13. April 2020 · Comments Off on From Luna City #9 – The Ballad of Charley Mills and the Hanging Tree · Categories: Luna City Short Stories

“But the hanging mob, Miss Letty,” Clovis Walcott urged, while Richard meditated on the odd turn of events which led a Scot from Fife named Magill to become –apparently – the long-serving and much respected senior law enforcement officer in Luna City. “How did that come to involve a respectable merchant of the town and a socially non-conforming spouse? I take it that having received a pardon from the office of Ma Ferguson … he was unjustly imprisoned for violating the laws prohibiting alcohol consumption?”

Clovis Walcott, as a practicing open-air historian specializing in 19th century Americana, was perhaps even more thoroughly steeped in the Victorian ideal of social conduct than Miss Letty, Richard mused privately.

“As it happens,” Miss Letty replied, every inch the stern Methodist church lady, “He was not unjustly charged and condemned. Mr. Dunsmore was operating an illicit saloon – a speakeasy, as they termed such an enterprise then. A secret subterranean storeroom behind the grocery, with a triple-barred door opening into the alleyway behind. I believe the current owners use that room as a wine cellar. It came as a surprise to everyone, everyone save those who knew of and patronized that establishment. It seemed – from what I overheard when my parents talked of it – that the men of town were … indulgent regarding Mr. Dunsmore’s speakeasy. It was only when three drummers … that is, traveling salesmen, as they called them back then – were poisoned by bad alcohol that Chief Magill was forced to take action… This is a long story, gentleman. Are you certain you wish to hear it?”

“I’ve got nothing but time this morning,” Clovis Walcott gestured for another a fill-up of his coffee. “So, I’d admire to hear the full story, Miss Letty.”

“I don’t,” Roman added, “But I’d like to hear it anyway. And if I have to rush away in half an hour, I can always ask Great Uncle Jaimie for what he might know. He was around then… And what he doesn’t remember, Cousin Mindy can find out.”

“Indeed,” Miss Letty nodded magisterially. “Jaimie Gonzales is about the same age that I am – but his family hardly ever came to town at that time. They kept themselves to themselves, back in the day: Spanish nobility, you know.”

“That, and a lynch mob coming for them, on the off-chance of some criminal outrage being blamed on some poor idiot Tejano,” Roman nodded, in cynical agreement, and Miss Letty sighed.

“In a way, the presence of Charley Mills served as a kind of social lightening-rod. Any notable criminal goings-on happened in Luna City … were blamed on him. And on the Newton gang, of course. His presence and his well-known record of criminality and anti-social behavior served to keep the social peace in very sad times, as curious as that might seem.”

“I do want to hear the full story, Miss Letty,” Richard insisted. “Although … I have only forty minutes before I must go and oversee preparations for lunch.”

“Very well,” Miss Letty sighed. “Although the full story may take much, much longer.”

***

From the Karnesville Daily Beacon issue of March 5, 1926 – A Fatal Poisoning Among the Traveling Fraternity!

Three traveling drummers were discovered dangerously ill or dying in their rooms at the Cattleman Hotel in Luna City this Monday just past. Identified through their personal effects and the hotel registry, the deceased are Mr. Arthur Montgomery of Dallas, Texas, (aged 27) and Mr. James McArdle (aged 25) of Tulsa, Oklahoma. They were employed by several respectable commercial enterprises and were traveling through the region seeking business on behalf of their employers. A third drummer, Mr. Dennis Charlton, (aged 30) of New Orleans, Louisiana remains desperately ill in the Karnesville Regional Hospital. Doctors attending on him fear that he may lose his sight, if he recovers at all. Interviewed briefly by investigating authorities, Mr. Charlton insisted that nothing had been out of the ordinary in his visit to Luna City, where he had been received by regular clients among the commercial enterprises there, including representatives from Abernathy Hardware, and Dunsmore Groceries and Sundries.

***

From the Karnesville Daily Beacon, March 9, 1926

Mr. Dennis Charlton, a traveling salesman for the California Perfume Company, stricken by a mysterious and dangerous ailment last week, perished of that condition at the Karnesville Regional Hospital this day past. Two other traveling drummers had previously been discovered dead in their rooms by the staff of the Cattleman Hotel in Luna City this previous week. An investigation into the circumstances of this sad affair is ongoing, according to Chief of Police in Luna City, Alistair Magill.

***

  From the evidence file pertaining to investigation of case #26-3-005: item 4

A handwritten note found in the possession of the accused C. E. Mills when taken into custody by the arresting officer at 3:24 AM, 15 March 1926. (Not actually in his possession, but in his trouser pocket – note by AM)

Dearest C – come to me tonight. Mr. D in K’ville. The window will be unlatched. Love. E

***

From an untitled and unpublished memoir by former chief of police, Luna City, Alistair Duncan Magill, found among his private papers by his family, after his death from natural causes at the age of 98 in February 1987.

Chapter 47 – The Mills Lynching

The matter began as part of an entirely separate case; that of the three traveling salesmen, discovered by the staff of the Cattleman Hotel to be dead or near-death in their rooms on the morning of March 3. Simple case, you say. Three adventurous young fellows on the road; of course, they went out drinking of an evening, and the liquor they had the ill-fortune to consume that evening was adulterated with wood-grain alcohol. Nasty stuff; deadly as a matter of fact. Never was a strict dry, myself; always of the opinion that a real man could and ought to exert control over his baser urges and I never said no to a drop of the good creature, even during Prohibition. Only a weak namby-pamby would look to a higher authority to control it for him. But enforcement of the Volstead Act was the law of the land and I was sworn to uphold the law, no matter what my own private feelings in the matter. As for Prohibition in Luna City, as long as there was no harm done to any, save perhaps a thunderous headache the next morning for those who had over-imbibed, my fellows and I kept the law as sensibly as it could be and looked the other way as often as we could in good conscious and in accordance with our oath.

There was but one serious bootlegger in the vicinity, and that was Charles Everett Mills; his general criminality was a well-known matter, and a thorn in my side as well as that of many others. Mills, as scabrous a villain as I ever encountered, none the less had the wit and purse sufficient to employ an excellent and creative lawyer – Newsome by name. Gabriel Newsome. Had an office and partnership in Karnesville: Newsome, Porter & Daws. Never saw a whisker of Porter and Daws; between you and I and the gatepost, I shouldn’t be surprised to learn that they were imaginary, indeed. It was a matter of growing resentment among those residents in Luna City who had cause and clear evidence sufficient to bring criminal charges against Charley Mills as well as the persistence to follow through with charges, regularly had those charges dismissed by the judge in Karnesville.

“Look, you,” I said to Mr. Newsome – sometime late in 1925, as I recollect now after many years. This was after another charge against Charley Mills was dismissed, following upon Newsome, Esq.’s eloquent defense of the character of the defendant along with a subtle impugnment of the character and eyesight of those testifying witnesses – those few brave enough to come to Karnesville and testify. The jury’s verdict went for Charley Mills, of course. I believe that they were all foreigners from Karnesville and farther afield. “This can’t go on. Your client is a menace. Too many local people know what he is, indeed.”

“That may be,” the rascal replied, impertinent, as he gathered together his paper briefs. “But his money is good, and I endeavor to give full value for it. Are you intending to intimidate me, Chief Magill? My hours are flexible; I may complain to the judge about this, if you persist.”

“Consider it a word of professional warning,” I replied, considerably irked.

Indeed, there was little that I could do, and I was full annoyed at having my good advice spurned so. For Mr. Mills was indeed walking a thin line, for all that his lawyer could keep him from a conviction and a term in the county jail. My reading of local temper was acute, as were those of my constables. Charles E. Mills had offended against too many law-abiding citizens; openly flouted the law, in matters other than the bootlegging of spirits. Indeed, it was my sense that this was the least of his offenses against the laws of God and man. If he had only kept himself to his distilling enterprise, most in Luna City would cheerfully have looked the other way. Our Lord was one who relished the taste of good wine and saw it as a pleasure available to all in celebration. Indeed, the Miracle at Cana attests to that inclination, and in that, my good friend the Reverend Rowbottom of the First Methodist Church of Luna City agreed privily with me. Most in his congregation did not agree, though. Father Antoine of Sts. Margaret and Stephen also agreed, citing the same scriptural accounts. Aye, but that is neither here nor there. Father Antoine was a Papist of the stern old school and the Reverend Rowbottom was unusually broadminded for a hard-shell Methodist..   

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