21. April 2020 · Comments Off on The Ballad of Charley Mills and the Hanging Tree · Categories: Uncategorized

(Continued, to be included in Luna City #9 – the true story of how and why Charley Mills was almost lynched in Town Square, in 1926. Much of the story is carried by Alister Mcgill, then chief of police in Luna City, as the last living eyewitness to that event, Miss Letty McAllister, was then only six years old.)

My sergeant and chief investigator at the time of these developments was one John Drury; a trusty man who had been a Texas Ranger with Captain McNelly’s border company before he needed to shave – a bare boy of sixteen then and only because his father had been a Ranger and recommended his son to Captain McNelly. Now it was near half-a-century on; still, John Drury was a canny man and a trusty one, too. Not half-bad a marksman, either; had no wife or family, so his life was devoted to law. He was near to the age of seventy at this time but appeared as fit and vital as a man half that span of years. If the city budget could afford his salary, and he was willing to work for it, who was I to object? When we were told that the third drummer died in hospital, I called Drury into my office for a consultation. The mayor, Mr. McAllister was of the mind that we could all sort it out without much fuss and he had expressed his complete confidence in my department.

“So, what think you, John?” I asked, for we were familiar enough to use our first names, when it was a matter of us in private, although John Drury usually preferred to address me by rank. He shook his head.

“A curious thing, Captain. There’s many a tale told about Charley Mills, but never a one that he makes bad likker. Not the slightest whisper. A rogue, a bad and wicked man, not to be trusted within reach of any honest man’s money, any portable property of value, or his wife and daughter … but I’ve never heard anything about his whiskey being bad to drink. Not even in these parlous times.”

“Neither have I,” said I in reply. “I dare say that I have sampled enough of it, in the time that I have been living here and taken no ill at all. Even before the Volstead Act was signed into law.”

“I would say the same and had no concern,” John Drury answered. He looked thoughtful, as if he were considering much. “Until the matter of those three unfortunate lads. Mills supplies Dunsmore’s little speakeasy – exclusively, I am certain of it. There’s been no illicit deliveries that I can see. An outsider to Luna City would be remarked upon – especially if they were thought to be bootleggers from outside Karnes County. Even disguised as groceries … no, Captain. It’s irregular, as near as I can see. Rogues go to a pattern, unless they are very, very clever. It’s to my mind that Charley Mills is not all that clever.”

“Clever enough to pay a good lawyer,” I pointed out, “And keep him on retainer. It irks me, John, knowing that Mills lives like an old robber baron, among his castle ruins, abusing and robbing the peasantry as he feels the urge… And no one might touch him, legally.”

John Drury was already shaking his head. “There is that, Captain. But above all, Mills is an indolent, lazy bastard. He’s not given over to the spirit of invention in his criminality… but that woman. His common-law wife …”

“Mrs. Mills, or Miss Carolina de San Pedro,” I said. “A woman of such obvious aristocratic qualities – and she must be less than half the old reprobates’ age! One does wonder how the old goat managed to attract her, or why she remains with him for longer than five minutes.”

“Indeed, Captain,” John Drury nodded agreement. “High-bred Mex, in my experience as proud as Lucifer – usually claiming to be Spanish of the pure blood, limpieza de sangre as they used to say. A common-law marriage, as I have heard – based merely on cohabitation for seven years or more. Now, if Mrs. Mills is looking to expand the local market by trading on the Mills reputation and cutting corners … When did she become part of the Mills ménage? About ten years, if I recall correctly. A refugee from political violence in Mexico; in fear for her life, as her family was on the losing side of the Huerta-Carranza revolutionary brangle. She slipped over the border and went to ground in the nearest handy refuge, having no other useful trade than offering her hand in marriage.”

“When is there ever not political violence in Mexico?” I replied. “It’s like the border wars between England and Scotland, you ken – constant and everlasting cattle raids, refugees from the losing side going back and forth across the border, fomenting resistance and rebellion… against whomever. In my home country it eventually became a wholesome outdoor sport, I do believe.”

“Texas has become your element, Captain!” John Drury grinned with unalloyed delight. “The ground is familiar to you in theory, which is a useful guide to practice, when used carefully.” His countenance sobered. “I think that we should interview the so-called Mrs. Mills, then. Something has changed drastically within their operation. We should know what it was, if she will be honest…”

“When have we ever known one of the criminal fraternities to be honest?” I said. John Drury chuckled.

“When it’s their living at stake, Chief. Their nuts in a vice, or Old Casuse standing them up in the saddle of his horse, under a tree with a sturdy branch and a noose around their neck. Sing like canaries, they do. Guaranteed.”

“We can’t go to that limit, John,” I said – although I do not deny that I relished a mental image of doing so to Charley Mills.

So we got in my car, and drove out to the Mills place, to interview Mrs. Mills – as was she called. It was a mild day, with spring just beginning to shyly come on, new green leaves on the trees and swarms of pink primrose and yellow daisies, the grass in the meadows beside the road to the south of town. The prettiest time of the year, so I have always thought – the Highlands in my youth may have been more glorious for scenery two or three days out of the month, but the incessant dreary rain for the other twenty-seven or twenty eight was enough to drive a man to drink, or to travel to any place with nicer weather. We hummed along the road at a goodish clip; can’t recollect if Route 123 had been paved with macadam by that time, or if it were still only graveled.

The turn-off road to the Mills place was barely marked; a sagging gate with a faded and hand painted “No Trespassing!” board hung from it. John Drury got out to tug the gate all the way open, and wrestle it closed after I had driven through. He resumed his place in the passenger seat with a sigh.

“The Mills place was the pride of Karnes County, back when I first settled here. A beautiful, well-run showplace; a pretty painted house, manicured pastures, fat and contented stock. Now, I swear, the only fat contented stock are Charley’s pet alligators. It’s a tragedy, Captain – that such a fine, hard-working man and wife as James and Jane Mills should have been blessed with a lazy, worthless piece of work like Charley for a son and heir! The three Graces, they called the daughters – every one as lovely a girl who ever turned heads in the street! They went to finishing school in San Antonio, you know – every imaginable womanly accomplishment between them, and then Charley … a disappointment in every possible aspect!”

“Cruel it is, John,” I said, for it seemed that John had been fondly attached to the Mills family, especially the girls, and of a proper age to have courted several of them, but with little success, as he was a man of no great property himself. He looked out though the windscreen of the Ford, a bleak expression upon his countenance, as the Ford bumped at a careful speed,  down the rutted lane which led through the neglected acres of the Mills Place – pastures and fields now well-overgrown with cane and mesquite. The prospect of the main house and the outbuildings presented a picture of even more ruin and neglect – a climbing rose with small blood-red blossoms straggled up along one side of what once had been a trim little cottage, lavishly adorned with fret-sawed wooden lace. The porch sagged, dangerously, and the white paint which once must have been renewed every decade or so, under the blast of a pitiless Texas summer sun, was peeling and chipped away on the south-facing walls. The rose should have been pruned many seasons since. Many windows boasted broken panes, filled in with squares of cardboard, tin and other such trash. It was a sad prospect and I felt something of John Drury’s sorrow; a goodly inheritance gone to rack and ruin, under the rule of a careless and dissolute keeper.

The sole thing in the Mills demesne which appeared to be whole and in excellent repair and condition was the green Ford panel truck which sat around the side of the house, before the grey weathered barn of unpainted planks – a barn which leaned precipitously towards south-east, in an unsettling manner, which suggested that the next vicious Blue Norther would bring the whole edifice down in a tumble of planks. The panel truck was brand new, or as near to it as could be. Charley Mills’ bootlegging operation must be prospering, I conveyed silently to John Drury by a significant glance towards it and a raised eyebrow, and he nodded in agreement. There was a woman, just coming out from that barn, a slender young woman wearing unwomanly trousers, lugging a heavy crate in her hands, a crate of bottles – from the clinking sound that the made, when she stowed in the back of the panel truck, and sauntered boldly to meet us.

“Mrs. Mills,” said I, courteously; for of course, we wished to cultivate this woman, not frighten her into uncooperative defiance. “Might we have a moment of your time – tis a matter of investigating murder in a lesser degree … that would be a courtesy that I would remember in future, in the event of any investigation from outside my office.”

“Chief McGill,” she nodded, warily. “And Sergeant Drury. To what do I owe the pleasure of your company this morning?”

Mrs. Mills had a pleasing voice, with only the slightest of accents. She spoke like a lady of noble station, and without any trace of nervousness in her manner or expression. Carolina de San Pedro Mills was then about thirty, I would have judged. She wore her plain shirt and unladylike trousers with the air of a woman modeling them for a fashion magazine, or perhaps a poster advertising a moving picture. She was not one of those who had bobbed her hair in the current fashion, but wore it long, smooth and dark, knotted at the back of her head, as if she would otherwise have favored one of those tall Spanish combs with a length of fine lace draped over it, and perhaps a pair of clicky-castanets to go with. As fair of complexion as any Englishwoman, she also had arresting eyes – eyes of a peculiar blue-green color, the same blue-green shade of the shallow waters off the Holy Isle of Iona, blue-green water on a strand of beach the color of fine white sugar. Whatever might have led a woman of such quality to a marital alliance with a villain like Charley Mills was a mystery even more profound than the mystery which had led John Drury and I to this place in the beginning.

“It is a matter of tainted alcohol,” I said, after waiting for John Drury to speak. “That which poisoned the three travelling drummers. They drank at Dunsmore’s speakeasy, the evening before they were stricken – no, it is a matter of record and the witnesses reliable and have made sworn statements…”

A bit of an exaggeration, I will admit to these pages – but all may be fair in love, war, and criminal investigations. John Drury nodded in solemn affirmation

“You know about Dunsmore?” she asked, warily. “But of course. I have heard there is nothing happening in Luna City of which you do not know…”

“Flattery, lass, will get you nowhere,” I replied, although I was pleased. A reputation for omniscience was a useful thing, I had long since known, although I was no more gifted with particular insight than any other human with skills for good observation and logical deduction. “Of course, I know about Dunsmore – ‘tis an open secret. Look, lass – I care nothing for whether gentlemen drink among company or alone, as long as they conduct themselves fittingly and don’t take from wages that would feed their little children to drink themselves silly every night after work. But I care very much that someone tainted the alcohol at Dunsmore’s with poisonous wood-alcohol and so does Mayor McAllister. I wish for insight into why this might have been done, and to whose’ advantage the painful death of good customers might have been, so that they may be rightfully charged with contributing to cases of wrongful death. Mr. Mills has long been the source of much in the way of spirituous liquors in this vicinity – now, would you wish that the great clumsy feet of investigators from the Bureau of Prohibition come trampling into Luna City, interfering with our business, and harming those who have never given harm to anyone? Ours is a delicate spiderweb, Mrs. Mills. Outsiders will not take anything like the care that I will, the care which Mayor McAllister desires me to exercise in this matter. What you say to Sergeant Drury and myself will be kept in confidence, so we urge you to be candid – for the good of us all. You do not wish to be repatriated as a criminal foreigner back to Mexico, I would take it …”

A misstep. She regarded us with a level gaze. “No, for I am legally married to Mr. Mills – and this was recorded before witnesses in the office of the Justice of the Peace in Brownsville – in 1915. You can send for the records if you wish. A wife cannot be made to testify against her husband.”

“Aye, then, for such is the law,” I apologized – a tactful withdrawal in the military sense. “And ‘tis a law that I am sworn to uphold, Mrs. Mills – I beg you not to make upholding it difficult for us all. You would swear on anything you hold in reverence, that the liquor provided to Mr. Dunsmere’s place of business was sound, not tampered or adulterated with wood-alcohol or any other such substance, when it passed from your hands into Mr. Dunsmore’s … or those of his agents.”

“Who took possession of the delivery on Thursday last to Dunsmore’s grocery?” John Drury pressed, with the adept timing of an actor with a cue. “That, and the previous shipment? My information is that such is consigned weekly, as he cannot stock very much at a time, and the consignment is near-consumed at the end of the week before the next delivery?”

“Mrs. Dunsmore, sometimes,” Carolina Mills regarded me slantwise, from those amazing blue-green eyes, all the more startling for being fringed by ink-dark lashes. “Humiliating – to make deliveries after dark or in the early morning, after arranging a time. But last week – it was Ambrosiano. Ambrosiano Gonzales. Most usually, Mrs. or Mr. Dunsmore took delivery – Ambrosiano only came to work for them in January. He is a very poor relation of Don Antonio, of the Rancho Rincon and there is no work for him there. He took employment, working in the grocery. Shifting heavy boxes and running errands. He also is fleeing la Revolucion…” Carolina Mills added. “Because he is a good Catholic and a believer…”

“God save us, they’ve got yet another war going on,” John Drury commented, sotto voice, and I said, rather loudly,

“And this was your usual delivery of …”

“Mixed goods,” Carolina Mills replied. “Bourbon whiskey, brandy, apple-jack from our enterprise – all the good stuff…” that last term came rather awkwardly from her lips. Not her native speech, I judged, but that of her so-called-husband. “All pure, all un-tainted. I … that is, we – we have a reputation for superlative quality. I would not spoil that, not for anything. Neither would Mr. Mills. A matter of pride. Not to cheat. Here …” she went to the back of the Ford, where the box which she had just carried to it reposed on the bed. “Pick a bottle … pick two at random. Take them away and test them – and if they are tainted and poisonous – then come and put your bracelets on my wrists….” And she held up her hands, close together in a splendid gesture. “And then do with me what you will. For I will swear to you on our Holy Mother – that our liquor is pure and of the highest quality imaginable.”

“I will, and thank you for your cooperation,” I said, as I took two bottles at random out of the open crate in the Ford. “I believe that we are done here, Sergeant Drury. If you will accompany me … my thanks for your information, Mrs. Mills. We shall test this in our laboratory. Do not attempt to leave the area – or if needs must, let us know.”


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