(Counting down to the release of the second Luna City Chronicles – a short selection from the climax, wherein Richard is tasked with rescuing his frenemy, the actor producer Phillip Noel-Barrett, from temporary imprisonment on the set of the movie which is being shot on location on the Wyler ranch…)

The Charge of the Karnes County Rangers

Narrowly missing being struck by the speeding van, Richard made a fruitlessly obscene gesture at the swiftly-vanishing tail-lights, and pedaled grimly on, down the paved road to the Wyler ranch, marked by a pair of ornamental gates, adorned by sheet-metal silhouettes of longhorns, horses and cowboys in a frieze overhead. He rumbled over the cattle grid. Now on the faint morning breeze, he could hear the distant roar of the electrical generators – not far to go now. The last of the stars winked out, all but the very brightest, Venus lingering coyly just out of reach of the crescent moon’s embrace. Out beyond the huddle of lights, a helicopter rose from the ground, a dragonfly shape hovering in the pearl-colored sky.
He had not been out to the movie encampment before – mostly through having no wish to encounter Phillip Noel-Barrett, but it now looked as if an encounter with the despicable Pip was inevitable. No one stopped him – in fact, everyone seemed to be too busy to take any notion of him. A company of forty extras, in rags of period Mexican uniforms and full zombie makeup were being marshaled at the foot of the hill, with a gold-braid hung officer in a gaudy blue and red uniform just hauling himself into the saddle of a white horse. Richard stared, agog, thinking ‘Stone the bloody crows, this is even worse than I thought it would be!’
Fortunately, the first person he encountered who seemed to take any interest in him at all, when he approached the main pavilion were a pair whom he recognized, with considerable relief: Chris Mayall, lean and saturnine, and Sylvester Gonzales, looking uncommonly smug.
“Hey, man – come to see the fun?” Chris drawled. “They’re about to start rolling on the big scene! Well, you saw the script.”
“I was under the impression that there is some kind of scheme afoot to sabotage the whole thing,” Richard answered, still panting and breathless from the furious pace. “Which I can hardly wait to hear all about. But I actually came all the way out here for Noel-Barrett. He keeps calling the Café, saying that he is locked in the editing van and no one is answering their cellphone.”
“Yeah, we know,” Sylvester replied, without turning a hair. Richard looked upon the conspirators with dawning comprehension, not unmixed with horror as well as envy.
“You did it,” he whispered. “You two … you magnificent conniving bastards. Now get the key and let him out.”
“We can’t,” Chris was entirely unmoved. “We do not, as a matter of fact, have the key in our physical possession.”
“Well then, where is the key and who does have it?” Richard demanded. Sylvester, affecting the retro-nerd look even to the extent of wearing a vintage wristwatch, consulted that watch and replied with nerdish precision. “At this time, and given the legal speed limit between here and Karnesville, Berto is likely at least halfway to that destination with the key in his possession. Chris sent him with the emergency cases,” he added, parenthetically. “Likely, he won’t be back for hours.”
“Well, get a bolt-cutter!” Richard demanded, thinking only of the strips that Araceli would subtly rip off his hide – she being abominably soft-hearted with regard to the suffering of others. Frankly, when it came to Phillip Noel-Barrett suffering, Richard was one inclined to sit back and enjoy, even add a couple of more judicious brands to the flaming spectacle. On the other hand, he had heard Araceli promise to take Noel-Barrett’s calls every five minutes or so – and how could any work be done in the Café under such conditions!
“Sorry, Ricardo; they are about to begin filming the grand scene,” Chris replied, with a perfectly stunning lack of regret. “Likely you won’t find anyone here with a bolt-cutter or the time to go for one until it’s all done. Mega-A** Lydecker is real short of personnel this morning. I can’t think how that could possibly have happened…” At that point, both he and Sylvester exchanged a meaningful look and laughed synchronistically.
Richard looked from one to the other, still torn between horror and envy. “All right, what else did the two of you do?” he asked, fairly certain that he would not welcome hearing the answer.
“What we had to do,” Chris replied. “To sink this movie. Don’t worry, Ricardo; your hands are clean. So are ours, if we have done it right and if Colonel Walcott and his reenactor command do their stuff – which he has promised they will do, come rain or shine. If you want to, come and tell what you see to that friend of yours through the keyhole. I guarantee – it will be the most awesome f**king thing you will ever see!”
“It’s three minutes to rock and roll,” Sylvester said, with another glance at his watch. “As I understand it, our fearless Mega-A** director wants to exceed the record for a single long unbroken tracking shot of a battle scene set by Kenneth Branagh in Henry V. They’ve been setting up the track and choreographing the extras in their moves for a week.”
“Me, I don’t want to miss a single minute. You want to tell Noel-Barret he’d better sit tight for a bit? We can watch it all from the back of the editing van and you can describe it to him through the door.” Chris shouldered the bag that held his First Aid gear and supplies, and Richard followed after; they knew the layout well, after having worked at the site, day and night for three weeks.
A chaos of noise, of movement, three or four young assistant directors with heavy walkie-talkies running around like two-legged sheep-dogs with their ghastly, gore-dripping charges. The helicopter hovering overhead made speech impossible, unless one was right next to the person you were conversing with. Chris and Sylvester led the way, to a hulking 18-wheel truck trailer at the edge of the location encampment. He climbed up the four steps to the door – a solid door, and padlocked on the outside with a fairly substantial lock. He put his head next to the door, and shouted,
“Pip! Damn it, Pip – Noel-Barrett, it’s Rich – can you hear me!”
He thought that he heard someone inside replying, but the racket from the helicopter was so loud that he couldn’t make out the words. Nonetheless, he yelled, “I’m here – but they can’t find the key and they’re about to start shooting! God is my witness, Noel-Barrett, they’ll get you out as soon as they can. Just sit tight … you don’t have to keep calling Araceli, you know! She has bloody work to do!”
At his side, Chris nudged his elbow, and when he saw that Richard’s attention was turned towards them, he made a megaphone with his hands, and shouted, “There they go! See the sun, just above the hill? Watch there!”
The white-hot silver rim of the morning sun touched the crest of the gentle rise just east of location headquarters. It seared the eyes, to look at, as more and more of that blazing orb rose into that breathlessly blue sky. A pale thin mist hovered briefly over the grass, dissipating as the shadows lengthened. Richard flinched at the sound of the blast, as three explosions kicked up gouts of earth and smoke, about a quarter of the way down the hill. The sun floated higher and higher and suddenly silhouetted against it, the figure of a man on horseback. The horse pirouetted and reared, the man lifting a sabre in his right hand, sunlight flashing along it’s brazen length, and it seemed that the horse neighed a challenge ….
Richard had to appreciate the sheer heroic appeal of the image – say what you would about him, and many were eager to say the absolute worst about M.A. Lydecker – he did have skill at creating a heroic spectacle in the old-fashioned wide-screen and cinematic manner. The horse pirouetted once again, and now the ridgeline was lined with advancing shadows, silhouetted as the rider had been, against the bright hot sky – men brandishing flashing knives, with long rifles and glittering bayonets, bearded, burly men, in a long skirmish-line, advancing over the long ridge of that green hill, shouting as they came. Half a dozen riders followed after the first, a purposeful arrow after their leader. But …

(Just have to wait for the book to find out what comes next! Yes, I’m cruel, teasing you all this way.)

We went to a Hancock Fabric outlet this last weekend – my daughter wanted to take advantage of the going-out-of-business bargains. She has developed an interest in needlework and embroidery of all sorts, and since we try to live rather frugally – well, sales prices do have their appeal at all times. But it is with sorrow that we visit the Hancock Fabric outlet within our neighborhood. We have both worked in a going-out-of-business-enterprise, so we can comprehend the absolute sorrow and shock of the employees. Upon my retirement from the military, I took on a temporary sales job in the Marshall Field’s outlet in San Antonio, which was closing – and part of that was that a fur-coat concession took up a small part of the retail outlet. Which experience gave me no end of insight into the whole ambiance of high-end department store retail sales… and yes, I sold fur coats, for a basic wage plus a small commission on sales. Which did mount up, as the months wore on, towards closing of the Marshall Field’s store. We lived on the paychecks from that job for simply months, as Blondie joined me on the fur salon sales force … but never mind. I can wholly and deeply sympathize with the employees of the Hancock Fabrics store, even past the point of merely apologizing as a customer for their situation. No, I do not want to say anything about how the sales floor will contract and contract again, the shelves will empty out, as the discounts grow deeper and deeper. The store will become a bare husk of what it was – and at the end, locked doors with a pile of pathetic and picked-over goods. So sad, so sad … since I do not have to put on the whole office-work skirt suit and all, every day, I have kind of gotten away from the sewing and tailoring that I used to do for myself then, and with my nieces both well beyond the age of wanting cute little dress-up outfits … but I will miss Hancock Fabrics anyway.

In grey, with a black velveteen collar...

In grey, with a black velveteen collar…

The only time I really have to make an effort these days is for author events, where one simply has to make a splash, especially if there are other authors there. And depending on the genre or book, some authors do dress to impress and attract the eye. Another member of the on-line author circle I belonged to early on had a couple of books set in 19th century China. He had a full set of Mandarin robes with suitable accessories and that always made a bit of a splash at signings. On his advice, I have tried to do something with a sort of movie cowgirl look for book events. Lately I’ve been thinking that straight period 19th century might work better. But since we usually have to set up, and haul heavy boxes of books back and forth, the full crinoline, bonnet, bustle and trained gown is absolutely out. But there was a possibility in the Butterick Patterns costume section; an Edwardian walking suit; slim skirt, tailored jacket over a high-necked blouse. So, I bought the pattern, and there was some grey polyester suiting going for practically nothing – not that I am a fan of polyester, or that it will be in the least period-accurate. It will look nice and wrinkle-free without a lot of pressing and steaming.

I have some high-laced shoes already, a wide-brimmed hat which can be dressed up with lace, netting, plumes and whatever to match, and a replica ladies’ pocket watch on a fob; voila – new look for me on the very busy author scene for the rest of the year. Since I am going to try and bring out the second Luna City Chronicle, another Lone Star Sons book, and finish The Golden Road all in time for Christmas, I will simply have to have something smashing to wear …

The Age of Aquarius Campground and Goat Farm celebrates their 48th anniversary this year at mid-summer – a well-established institution after a rocky beginning during the Summer of Love. And rocky would be the correct term to describe the original property; five forlorn and overgrown acres in a gentle bend of the San Antonio River, a bare quarter-mile from the pleasant little town of Luna City. The property was in the distant past, a part of a generous tract granted by Spain to Don Diego Manuel Hernando Ruiz y Gonzalez or Gonzales. Over the last quarter of the 19th century, much of the tract was sold off to various new owners, including the family of Morgan P. Sheffield, a moderately well-to-do gentleman from Philadelphia. Morgan Sheffield was diagnosed with tuberculosis around 1895 and advised to move to a more temperate climate for his health.

While the climate of South Texas proved to be restorative to Mr. Sheffield’s health, the five acres of land was too rocky to farm in a traditional manner and too small to support more than a handful of cows. When the town of Luna City itself was planned, there was some thought given to establishing a hotel and spa on what was undoubtedly a pleasant situation on the banks of the San Antonio River on the outskirts of the proposed town. Attempts to dig a deep well on the site struck a thermal spring of naturally hot water, but that was the last of that run of good luck for a long time. The San Antonio & Aransas Pass Railroad bypassed Luna City, and Mr. Sheffield’s property. The hotel and spa were never built, the hot water well capped. During the 1930s, Mr. Sheffield’s heirs established a small motor court on the property, in the hopes of attracting vacationers; they built a row of small cottages, a combination bathhouse/lavatory built of concrete blocks, and paved areas for travel trailers, in the hopes of enticing travelers on Route 123 between San Antonio and the coast to come and stay for a night or two.

However, travelers and campers remained stubbornly un-enticed; the cottages disintegrated through disuse and lack of maintenance, and the acreage became severely overgrown. In 1967 the property passed into the ownership of Morgan P. Sheffield’s great-grand-niece, Judith “Judy” Stillwell, a native of Austin, mostly because no one else in the remaining family really wanted it. Judith Stillwell was then a sophomore at the University of Texas at Austin, and the despair of her upright and generally conventional middle-class family. 1968 was the so-called Summer of Love, and all things counter-culture swamped practically every college campus in the land – including Judy Stillwell and a circle of friends, which included her live-in boyfriend, Sefton Grant. They embraced practically every ‘ism’ going, with near-religious fervor; vegetarianism, pacifism, nudism, paganism, and small-c communism. At the beginning of summer vacation, Judy, Sefton and a group of about forty other devotees – most of them fellow students at UT – conceived a grand plan to establish a New Age commune, where they would all live in harmony with nature. Where to plant their ideal Age of Aquarius? Why of course, the parcel which Judy had inherited, sight unseen, would be perfect. Her family agreed, over considerable misgivings – although they did extract as a condition of their approval and initial monetary support – that she and Sefton marry.  Much to the astonishment of the Stillwells, Judy and Sefton acceded to that demand, and were married before a Justice of the Peace within days.

They set out from Austin on the first day of the summer break; a long convoy of rattle-trap student vehicles, loaded down with everything thought necessary to set up their commune. Although students and addled with more than the usual quantity of late Sixties nonsense, there was a substantial streak of practicality, and among some at least, a willingness to engage in hard work. Sefton Grant, the son of a livestock farmer from Noodle, in Jones County typified that element.

Sefton realized almost at once upon arriving at the site of the new commune – a substantial grove of oak and pecan trees, deeply tangled with wild mustang grape vines – that subsistence farming would purely be out of the question; it would be a project of years to rid the best soil of rocks and improve it with manure and compost. He suggested grazing goats, and raising chickens. This suggestion was discussed and ratified over the period of a week by the commune members, while they worked at setting up living quarters. To several trailers were added the first yurt, which eventually became the Grant family home, a series of tents, and a number of free-form shack/shed/hovels built from scrap lumber, cardboard, construction leftovers, and sheets of plywood. Early on, the members discovered a substantial source of raw materials for their projects at the Karnesville City Dump, some eight miles south of the commune site. The hot well was uncapped, and an old windmill repaired to pump hot water into the only remaining structure from the campground – the lavatory and bathhouse.

But before the end of the year – even before the end of summer – the commune itself began dissolving. Fully a dozen members felt obliged to return to UT and complete their studies there in the fall, although they continued to consider the Age of Aquarius their more or less permanent home and to return there at intervals, especially at the time of the midsummer solstice. Two male commune members had draft numbers come up, and being no longer students, had to report for military service. Three more, being not yet of legal age, were tracked down and retrieved by their outraged families. The others, all but Judy and Sefton, drifted away before the decade was out, having concluded with some degree of chagrin, that living off the land and in harmony with nature involved too much backbreaking physical labor in the South Texas summer heat. It was also much more uncomfortable then it had sounded in long and substance-addled discussions in the Student Union. Only Sefton and Judy remained constant, eventually raising two sons and a daughter and achieving some degree of eccentric comfort in their chosen lifestyle.

They acquired beehives, goats, chickens – Judy being much more inclined than Sefton to consider them as pets – and the manure from the latter slowly improved the patch where they established a thriving truck garden. Judy, who dabbled in various arcane household skills, including weaving, herbal medicines, fortune-telling, and macramé-knotting, worked out recipes for hand-made soaps, and goat-milk cheeses, and established a tiny but thriving business selling them at local markets, along with honey and fresh vegetables in season. In time, they were able to pay to have an electric line run out to the campground, on the grounds that people paying to camp there expected it, although their own home establishment depended on solar panels, a wind-mill and kerosene lanterns.

And every mid-summer, the long-dispersed commune members return; middle-aged and prosperous, to fill up the campground and reminisce about that long-ago summer with Judy and Sefton, recalling youthful dreams and illusions, to light a bonfire in the grove and dance sky-clad to the Stones, the Doors and Janis.

The Grants’ three children – all now well-grown, also prosperous and utterly conventional – do not come to visit during that week. There are things which once seen, cannot be unseen.