have Kate to talk to, he directed his remarks to the young cat.

“So … rough day for you too, Ozymandias-King-of-Kings? Look upon your works, oh mighty, and despair. Nothing remains … but a hell of a lot of flood water.”

“Mrroow,” the cat commented, sounding rather forlorn.

“Sorry about that, old chap. Just worked out that way. Global warming, you know – but in Texas they call it ‘the weather’. Still a bit disconcerting, especially if one has an aversion to drowning.”

“Mrroow,” Ozymandias-King-of-Kings agreed. Richard sank the last little bit of Sefton’s prize white mustang grape wine. When he had drained the glass of that last mouthful, the brindle cat was sitting at the foot of the step to the Airstream, regarding him expectantly. “Mrroow?” That last had a kind of tentative, yet commanding sound to it. Richard marveled again, at the depth of feeling that the beast could put into a single sound. The Librarian of the Unseen University had nothing on this cat.

“All right, you conniving little beggar.” Richard sighed, and opened the screen door; instantly, Ozymandias-King-of-Kings hopped up into the Airstream as if it was his by rights. He-She-It strolled through the brief sitting area and kitchenette, sniffing at the odd item in a way that suggested judgmental skepticism, but marginal acceptability as to conditions. And then hopped up onto the disturbed bedding at the foot of the single double bed at the back of the Airstream, licked itself several times in businesslike fashion, curled into a neat circular form among the blankets and dropped into whatever was for a cat, deep, deep slumber. When Richard performed his late-night ablutions,  resumed the pajama trousers which were his customary night things, and took his own place in the bed, Ozymandias only burped – or perhaps farted – briefly, purred for a bit and fell back into deep slumber nearly as soon as Richard did.

 

 

Fire engine appearing by courtesy of the Giddings VFD – The latest installation should be out by the middle of May!

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Cattle Call

Luna City’s volunteer fire department was housed in a large metal-sided barn of no particular architectural charm, three blocks east of Town Square. Together with the Luna City PD headquarters next door, this put them both on the edge of town by the northernmost and newest of the two roads that led from off Route 123 and into Luna City proper. (Miss Letty’s and the Tip-Top were located at the southernmost, closest to that bridge which spanned the river.) The rain had let up by then, although from the appearance of the sky – grey and threatening – the weather gods promised additional precipitation. Richard pedaled along, carefully avoiding the standing puddles, and reminding himself to bring some dry clothing on the following day, lest he be caught again. Really, he had a cat’s dislike of being first soaked to the skin – and then enduring a day inside an air-conditioned building. Nothing, he was convinced, was apt to make a person more ill than being wet, and sitting under a vent blasting cold air down upon him.

The somewhat scratch parking area around the police and fire department – an area composed of about fifteen percent crumbling macadam to eighty-five percent gravel and hard-pressed and mostly dead grass was entirely full, for the first time in his admittedly limited experience. A jumble of vehicles – most of them the usual selection of pick-up trucks which he had come to see as a mostly normal transportation option in Luna City – were parked there without regard to order and reason.

Well, that was one advantage to a bicycle. He wheeled it around to the side, where a couple of heavy timber picnic tables and a rusty barrel-shaped BBQ unit sat underneath the customary oak tree which was a constant in Luna City, and leaned the bike against the nearest table. The side door was already propped open, with Chris Mayall’s young medic-apprentice volunteer lurking just inside. The name of the apprentice momentarily escaped Richard, although the boy had “Gonzalez” embroidered on the front of his dark-blue uniform shirt. Richard privately admitted to a sense of wistful envy. Just by being born with that surname in Luna City meant that the lad was instantly more one of the local elect than Richard would ever be, Charterhouse and  Cordon Bleu education notwithstanding. The classroom beyond was empty – and it was nearly the appointed hour.

“Hullo, young Jaimie,” he said, having wrenched the boys’ name from his recalcitrant memory. “Where is everyone? I thought that time for the regular training session was moved up – not the location.”

“They moved it into the bay, with so many people,” Jaimie replied. He was still young enough to be excited by a whiff of potential catastrophe. “There’s Cousin Horatio from the County, and the forecast is saying there will be more rain over the next few days. I guess this will be the command post, for a while.”

“Joy and rapture unrestrained,” Richard answered, completely deadpan, and walked down the narrow corridor from the door, past the empty classroom on one side, past the offices on the other, and the dormitories for the duty firefighters on the other, and into the soaring space which housed the various engines. There was more space in the barn than engines to fill it. The area beyond the pump and ladder trucks, the brush truck and the ambulance had been transformed, with ranks of folding tables and rows of chairs. An immense map hung on the far wall. As he came around from the last engine, someone was rolling out a video cart with a large television on it. The map drew his attention first, though; a detailed, large-scale map of the river, it’s many tributaries and watershed as it rambled through Karnes County. Through the VFD training sessions, he had become well-acquainted with Luna City, and those outlaying parts covered by the volunteer firefighters – but this was a much larger map. He took a seat in the rearmost row of chairs; the bustle of activity around the tables made him profoundly uneasy. He exchanged a nod with Sylvester Gonzales, dapper as always in retro-nerd fashion – this time in khaki slacks and a vintage and vividly-colored Hawaiian print shirt – who seemed to be overseeing the set-up of many telephones, one at each place along the first table. The telephones and attendant cables were being unpacked from a couple of lidded plastic tubs. Richard knew or at least recognized most of those present, and sifting in as the hands of a clock hanging on the wall above the map inexorably advanced towards the hour of three. He almost didn’t recognize Miss Letty, unaccustomed to the sight of her in a slate-grey uniform-cut women’s suit, adorned with a shoulder patch and lapel insignia – ARC. Well, nothing like an old emergency-service warhorse scenting a disaster, Richard thought to himself and immediately his inner good-manners angel booted him for being an ungallant prick. Still, he thought the old dear had better not try to wrestle an active fire-hose. Although Chris Mayall, who was sitting in the folding chair next to her, would doubtless prevent her from doing anything so reckless.

There was only one man present who was a stranger to him – and since the name-plate on his unfamiliar uniform bore the surname of Gonzalez – and since the familial resemblance to those Gonzalezes and Gonsaleses of his acquaintance was quite marked, he thought it likely that he knew of that man by repute, if not by first name among the clan.

“That’s Cousin Horatio,” Jaimie whispered, as he slid into the seat next to Richard. “You know … he went and joined the Coast Guard out of high school, but now he’s with the county sheriff’s department. He knows all about boats and things. They call him all the time for stuff involving river rescues and that.”

“Shush,” … That was Jess, sitting in the row of chairs ahead of them. And there was Joe Vaughn, striding up to stand before the stand microphone, in his office as chief of police for Luna City.

“Hey, ladies and gentle-grunts; thanks for taking the time from your busy day to come to this briefing… as you should know from watching the weather, it’s been a rainy spring. And this week’s forecast calls for even more rain. We’ve been advised to activate our emergency response team, in the expectation of catastrophic flooding from the San Antonio River and possibly various local creeks over the next few days. I know that it’s only a precaution, and no one is getting really panicked at this point,” and Joe favored the gathering with an especially serious look. “But there is a holiday weekend coming up. A lot of out-of-town folks traveling to the coast, just visiting a place like Mills Farm, or staying for the weekend with friends in the country, folks who just might not know the lay of the land…”

“He’s got a point,” Jaimie whispered. “If we live here – we know where all the low-water crossings are, all the places that flood out ….”

“Shush…” Richard replied, for he was strangely unsettled in recognizing a newer arrival; Kate Heisel, in her oversized drooping tan trench-coat, cat-footing around the perimeter of the gathering. The sound of her camera and brief flare of the flash attachment riveted his attention, although she seemed more focused on the immense map, and the tables with telephones already laid out. Still – when she turned and aimed her lens at the assembled multitudes, he swiftly bent down to re-tie a shoe-lace. No need to borrow trouble, even if he rather liked and trusted Kate Heisel in a small way. Even if she had said to him, on one memorable occasion, “No one here gives a waffle-fried damn that you used to be Rich Hall, the Bad Boy Chef,” Kate’s one picture of Romeo Gonzales had gone international-viral, once it had been posted on the Karnesville Weekly Beacon website for publicity purposes for the Luna City Players performance of Let No True Hearts Admit Impediment. That it all had come out rather well for Romeo was irrelevant to Richard: Once a photograph taken by Miss Kate Heisel was loosed on the internet, control was out of her hands, despite the best intentions of all concerned.

He didn’t entirely come up for air with regard to his shoelace, until Miss Kate herself came and settled into the folding chair next to Jaimie, returning her camera safely to her camera case.

“Hey, Rich – long time, no see?” she whispered. “Are you a volunteer now? Cool beans!”

“Well, I live here now,” Rich whispered back, disregarding the faint hushing sounds from either side. “What brings you here?”

“News, stilly – activating the emergency response command post is certainly newsworthy. Any time there’s a million cars parked outside the VFD there’s bound to be something of interest happening. I really came down for the cattle drive.”

“Cattle drive?” Richard was glad that his voice didn’t squeak. A small rustling commotion among the audience as Chief Vaughn introduced Lt. Gonzalez from the Karnes County Emergency Management office covered Kate Heisel’s reply.

“For sure,” she whispered. “There’s going to be about a hundred-fifty head of Lazy-W cattle moved from a pasture on low ground moved from a low-lying pasture across the river into the Wyler Ranch, proper. Too many to truck, and too late to do anything but walk them through town. A real cattle drive – I wouldn’t miss it for the world!”

***

“When is this going to happen?” Rich whispered back.

“In about twenty minutes,” Kate replied, sotto voice. “My … um … friend is going to call me when they get close to crossing Route 123.”

At his side, Jaimie Gonzales exclaimed in a normal voice, “No sh*t, Katie? I wanna see this!” to an enraged hiss of hushing from those nearest to them. At the microphone, Horatio Gonzalez broke off his introductory remarks to frown and address his juvenile kin.

“Is there something you wanted to share with us all?”

Unrepentant, Jaimie stood up and replied in a loud voice. “Yeah! Cousin Kate says there’s going to be a real-live cattle drive through town!”

Richard noted several things at once: Jess sinking down in her seat, Joe clapping on his wide-brimmed white Stetson and taking out his cellphone, and most of the assembled volunteers assuming expressions of lively interest.

“So – where they gonna go? Whose’ herd? How soon?” was the boiled-down essence of those questions which came thick and fast. Kate Heisel stood up, and finding her small height a disadvantage, stepped up onto her chair. Which being of the folding persuasion, was a perilous perch. Richard gave her a hand up, beating Jaimie to it by a short lead.

“It’s one of the Wyler herds,” she explained, and the timbre of her voice suggested something of embarrassment. “It’s an emergency. My informant has it that Lazy-W ranch management wanted it done and fast, so as to reduce panic …”

“A hundred and fifty cattle in the streets of Luna City – that will reduce panic all right,” Joe Vaughn observed, within the pick-up range of the standing microphone, so that his remarks were perfectly clear. “Katie – why don’t we know about this?”

“I thought that everyone had been informed,” Kate replied, in perfectly reasonable tones.

Joe Vaughn heaved up a deep sigh, from the depths of his soul. “All right, ladies and gentle-grunts – there is our very first flood-related emergency situation. All hands to battle-stations. How long do we have before the herd hits, Katie?”

“Twenty minutes, I think.” Now Kate sounded positively rattled. “Joe – I was sure your people already knew!”

“Well, we do now,” Joe noted. “OK, briefing’s suspended for the moment. Who’s in charge of the cattle drive, Katie? Doc Wyler?”

Kate nodded, concentrating on safely dismounting from a folding chair. Richard thought, fleetingly, that she may have leaned on him more than was absolutely necessary in doing so – but this was Kate, Kate of Kate Hall, as long as her camera lens was not pointed in his direction. Meanwhile, Joe was rapping out crisp directions alternately into his cellphone, his radio, and to the volunteers taking their places along the table.

“They’ll be taking them along Oak from 123 and the south side of Town Square, past the elementary school, and over to Cypress and north to the Wyler ranch. You better alert Jerry at the ISD. The elementary school is already dismissed for the day, but they’ll be going past the high school just at 4:00 … Just call everyone along those streets and alert them to what is going on. Cameras are optional, I guess. But shovels and wheelbarrows will be absolutely necessary afterwards.”

That was the last that Richard heard, over the hubble-bubble. Oddly enough, most everyone else appeared to think this was something exotic and exciting, worthy of notice, nearly as much as Richard did. They were vacating the fire department barn in a rush, all those whose services were not immediately required. Someone among the VFD staff on duty had obliged by raising the two garage doors.  Miss Letty, calm and magisterial as always, refused Richard’s assistance in joining the throng.

“My grandfather saw herds of cattle trailing through the streets quite often. Quite a nuisance it was at the time, he always said. The manure was useful, for gardens, of course.” She fell silent for a moment, and then added, “I suppose it has been years since you young people have seen such a thing, save in movies or on television.”

“It has, Miss Letty!” Katie chirped. “It’s why it’s news!”

Miss Letty snorted. “Sensation, Katherine. Pure vulgar sensation.”

“Sensation is my bread and butter,” Kate replied, not nearly as put down by Miss Letty’s obvious disapproval as Richard thought he would have been. “Vulgar or not. It’s something interesting, and new … or newly-new. I’m off, Miss Letty – my job. You know – that professional understanding that puts a meal on my table, pays for the gas in my car?”

“I know, dear,” Miss Letty unbent sufficiently to offer a smile. “You young girls have so many opportunities, these days. I’m not at all certain that some of them are for the betterment of our sex, but still … you have them.”

“I know,” Kate smiled in return, a smile that lit up her relatively ordinary face, and extraordinary blue-green, beryl-colored eyes. “And I’m not entirely lost to decency, Miss Letty. I do keep some news-worthy confidences.”

“And if you like, Miss Kate, I can offer a meal this evening,” Richard heard himself saying, to his utter horror. “At the Café … if you would like.” Where the holy ____ had that come from? Richard wondered, but Kate favored him with a blinding smile, and Miss Letty with an expression of wintery approval.

“I’d like that,” Kate said, and then went off at a trot in the direction of Oak Street which crossed from 123 into the regular – or somewhat regular grid of Luna City. That ridiculous oversized trench-coat flapped behind her like a loose sail. At the corner, she turned, and cupped her hands to shout, “See you after the trail drive, Richard!”

“So,” Miss Letty observed, after another short interval, in which they and the others had drifted down towards the Oak Street corner and spread out along the mostly-unimproved verge. (Sidewalks in Luna City didn’t begin for another half a block or so.) “How does the spider plant that I gave to you for your patio fare?”

“It’s still alive,” Richard replied. “Sending out a couple of small shoots. Baby spiders, I do believe. I hope they don’t choose to crawl indoors and begin spinning webs.”

“Excellent,” Miss Letty appeared amused. She and Richard had come to the corner, where a low wall of cut limestone adorned the roadside. Some years ago, a previous mayor – in a fit of municipal enthusiasm – had caused it to be built and adorned with cast-metal letters spelling out the words, “Welcome to Luna City – The Biggest Little Town in Texas.” One of the g’s had fallen off, and the last letter s was loose and tilted sideways. All the letters had bled dark smears of minerals down the pale stone, but the grass was clipped neatly around the wall.

Miss Letty took a large handkerchief out of her handbag and spread it on the level top. “I believe I shall sit and watch the excitement from here, Richard. And walk home if the meeting is not continued. I must say that it was good of you to take such an interest. The school cooking classes, the VFD and now Emergency Preparedness.”

“I don’t know if I’m all that much an addition to the strength,” Richard confessed. “I can barely manage a hose without knocking myself silly. And I do not drive. Really, all I can do is cook.”

“You have other skills, I am certain,” Miss Letty assured him. Richard was distracted – Kate was there, standing at the verge where the grass gave it up, in favor of a scattering of chippings and them the tarmac road, her camera out and at the ready.

“I can ride a bike and row a boat – and that’s about the limit. Look – I think the cattle are nearly here.” Richard shaded his eyes with one hand. The road out towards the river and Route 123 jogged slightly, so he could not see very far. A horseman came around the bend, then another, their hoofs clattering on the tarmac. To the west at their back, the clouds were mounting up in the pale sky; creamy mounds of cloud edged with fiery gold, sweeping shadows and light across the distant line of pale green hills dotted with dark green stands of oak. It was an unexpectedly theatrical setting, one which Richard pedaled through twice a day without noticing any outstanding aesthetic merit – but whether it was the clouds, the anticipation or whatever – the setting at that moment was almost epic-movie perfect. David Lean would have given his left testicle to get it on film in one uninterrupted take.

The first horseman was the perfect movie cowboy; a tall, fair young man, slouching easily in the saddle … and it was a Palomino horse, a golden horse with a dark mane and tail. The horse seemed to have a sense of occasion which the rider lacked; strutting along as if on parade, and there the mass of cattle following, tossing heads and red hides, shouldering each other as they followed.

“Santa Gertrudis,” Miss Letty remarked. “Stephen has a prize-winning herd of them. Also of Angus and Hereford. As well as a number of original Texas longhorns – although those, I believe, he keeps in the main pasture. The horns, you see – a hazard.”

“Amazing,” Richard breathed, and Miss Letty asked, “How so?”

“I usually see them as sides and quarters, already prepped.”

“Ah. You have an appreciation for where your chops and burgers come from,” Miss Letty’s sarcasm was restrained, which Richard appreciated.

“Well, of course. I like a good feed and I am not a vegan. Just – interesting to me to see a year’s worth of good beef suppers on the hoof, as it is.”

“Visions of steaks, stews and ragouts are dancing through your head?” Miss Letty had a wry turn of humor which Richard had really not observed to date.

“Yes,” and then Richard’s good humor turned all … well, to something. Kate with her camera dashed out into the road, in the path of that first horseman. Yes, of course the spectacle would be irresistible; a spirited horse, a handsome young rider in all the accoutrements of a classic cowboy. But that wasn’t the part which turned Richard’s attitude in the directions of sack, ash-cloth and discouragement. It was that Kate – his Kate – blew him a kiss on her fingertips.

And the cowboy on the Palomino laughed and returned the gesture.

This evening was not going to turn out well.

 

At last, I applied myself to the computer, and all the little things that I had dropped in passing about where things were in Luna City — and came up with a map! Yes – this map will be a part of Luna City IV! Behold!

A Map of Luna City and Environs (Not to scale)

A Map of Luna City and Environs (Not to scale)

(Luna City IV is planned for a debut in June, 2017 – and here is a snippet of developments)

For the coffee shop on Town Square that is the usual morning gathering place.

For the coffee shop on Town Square that is the usual morning gathering place.


And sure enough – as Richard pedaled home in the twilight after a training session at the VFD classroom the following Wednesday, he was overtaken by a well-weathered high-top camping van. He was near enough to the unmarked and unpaved road which wandered off through a thicket of scrub off of Route 123 and led eventually towards the Age of Aquarius Campground and Goat Farm. The turn-off was innocent of any signage suggesting the presence of the campground, as most anyone who was serious about staying there knew about it anyway. The van, speckled with dust and splotches of dried road mud, drew a second vehicle on a tow-dolly, this vehicle well-wrapped in a tarpaulin equally road-besmirched. There were also a great many tarpaulin-wrapped items stowed on top of the van – all of them secured with business-like turns of rope and bungee cords. Richard thought that one of them might be a small boat. The driver slowed, rolling down his window.
“Howdy, stranger – am I getting close to the turn-off for the Grant place?” He was an older man, near to the age of Doc Wyler. He looked like the older Joe Vaughn of Richard’s imagining; a craggy, weathered countenance adorned with an impressively droopy mustache of the old-fashioned style popularly called a ‘soup-strainer.’
“It is, indeed,” Richard answered, warmly. “You must be Mr. Vaughn – welcome home! I was informed of your arrival – Mr. Grant asked that I should see you to the most salubrious position in the campground, and assure that you were well-settled…”
“Salubrious …” the driver chuckled. “That’s a real twenty-dollar word. You must be that English feller – the one who runs the Café nowadays. Well, throw that beater of yours onto the back, and hop in. I’m your neighbor for a while, until I get fixed up with a place of my own, here in the lower ’48. Harry Vaughn,” He favored Richard with a bone-crushing grip, extended through the lowered window.
“Richard Astor-Hall,” Richard tried very hard not to wince. “Indeed … I’ve been very pleased with the situation at the Grant place…” Obediently, he wheeled his bicycle around to van door into the back, and horsed it into the cramped interior. There was just enough room. Richard was impressed – a grown man had been living comfortably in a space even more miniscule than the Airstream. “I’ve rented from them since arriving in Luna City,” he explained, as Harry Vaughn let out the gears and steered the van back onto the road again. “The lane into the campground is around this bend, on the left…”
“In my day, it was called the old Sheffield place,” Harry Vaughn grunted. “There used to be a big old house out there. It was all fallen to ruin when I was a young sprout, though. But we all used to come out here in summer – the best damn swimming hole in all of Karnes County, right in that deep bend of the river. Had some fine times there, back in the day.”
“It’s still pretty deep, right there by the campground,” Richard answered. “Here – turn here.”
“Right,” Harry Vaughn slowed the van, and the trailing auto, and steered very carefully into the turn-off. Richard was glad that with all traffic from volunteers and donations to the building of the Straw Castle Aquarius, that Roman Gonzales had seen fit to scrape the thoroughfare with a baby bull-dozer and pour a couple of loads of gravel down, rendering the lane considerably less lumpy than it had been for years. Still, Harry Vaughn drove very slowly – past the goat pasture, past the thicket of trees at the turn-off which led farther up the hill and into the grove of oaks which framed the gleaming ivory tower of the Amazing Straw Castle Aquarius like the supporting-cast greenery surrounding the starring flowers of a bridal bouquet. The old windmill clattered away, and the breeze fanned the various colorful banners which depended from the oak branches and the rough-hewn mesquite beams which supported the veranda’s tin roof. “Nice,” Harry commented, sounding mildly impressed. “Not bad for hippie goat-farmers. Guess this is the campground?”
“Indeed,” Richard said – a campground empty of all but the solitary Airstream and its’ sheltering roof at the top end, and a gaggle of unusually brave or rough-adapted motorcycle tent-campers who had their series of basic a-frame tents set up at the bottom end, in a lee of the bank which overlooked the river. “I live in the old trailer there. As you can see – you’ve arrived at the right time for seeking solitude. Sefton said you can pick any place you like – but the places along the long hedge are the only ones with electrical hookups. I will be happy to assist you …”
“Not necessary, son,” Harry Vaughn replied. “I prefer the big outdoors and solitude myself. I’ll take the slot at the far end from you. And I’m good with setting up myself; don’t want to put you to any more trouble than you have already taken. Since you already work for ol’ Stevie-Boy Wyler, I’m certain you already have enough on your plate.”
That, as Richard ruminated later, after he took his trusty trail bike out of the back of Harry Vaughn’s van, should have been his first clue that Doc Wyler and Uncle Harry might just have – as the soap operas have it – a bit of a history between them.

The shrouded motor vehicle that Harry Vaughn towed behind his van all the way from Alaska was revealed to be an archaic-appearing convertible – with the top down – a convertible enameled in a brilliant shade of red known only the auto aficionados and county fair candied apples. Said vehicle appeared at mid-morning, a day or so later, arrogantly claiming the parking spot directly in front of the Café. Richard couldn’t decide how the convertible could stand out any more flagrantly – perhaps spotlighted by a pair of floodlights. Richard came out from the kitchen just in time to overhear involuntary sounds of appreciation from the regulars at the stammtisch, and those lesser customers with a good view out the front windows of the Café.
“Dios mio – a pristine ’66 Lincoln Continental,” exclaimed the senior Jaime Gonzalez, the proprietor of the main garage and repair shop in Luna City. “Papi had one – he sold it almost brand new to … Harry Vaughn!”
“And who are the ladies accompanying him?” Georg Stein wondered aloud, answered by a sigh from the aficionados of classic motors among the patrons, and one of equal depth from Joe and Jess, sharing a small table at the back of the Café.
“That’s our Abuelita,” Araceli replied/ She hurriedly delivered the order to the second-smallest table. “And her friend Min Kim – you know, Mr. Walcott’s mother-in-law… but I don’t know the other lady…”
“My Aunt Moira,” Richard sighed, in horrified recognition. Yes – Aunt Moira, his father’s eccentric older sister. His father’s mysterious and adventurous older sister, a woman of wide foreign travel and yet no visible means of economic support, although that of various government agencies had been suggested. Aunt Moira was scarily adept with deadly weapons, foreign languages, and methods of self-defense. Richard had concluded some years previously that Aunt Moira might be the distaff Agent 007. She certainly seemed to show up – or have been proven to show up – in various exotic locales, weeks or months before they featured in splashed-out headlines, world-wide. This had happened just too many times to be accounted for by sheer coincidence. As a schoolboy, Richard had tracked that sort of thing. Now he wished that he had kept better track of Aunt Moira’s whereabouts.

Offices of the Karnesville Weekly Beacon

Offices of the Karnesville Weekly Beacon

(From the next Luna City chronicle, which is aimed for release in mid-summer)

In the Offices of the Karnesville Weekly Beacon

“Kate! Get in here and tell me what in the name of Dog has been going on in Luna City!”

Kate Heisel, bright-eyed and ready to plunge into another week of work on the regional newspaper on the morning after the last of the holidays, was in the chief editor’s office almost before Acey McClain finished bellowing, and as a sprinkling of superannuated dust from the ancient light fixtures in the offices of the Karnesville Weekly Beacon ceased sifting down like a gentle benison on the various desks below.

“Yes, Chief – right away, Chief!” she chirped. Acey McClain, grizzled, slightly hung-over and well over twice her age, scowled thunderously.

“Dammit, Kate – do you have to be so cheerful first thing in the morning? I’m not Lou Grant and you are not Mary Tylor Moore. And don’t call me Chief!”

“Sure, Chief,” Kate grinned at him and took out her notebook, perching on the narrow wooden guest chair opposite her boss. “It’s a legitimate form of aggression, being offensively cheerful first thing in the AM. Think of it as a workout for your liver. Get the old blood flowing … the birds are singing in the trees, the sun is shining, God is in his heaven and all’s right with the world…”

Acey McClain gave his pungently expressed opinion on that state of affairs and Kate’s grin widened. She made a show of jotting down several of the more interesting terms of abuse, and when he had finished, remarked, “Wow, Chief – that last isn’t even biologically possible … unless one is maybe triple-jointed and has a taste for … never mind. You were asking about Luna City over this last week.”

“That’s what I like about you, Kate,” Acey McClain sat back in the monumental and heroically battered leather executive chair which had been the badge of office for editors at the Karnesville Weekly Beacon since it had been the Daily Beacon, sometime around 1962. “And why I put up with your flagrantly disrespectful attitude. You’re the most purely un-shockable female that I have ever met. So – back to my original question: what in the name of Dog and all the Angles in heaven has been going on this last week in Luna City? I swear, if it weren’t for them, we’d have nothing to print except the legal notices, the minutes of the last garden club meeting and the police blotter.”

“About the usual, Chief.” Kate licked her pencil-point – an affectation adopted from her close watching of old movies about the news business. Kate was a great believer in professional traditions. “Let’s see … there was a fire at the old hippy hang-out by the river, just before Christmas. Burned the main establishment to the ground, but no one hurt and nothing much lost. The place wasn’t insured, though … but neighbors are weighing in. The new marketing director at Mills Farm has offered them one of their residential trailers for the owners to live in, while they rebuild.”

“What caused the fire?” Acey McClain was always curious about that. The answer to that question in his own hard-bitten crime-beat reporter past had earned him a more-than-average number of  above-the-fold, huge-typeface-headline-stories during a very long career in the big-city print news business.

“They think that a fire in a sweat-lodge wasn’t properly extinguished,” Kate replied. “The investigator for the LCVFD is all but certain about that. No story, Chief. Now, the mass-brawl that happened immediately before the fire …”

“Now you’re getting to the nut, Kate,” Acey McClain sat forward in the leather office chair, all eager attention. “What was that all about? I heard that some *sshole got bitten in the *ss by a rabid llama – true?”

“Not the rabid part. The llama in question did have all his required shots.” Kate flipped over to another page. “I double-checked with the veterinarian … Doc Wyler. Doc Wyler of the Wyler Lazy-W Ranch.”

“Oh, Dog,” Acey McClain shuddered, almost imperceptibly. “This *sshole didn’t pick a fight with him, too? The biggest ranch and the richest guy in Karnes County? And a man who lovingly cherishes his grudges like they were prize breeding stock?”

“Not so far,” Kate replied, still chipper as a squirrel with a winters-worth of stored away acorns. “As a matter of fact and according to eye-witnesses – and I have a list of them,” she flipped through another couple of pages. “Names available on the Talk of the Town blog. The *sshole is one Gunnison Penn of no definite fixed address other than Canada. He struck the llama in question first; I have photographic proof of it. You know, Chief – it’s great how everyone has a cellphone with camera capacity in their pocket, these days. There is a clear case of self-defense to be made: Gunnison Penn clearly hit the llama first.”

“That Canuck treasure-hunter guy?” Acey McClain looked even more alert. “He’s back again? Guess he must have beaten the last injunction – the one filed for harassing the family of that kid that found a pristine 1892 20$ gold piece at Mills Farm?”

“You don’t have to remind me, Chief – I was there, and the kid’s mom is my second-cousin. Yeah, that guy, and he’s gone again, lucky for Luna City. He definitely got the message. He packed up and went, as soon as he got a stitch or two and a shot of antibiotics at the Med center …” Kate snickered. “I cornered him in the parking lot there after he was released, asking him for his reaction. “

“Good girl, Kate!” Acey McClain radiated approval. “Sixty Minutes material, no fooling, kid – you’ll be in the big-time, any time!”

“God no, Chief – I’ve got some standards! Back to the all-hands punch-up on the banks of the San Antonio River. Another party of individuals charged in the brawl – three guys trying to do a stand-up for a YouTube feature about the mysterious Luna Lights…”

“What was it about those lights,” Acey folded his hands together and regarded his most energetic and enterprising young reporter with happy anticipation. “You find out anything about them? Optical illusion, secret Pentagon aircraft, mass hallucination – what?”

Kate fetched up a deep sigh from the depths of her news-hungry yet strangely ethical soul. “Fire lanterns, Chief. All that it was. I talked to Sefton Grant and his crew of superannuated hippies. They were celebrating the Solstice, or some such crap. They launched fire lanterns – you know – those paper hot-air balloons, with a candle burning under them, about twenty minutes before that guy with the cellphone recorded three of them drifting over the road. I even checked with the weather service – the prevailing wind at that time would have sent them in a westward direction. Fire lanterns – nothing more.”

 

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A View of the LCVFD Building, which will feature in Book 4 of the Luna City Chronicles

A View of the LCVFD Building, which will feature in Book 4 of the Luna City Chronicles

Richard's Home Sweet Home, at the Age of Aquarius Campground and Goat Farm

Richard’s Home Sweet Home, at the Age of Aquarius Campground and Goat Farm

We spent the weekend after Thanksgiving in Johnson City, Texas, where they established the tradition of firing up for the Christmas holidays by covering the Blanco County courthouse with god-knows-how-many hundreds-of-thousands of lights, hanging in strands from the roof edge to the ground and noting the start of the holiday season in the Hill Country with a bang … a round of fireworks at about 7 PM Friday, as soon as it was well-dark. The firework show was lavish – and the three rows of vendor pavilions and the spectators in courthouse square were so close to it that little bits of spent ash from the fireworks sifted down on us. I hadn’t seen anything so splendid, or been so close – practically underneath it all – since a Fourth of July celebration at the Rio Cibolo Ranch in 2009.

The Blanco Courhouse - all lit up.

The Blanco Courhouse – all lit up.

The trunks of the pecan and oak trees star-scattered on the lawn around the courthouse were strung with lights, and the facades of many establishments around the courthouse square were also lavishly lit up. This whole ‘lighting for Christmas’ kicked off similar displays in other small communities and towns, but Johnson City is still the lead event. The crowds on Friday and Saturday evenings were substantial and in the proper mood for buying. My daughter and I made our expenses Friday evening, so sales on Saturday and Sunday were gravy. Our expenses were more than just the quite reasonable table/booth fee, since Johnson City is slightly more than an hour drive from home. We considered the drive to and from for three days running; two such trips at ten o’clock at night on a relatively unlighted country highway, with drunk drivers, speeding trucks, suicidal deer … and said, ‘oh, hell no.’

The nearest available affordable lodgings turned out to be at the Miller Creek RV Resort, which has three little cabins with a bathroom and functional kitchenette for rent. We booked one for two nights; the cabin porch presented a lovely view of the creek, which we were never to relish, as we were there only to sleep – long and deeply, following ten or twelve hours of active selling. The Miller’s Creek RV Park is a lovely little place, by the way; immaculately groomed and landscaped. It’s not one of those luxury destination RV resorts by any means, but a modest comfortable place, beautifully arranged – they even have a minuscule dog park, in addition to the usual facilities.

I think that the most reassuring part of our experience this last weekend wasn’t entirely due to the satisfactory sales – it was the experience itself. The people in this smallish Hill Country town came together to put on their yearly extravaganza. Volunteers from various local organizations giving it their all; families with children and polite teenagers, lined up in front of the cotton-candy vendor, right next to us. That vendor had the brilliant inspiration to sell his cotton-candy spun around a lighted plastic wand, which made the wad of candy look like clouds with a varicolored lightening-storm going on behind it. (Purchase the wand – get unlimited refills of cotton-candy!)

A look down the Market area.

A look down the Market area.

Any number of those polite teenagers came and bought origami earrings from my daughter, or inveigled their parents to buy them – indeed, there was one particularly engaging teenager who admired the earrings so much that my daughter sighed and gave her the particular pair that she favored, asking only that when Engaging Teenager had the money, to come back and pay for them. The very next night, Engaging Teenager returned with four crumpled dollar bills and four quarters. She confessed to wanting to be a writer and talked at length about what she liked in the way of books, how she kept being distracted by new ideas when writing, and how she was bound and determined to finish a story of hers for her grandmother’s Christmas present – because Gran had asked for just that thing. Engaging Teenager has the very same problem that I did, way back in the early days of my scribbling career; to whit – never being able to finish anything. We talked for a bit about that; reassuring and encouraging Engaging Teenager as an aspiring writer, though I suppose that we will never know if we did her any good. I did give her a copy of Lone Star Sons (autographed with a personal message, of course!), assuring Engaging Teenager that my one YA book venture might be a help in demonstrating the art of short adventure-writing. Such a nice kid – we hope that later teenagery won’t spoil her charm and spirit.

There was the procession of lighted automobiles, trucks, and tractors, some of them towing floats for the lighted parade on Saturday, the marching band and the senior citizen synchronized marching team with their lighted lawn-chairs … it was all very reassuring to me. Small-town America is still here, still confident, still ably conducting their own affairs, neighbor to neighbor – even when the neighbor is only a member of the peripatetic small-business gypsy-market. (I took pictures, using the ‘night’ function on the camera. Alas – none of those pictures came out very well at all.

The silver-gilt acorn earrings.

The silver-gilt acorn earrings.

Speaking of gypsy marketing; I bought my Christmas present indulgence for myself; a pair of vintage earrings from one of the other vendors. His family business specialized in vintage and estate jewelry, mostly silver and a large part reclaimed from a smelter in San Antonio. You know – those businesses who buy old silver and gold jewelry; it goes to be melted down. This enterprise has an agreement with the local smelter to let them come in, look over the takings and purchase at cost those items with artistic merit. But my Christmas present for myself wasn’t one of those so rescued; they were from an estate sale. Described as silver – I thought they had a gold wash – and reddish-brown jasper stones; this was a pair of acorn-shaped earrings. I liked them very much, especially as they go with the brown tweed Edwardian walking suit outfit. So – my present for myself.
Oh, and I wore a different vintage outfit every one of the three days. They worked very well for merchandising purposes – and yes, I will do this again. Many times.