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.