23. April 2019 · Comments Off on Part 2 of 1932 – Indians, Cowboys and Outlaws · Categories: Luna City Short Stories

(This is a continuation of an exploration of the past in Luna City: When Miss Letty, Doc Wyler, her brother Douglas, and Artie Vaughn (Joe’s grandfather) were all children, in Depression-era Texas. Just FYI – the Fort is a real place, in a park near my home. A kid-built timber teepee. My brother and I, and our friends had a number of similar forts, growing up in the days when being free-range children was the usual way of things.)

Douglas pushed off, and Letty followed; she liked riding her bicycle, even if it was an old and battered one. With it, she had the freedom of Luna City, the winged freedom of a bird to come and go without trudging in her hand-me-down, holey-toed shoes in the dust. They emerged into Town Square, at the edge of that sculpted grove of ancient trees, hemmed in by the facades of the various buildings which framed the Square with their ornate pediments, their banks of windows, their white-painted columns and discrete statuary. It was a busy place on a Monday, with automobiles and trucks putt-putting a decorous way, amid the horse- and mule-pulled wagons. Even in the midst of hard times, Luna City displayed a mild prosperity. The Luna City Savings and Loan had quite recovered from a midnight raid several years previous by the notorious Newton Gang to rob the antiquated vault. Their fruitless attempt to blow the vault’s door had only succeeded in shattering every window in the place and awaking just about everyone who lived above the shop premises in Town Square. The windows were new – but there were still several divots in the brickwork left from gunfire – not all of it from the Newton gang.

“I’ll be a minute,” Douglas said, as he leaned his own bicycle against the pillar nearest to the door. Letty sat down on the tallest step, next to her own bicycle, and contemplated the view of Town Square from there, and felt the familiar throb of pride and belonging. This was her place, bone of her bone, blood of her blood, as deep in the soil as the roots of the oak trees reached. She was a part of it, it was a part of her, and she loved it fiercely, even the awkward parts, like Artie and his diaper-clad baby brother. There was no other place in the world where she wanted to live.

Along the square, sporadic traffic came and went: Letty’s attention was briefly drawn towards one motor-car. A flashy new sedan, tan-colored with a cloth tonneau top, and not one that she recognized. Although a fair number of strange motor-cars passed by the Tip Top every day – most which came into Luna City itself were driver by owners who were well-known. She watched with interest as it paused along the square, and two men emerged from it, along with an elegantly-attired young woman. The lady was tiny, hardly taller than Letty herself. And she had red hair, combed under a modish hat. Letty noticed them particularly because they looked toward the Savings and Loan building, and it seemed they were conferring together for some moments. And then they got into the motor-car, and it puttered away. Douglas emerged from the Savings and Loan, with a satisfied expression, his hands in his pockets.

“It’s getting hot, Letty – ready for some ice-cream?”

“Sure!” Letty replied – for it was quite warm at near-to-noon, sitting on the steps waiting for Douglas. They walked their bicycles the short distance down the sidewalk to the Mercantile Building – the one which announced its’ name in white glazed bricks along the elaborate façade. Their father rented the street-level shop premise to an ice-cream parlor, and the small apartment above to the family which managed the parlor. There were several small divots in the brickwork surrounding the store-front window of the ice cream parlor – again from an exchange of gunfire; this time between Don Antonio Gonzalez of the Rancho des Robles, and a man with a grudge against his family – but all that had happened before Letty was born, although Papa frequently pointed out the small damage to the front wall of his property and often thanked providence that he hadn’t had to ask Don Antonio to pay for replacing an expensive plate glass window.

Douglas and Letty left their bicycles leaning against the nearest lamppost; the ice-cream parlor was relatively cool, with a ceiling fan lazily stirring the air – and perhaps the merchandise itself lent a suggestion of cold to the place. Douglas chose chocolate, Letty strawberry ice cream, a single scoop packed into a crisp sugar cone, and five cents worth of hard candy chosen from the short display of candies presided over by the beaming shop-keeper. Douglas resolutely paid for it all, although Papa’s tenant insisted at first that they take nothing for the candy.

“It would have saved you a nickel,” Letty pointed out, as they retrieved their bicycles, and Douglas looked stern. “He has a business, Letty – and it would be wrong to take advantage, just because Poppa owns the building? He wouldn’t have given Artie or Stephen a discount … well, maybe he would have given it to Stephen. But it would still be shady. McAllisters do not do shady business, Letty – we do open and above-board.”

“Yes – we do,” Letty agreed, and they pedaled away towards the edge of town, towards where the river scribbled a blue and deep gouge into the landscape to the south of Luna City. Tall trees, thirsty poplar, cypress, sycamore and oak lined the banks, in places with their roots revealed by erosion. Small footpaths and deer-trails threaded stands of native cane and thickets of wild plums and persimmons, blackberry tangles and swags of mustang grapes handing in festoons. It was too late for blackberries, too early for plums, grapes and persimmons. Douglas and Letty skirted the old Sheffield place, and the decaying range of outbuildings, which once had been intended to be resort with a hot-water well rumored to have curative properties.  But the resort never really took off, and the main house had burned and never been rebuilt because of hard times. The deepest pool in the river was at the bend by the Sheffield place – and that was where everyone went for a swim, at the height of summer. Letty knew it well – and also that it was the older kids who favored it most.

The Fort – the hide-out, club-house and refuge of hers and Douglas’s friends was some way past the swimming hole and the Sheffield place; they were all quite certain that none but a select circle knew of it, for they had built it themselves the summer before, and added it over the winter.

Just up-river from the Mills place, the river spread and widened; a shallow flood-plain, floored in gravel and sand, where all the wrack from previous years’ floods accumulated – tree branches, lengths of cane and other trash. An oak with gnarled branches, branches which ran almost perpendicular to the ground held a tenacious position there. And that was where Douglas, Stephen and Letty had collected up lengths of cane, lengths of scrap plank, and straight branches, and brought them to lean from ground to branch, to form a kind of layered driftwood teepee, eight or ten feet in irregular diameter. This was “The Fort” – not entirely weatherproof, but sheltered against the wind and weather, and furnished with some small comforts. The most notable of those comforts included a moldering buffalo robe which cushioned the larger part of the space within, and an ancient camp stove – a metal tray on legs, in which they could kindle a small fire, and a couple of tin pots, plates and mugs – most of which were the measuring cups given out by the flour-milling companies.

As Douglas and Letty walked their bikes around the last bend in the river, towards the clump of trees that sheltered the Fort, they saw that Stephen Wyler was already there. A cow-pony from the Wyler ranch stable was browsing morosely on the sparse tufts of grass which had found purchase on the sandy soil of the river bottom, tied loosely by the reins to another tree limb. Stephen himself sat on the edge of the riverbank, his legs dangling over the edge, with his own .22 at his side.

“You’re just in time, Captain!” he commented, as he slid down in a rush of dust and pebbles. “We got word from HQ – we’re to attack the German trench in Sector 22 in an hour.”

“I thought it was going to be the Comanche winter camp today,” Letty was disappointed. She much preferred stalking the Comanches, to storming the German’s trench.

“That’s no fun,” Stephen answered.

“Maybe we be G-men hunting for robbers,” Douglas suggested. “You know, like the Newton brothers, or the Barker gang… Public enemy number one!”

Letty considered this – yes, not as boring as storming a German trench and pretending to fight imaginary soldiers. “There were some strangers in the Square today, while you were inside the Savings & Loan. They kept looking up at the building and talking – two young men in flashy clothes and a lady with red hair.”

“Gangsters and their moll, for sure,” Douglas nodded. “What did they do then, Letty?”

“They talked for a bit, and then they got into the car and drove away. It looked as if they were studying the building, and seeing how many people were around.”

“What kind of car?” Stephen looked as if he had already come around to considering hunting for gangsters. “A tan-colored touring car with a cloth top – it had the silver greyhound on the front. It looked pretty new.”

“A Lincoln,” Douglas took especial note of cars – their makers and their styles, through helping at the Tip-Top. “They must have been passing through; no one around Luna City drives a tan-colored Lincoln like that. We should wait for Artie. He knows everything there is to know about gangsters.”

“Oh, him!” Stephen looked deflated. “Is he coming, too?”

“Yeah,” Douglas answered, with a sigh. “We gave him the password for today and all.”

“Rats,” Stephen kicked the toe of his boot at the sandy ground. “He’s a pain, always dragging his little brother along…”

“We ought to wait a bit for him anyway,” Douglas insisted. “He’ll know enough to make it all interesting. And anyway – I bought some candy at the ice-cream parlor. I made two dollars in tips this week, and Mama said that I might treat Letty and my friends with a bit of it.”

“Well, that’s all right, then,” Stephen yielded with little grace. “So – where do we go, hunting for gangsters and robbers?”

“The Mills place would be a good start,” Douglas mused, as he followed Stephen into the Fort, bowing half-way to the ground in order to make it through the low doorway. Inside was still cool from the shade, and faintly musty-smelling from the old buffalo robe. “I heard tell that Old Man Mills was a gangster himself, in the old days. The Bent Cactus gang, the Dalton gang and all … and everyone says that that Old Man Mills brought home the loot from all their robberies and hid it somewhere.”

“Old Man Mills has been a likker bootlegger from a long time back, too,” Stephen agreed. In the shade of the Fort, his eyes were as big and dark as those blackberries which grew on the field-side hedges and wastelands. “And he got some big ol’ pet alligators in a pond out at his place. They say that he threw the dead bodies of his gang that he double-crossed to the alligators to eat. That way there’d be no evidence.” Now Douglas shook his head.

“He doesn’t neither, Stephen – his alligators aren’t big enough.”

“Bet you they are,” Stephen insisted. “We ought to just scout around and take a look!”

 

Letty shivered, as if a cold draft had blown suddenly down her neck. Old Man Mills was a bogy-man to them: an old, cranky and unkept man with an evil reputation. He didn’t much dare show his face in town any more, so Letty had only seen him above half a dozen times. He had a wife, though – although Mama had a very sour expression on her face, whenever she might encounter Mrs. Mills about town. Mrs. Mills was a smooth-faced, black-haired woman, considerably younger than Old Man Mills. She spoke Spanish but was as pale-complected as any Anglo in Luna City.

“That woman is no better than she ought to be!” Letty had heard Mama fume to Poppa, once, when Mama thought that Letty and Douglas were out of hearing, after encountering Mrs. Mills in the doorway to Abernathy Hardware. It sounded like Mrs. Mills was indeed a gangster moll, Letty thought, upon reconsideration. Just like the pretty red-headed lady in the tan-colored Lincoln. Her ruminations on this – and Douglas and Stephen’s discussion of how they should go about surreptitiously visiting the Mills place were interrupted by a shout from outside.

“Hey – anybody there!”

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