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(Yes, another excerpt of the next Luna City chronicle – which, with luck, will be available in April, 2018)

“Bree … you haven’t experimented with … the sex-magick, have you? You know – with a boyfriend of your age?” G-Nan asked, anxiously, and Bree Grant looked at her grandmother with eyes rounded in mild astonishment. What on earth could have brought that on? It was the first day of Bree’s return to the Age of Aquarius; suppertime in the Straw Castle Aquarius, a high-ceilinged tower of a place with a domed roof. Her parent’s car had vanished up the narrow road into the Age that very morning, trailing a smudge of dust and leaving Bree behind to spend spring and summer with her grandparents.

Bree, seventeen, intense and outgoing, replied in shocked surprise, “Ick, no! The male of our species,” Bree continued with a magisterial air, wondering why Grampy was stifling laughter. “Is simply not at their best at this stage of development. Really, G-Nan, all zits and obsessed with cars or football, or all gothy and emo. The very thought; it is to make me barf. And no savoir-faire at all. I have standards, you know,” and Bree directed a severe look at her grandfather who was still snickering. “I demand a degree of savoir-faire in a lover. Absolutely, at a minimum.”

“Bree Pumpkin – do you even know what savoir-faire means?” Grampy asked, over his plate of quinoa and feta-cheese salad – which Bree had made herself, rather than risk G-Nan’s signature dish of lentil surprise.

“Sure,” Bree serenely scarfed up a forkful of salad. “It’s from the French, actually – and is defined in the dictionary as ‘a polished sureness in social behavior.’ I really don’t think that is too much to ask for, Grampy – and what is so funny about it?”

“Nothing, Pumpkin,” Sefton still grinned, which Bree found quite baffling. But not as baffling as when Judy laid down her own fork and looked earnestly at her granddaughter.

“You are of the age to consider experimenting with sex-magick, you know. It is a powerful force in this world, and not one to be lightly considered.”

“I know, G-Nan,” Bree reassured her grandmother. “And trust me – I have thought about it all very carefully. There’s no real future in sleeping with every guy you meet. I mean, really. They forget you the next day, or never call … and really, I’d rather be the one they remember forever for not having gone to bed with them. When I do decide,” Bree helped herself to more okra pickles and bit into one of them with a satisfying crunch. “To practice the magick, it will be spectacular. Perfect. On satin sheets at the top of the Eiffel Tower, or under a Tahitian waterfall with the scent of frangipani hanging in the air … That kind of perfection takes time, and he will really, really have to be worthy.”

“What about that Walcott boy?” G-Nan ventured, having – as Bree assumed – totally missed the point. “He’s quite nice-looking, for his age … and the two of you are quite compatible, astrologically-speaking.”

“G-Nan!” Bree was horrified. “Robbie’s my best friend, practically – he’s just a kid. He can’t possibly do the magick correctly!”

“Might surprise you,” Sefton Grant murmured, and looked innocent when Bree glared at him. And Judy compounded the horror with a further suggestion.

“Bree-Pumpkin, if an older man – knowledgeable about working the sex-magick properly – is what you are looking for – consider Richard, at the Café. He is also compatible, astrologically … and very handsome. And an accomplished lover, by all that we have heard…”

“Oh, double-ick!” Bree, shocked out of all impulse to be polite to her elders, slammed down her fork, followed by her fist on the table … which being of sturdy make from native cedar cut on the property by Sefton, only trembled slightly. “G-Nan, that’s positively gross – he’s old enough to be Dad, practically – and besides, he’s my boss! I just may barf at the thought. If anything, he’s sweet on Kate Heisel. And I mean – ugh. I wouldn’t do another girl dirt by screwing her boyfriend. That’s just gross!”

“Calm down, dear – it was only a suggestion!” Judy protested, her eyes filling with tears. “I meant it in your best interests. You want your initiation into the magick as a woman to be perfect, with a considerate and skilled practitioner of the arts …”

“But not incestuous!” Bree retorted. “Jeez, G-Nan … at that rate, I might just as well throw myself at Chief Vaughn, or Coach _____… Can I just be allowed to sort out my own life?”

“We want the best for you, Pumpkin,” Judy wiped away a tear on her napkin, and Sefton came to her rescue.

“We know,” he said. “Leave it alone, Judikins – Bree-Pumpkin, your G-Nan means well. We’ll let the subject drop as of this moment, all right? Good. Now … Richard asked me yesterday morning, since you were to be back in Luna City – are you free to work a special event, come Spring Break? Not full-time,” Sefton added hurriedly. “Just to help prep for a big bash at Mills Farm early in March.”

“Sure, Grampy,” Bree sniffled. “Yeah, I can do it.” She glared at her grandmother. “But not another word about me and my love life, ‘kay? I’m almost eighteen, I’m practically through my first year of college, I can sort that shit out for myself, Oh-Kay?!”

“Agreed, Pumpkin,” Sefton agreed, keeping his relief private … although Judy was still sniffling, slightly. “So – you do your studies in the morning, work a coupla-times a week at the Café in the afternoon…”

“I’m a big girl now, Grampy,” Bree spared a serious glare at her grandmother. “I can handle it.”

“Good,” Sefton replied. “Now – who wants another sliver of that barbequed-marinated tofu?”

22. January 2018 · Comments Off on The New Hire: Conclusion · Categories: Chapters From the Latest Book, Uncategorized

(A new cook for the Cafe has auditioned, and met with approval – but he is a very odd kid, and has a certain problem. Like being homeless…)

“Understood,” Richard sighed and accepted his doom. “I approve hiring him – but I’m afraid that we will – er – come to clash in the kitchen now and again. I don’t look forward to it, but there it is.”

“Let me go and talk to him,” Allen Lee offered, and such was his fatherly authority that both Miss Letty and Doc Wyler nodded acquiescence. Richard followed Allen Lee into the kitchen, where Luc glanced up from scraping down the grill station.

“That was a magnificent meal!” Allen Lee exclaimed in hearty delight. “And they tell me that you’re hired on account of it. But seriously, there’s some things you gotta know – and stick to, if you wanna stay in this place long enough for me to come back around and feature y’all on a repeat of my people for a new foodie throw-down.”

“Sure,” Luc was still looking down at the surface of the grill. “So, they like it, uh?”

“They sure did, kid,” Allen Lee reassured him, hearty and enthusiastic, with an ear-to-ear smile. “You got the job – yours, if you want to take it. But understand that Ricardo is the ultimate boss in the kitchen. And you gotta remember that he’s been around the track a good few times, understand that he’s got the final say, cooking-wise. See – he trained at this school in Paris …” As Richard listened, Allen Lee expounded on Richard’s training, career, experience in the field at a fulsome and almost embarrassing length, not omitting the embarrassing bits, although putting the best construction possible on them – a consideration for which Richard was grateful, since it appeared that Luc had never heard of him and his career as a celebrity chef, although he gave every evidence of being impressed by tale that Allen Lee spun. He did wish that Allen Lee had left out the embarrassing bits about the Carême meltdown and aftermath …  Finally, Allen Lee wound up the final threads of his narrative and tucked in the extraneous ends, concluding, “So – ya see, Luc – you’re solid in the kitchen, and you have the basic skills. Ricardo is OK with taking you on. But you gotta be mature about this, realize that he has a world of stuff that he can teach you, things that you don’t know about, until he starts teaching you … and teaching – he’s done that! He’s doing it even now, with teaching kids to cook with his internet series. Learn from him about the fancy French cooking stuff you didn’t know, working for – was it Emerald? And then for Arbys? – You got the skills, kid – but don’t let that go to your head. Richard …” and here Allen Lee paused – perhaps to lend extra drama to his final peroration. “Take the job. Don’t think that you know it all, Luc. You don’t – but this guy can teach you. Mebbe you still won’t know it all – but I guaran-damn-tee – you’ll know a lot more. Be a good sport and learn what he can teach you.”

“Sure,” Luc wiped his hands on the towel at his waist. For about the first time he looked squarely at whom he was speaking to. “Thanks. For the chance, guys. I won’t ever let you down, Chef. Or you either, Allen Lee.”

“I’ll take that as a promise,” Richard accepted with the minimum required grace, as Allan Lee beamed approval. “So will I, kid – and I’ll tell you know, I expect great things from you – like, I come back in a season or two, and see you on my show!”

Both Richard and Luc winced slightly, at the thought of that, but Luc straightened his narrow shoulders and replied. “Sure thing.” He sounded a bit dubious – no, Luc wasn’t made for dealing with the public the easy, comfortable way that Allen Lee did, and which Richard had faked for so long. Now Richard said,

“Come on and tell Miss Letty and Doc Wyler that you’re on … and I’m sure that Jess has some paperwork to finish, now that you’re accepted.”

“Sure, Chef,” Luc followed them out to the front, and when Richard nudged him towards the empty chair at the stammtisch, he sat down in it – with some definite signs of unease. Miss Letty broke the ice, by saying with as much fulsome enthusiasm that a starchy, prim lady of certain years was able to bring to bear, “You will be relieved to hear, Lucas – that we were all very pleased with your audition menu, and that the decision to offer you employment was unanimous. I do believe that the selection of regular diners at the Café were enthusiastically in agreement in this. You will have fans, even before you begin your first workday in the Café.”

“I’m done,” Doc Wyler announced, scraping his chair back. “Places to go, things to do. Welcome to the Café, son – hope that you choose to remain long. Those grilled sandwiches were prime, by the way. Now I won’t have to drive all the way to the city for their like. Give your particulars to Mrs. Vaughn – your current address and all, and she can process the background check…”

“Already done,” Joe Vaughn observed, looking up from his cellphone. “No wants or warrants – only a citation for disorderly conduct at some dive in San Antonio.”

“That was … it was nothing,” Luc shrugged, as if it were nothing. But he added, in flat tones, as if it were expected. “I don’t have an address.”

“You don’t?” Doc Wyler looked as baffled as someone might, who lived on the largest ranch acreage in Karnes County since birth nearly a century ago, in a house that his grandfather had built.

“He don’t,” Sefton spoke, apologetically, his mouth full of pomme frites. “All his stuff is in the back of my van. His roommate in Karnesville kicked him out this morning. We were gonna let him stay at the Age, but that Judikins has a major problem with …”

“The m – the non-veganity?” Richard ventured, and Sefton shook his head.

“No, the drum-practice. It upsets the chickens … and ya know,” Sefton regarded them all in a manner which begged sympathy. “If the chickens and all are upset … My Lady is upset.”

“Can’t have that,” Doc Wyler looked with – what might be interpreted as a pleading look towards the table, and Joe Vaughn murmured, “Your Lady is your Goddess … I know. If Mama ain’t happy, then no one is happy.”

“What about the old apartment upstairs in the Mercantile?” Miss Letty looked to have had the only sensible reaction. “If that would suit, I can make it available. I own the building, you know. No one has lived in the apartment for years. My grandfather, Arthur Wells McAllister had his business office there, and my brother used it for a while, as well.”

“At the Mercantile?” Richard was boggled. “Well, it would be handy to work, I suppose. I never knew there was any such thing in the Mercantile.” This was the narrow red-brick building next to the Café on the opposite side from Stein’s Wild West Roundup, towering two stories and a commanding cornice high over the single story and a half of the Café, with the name “Mercantile Building” outlined in the façade in contrasting and permanent white-glazed brick. The ground floor was an ice-cream parlor, in the early years of Luna City, noted for having been the establishment from which Don Antonio Gonzales emerged on a certain summer day in 1919. Upon encountering his mortal enemy, one Eusebio Garcia Maldonado on the sidewalk before the Café, increasingly heated words and then gunshots were exchanged in the last recorded public duel in Luna City. (The only casualties were the radiator of Don Antonio’s Model-T sedan, a city street-light and a mule hitched to a wagon parked farther down the square, all struck by wild shots from the participants’ weapons.) The Mercantile Building currently housed a small and rather shabby little shop featuring the work of local crafters and artisans. It was open erratic hours, mostly on weekends. Richard had never given it much thought, save when curious weekend excursionists wandered into the Café, asking when the place would be open.

Miss Letty was explaining to Luc, and to a rather relieved Sefton, “… it’s a terribly spartan little place, I’m afraid. Lucas – that means that there are no comforts in it. After the Spartans of ancient Greece, who preferred to live simply. No one has lived in it for years, as I cannot afford to renovate, and probably couldn’t get back sufficient in rent to cover the costs, anyway. But the view of the square from the front windows is quite pleasant, and there is a relatively new window unit … Sarah and some of her friends were holding needle-work classes in the front room, where the light is good. I suppose you would want to see it, first.” She fished in her generous handbag, found a ring of keys and detached on from it. “Come along, young man – and see if it will suit. I’m afraid it will be rather dusty, and of course the furniture is … minimal. But you would have it to yourself, and of course, be convenient to the Café…”

“I don’t mind,” Luc replied. He had not much of an emotion about this, so Richard presumed that he truly didn’t mind. “No roomies or neighbors to get riled up about the drums? Let me see the place.”

“She’s ‘Miss Letty’ to you,” Jess hissed, in an undertone, and then added in a more normal voice. “I’ll finish up the paperwork once you’ve had a chance to look over your new quarters,” She tucked away the folder, and picked up Little Joe, who in the interval of his mother having a bite to eat, had become quite restless over her attention paid to anything but him. “I’ll wait, Miss Letty … Richard, do you want to go with them?” Richard really didn’t want to do this, thinking it was none of his business, but as Miss Letty, Sefton and Luc went towards the door, Jess hissed in the same undertone, “Go with her – those stairs are murder. And he will be your employee, anyway. A good commander always looks after the troops and their living conditions.”

“Right,” Richard obeyed, as Miss Letty with her keys led the three of them out the front door of the Café, and to a narrow and undistinguished door sandwiched between the Mercantile Building, and the storefront on the far side of it. The door to the space in the Mercantile, over that hapless little craft shop? Guess that it must be, Richard thought. Miss Letty fumbled with the key, in the lock of that door, which opened into a small space, into which a staircase mounted up like an arrow upwards into the dimness beyond. There was a clumsy, old-fashioned light switch just inside the doorway. Miss Letty flipped it, and two lights came on – bare bulbs hanging on lengths of flex, one at the bottom and one at the top.

“I think that you will have sufficient space for your motor scooter to park in shelter at the bottom of the stairs,” Miss Letty observed. “Such a darling little machine – they used them in Italy, in the old movies! I have always wanted to ride on one, but never had the opportunity. I am afraid that the stairs are so steep! It was the way of it, in Grandfather Arthur’s day, you know. So many families chose to live over their shops, or at least keep offices there …” She began to climb up the steep, darkened staircase, in painful, one-by-one steps. Mindful of his instructions from Jess, Richard had no compunction about following her next, even in elbowing ahead of Sefton. If the old darling missed a step, and somehow contrived to fall backwards … Miss Letty was the oldest resident of Luna City, the living repository of history and legend. Her life should be preserved at whatever risk.

On the landing at the top of the stairs, Miss Letty took out her keys again, and unlocked the substantial panel door, admitting them all into a generous but empty room, high ceilinged, and well-lit by two tall windows overlooking Town Square. Although the room was paneled with rather fine – if dingy carved paneling, the floor was covered with the utilitarian greenish speckled linoleum favored for public buildings anticipating rather a lot of wear and tear, and the windows were filled with equally utilitarian Venetian blinds expecting the same hard-use, hanging at half-mast. A couple of folding tables and a stack of metal folding chairs leaned against the farther wall. It was altogether a cheerless and desolate prospect as far as a living space went, but Luc regarded it with approval.

“Rehearsal space! What else is there?”

“Not very much, I’m afraid,” Miss Letty replied, “Through here is the bathroom, kitchenette, and bedroom.” She led them to a door in the wall opposite the windows; a short hallway lay beyond with three more doors; the first led to a miniscule bathroom, into which a depressingly modern sink, toilet and shower stall had been wedged, likely with the aid of a crowbar. The door beyond that opened into a slightly larger room, with a single window in it, overlooking the lumpy graveled area which lay behind the Café. It had been fitted with some cheap kitchen cabinets under a Formica countertop, cabinets which had never had any better days of which to boast. A couple of dead flies lay in the sink, the porcelain lightly stained by lime from an intermittently dripping tap. There was a space where a stove had possibly once been, and another filled with a refrigerator, of a mid-century design with rounded corners and a dashing chrome handle shaped like a car door handle of the same vintage.

“The icebox works,” Miss Letty said, opening the refrigerator door to show that yes, there was a light on inside, and an opened box of baking soda. “I can’t recall what happened with the stove, although it may be that there never was one. My brother used this as an office, when he was writing his book about the history of Luna City. He was the last person to use this place, regularly.”

The final door stood half-open, to a room with another window; this one contained a single bedstead with a dusty mattress on it and nothing much else.

“What do you think, Luc?” Sefton sounded hearty, enthusiastic. “A crash pad of your own, and a job right next door, too! Might be your lucky day, after all, buddy!”

“Yeah.” For all that, Luc didn’t sound all that enthused, and Richard didn’t blame him in the least. “I don’t mind about the stove – I got a microwave of my own, so no biggie. So – how much is the rent?”

“I’ll work out something with Jess,” Miss Letty replied, sounding as magisterial as ever. “Something fair to us all, considering that this place is relatively useless to me, and offers no home comforts worth mentioning to you. A mere token of fifteen a week deducted from the salary that the Café will pay, I think – just consider that quarters are part of your salary.”

“Aw, hey – it’s fine, Miss Letty. A place of my own, even if it’s a dump – oh, no, didn’t mean that,” Luc added hastily, after intercepting a warning look from both Sefton and Richard – and mirabile dictu – taking it to heart after a moment of thought, in which Richard thought that he could hear the mental gears creaking and grinding. “I’ll take it. It’s fine. ‘Specially to practice the drums. Call it my address for now, Chef.”

“Good,” Richard said. “You know that I’ll know where to find you, when you oversleep!” while Sefton grinned. “Luc, man – don’t worry about no other stuff in the place, ‘kay? When our old place burned, people were real generous to us. We gotta whole trailer full of stuff that they gave us, to replace the household things that burned, stuff that we really don’t need. We’ll bring up your stuff from the van, and then I’ll make a run out to the Age, and bring you anything else you might need from our stores … hey, no problem, Luc. You know how nice it will be, not to have to drive all the way to Karnesville for a decent burger. But like I said – ixnay on the burger-kay when you talk to My Lady. Got it?”

“Sure.”

Richard was fairly certain that Luc did not quite comprehend – something about the expression in his face. No; the lights were on, but the person at home was hiding in a back room, hoping that the one ringing the doorbell would soon give up and go away. For himself, Richard left Sefton and Luc to make a closer survey of the apartment, and accompanied Miss Letty on that perilous journey down the narrow staircase – trip and fall on that, you’d be well into the grass of Town Square before you stopped bouncing.

“Lucas approves of the old apartment,” Miss Letty announced to Jess upon their return to the Café. Joe had already gone back to work, and Allen Lee was swapping yarns with Harry Vaughn about old times in Banff at the Castle Mountain Hotel, out at the sidewalk table, enjoying the late afternoon sunshine slanting across the Square in bars of blessed golden light. Lamentably, every scrap of Luc’s tasting menu was gone, save a dusting of crumbs and seasonings on the serving platters.  “So that will be his home address for the time being. Poor boy; I’m afraid he has had a very difficult life. There are these odd children, you know; often quite intelligent, but absolutely no grasp of the social graces, and what it takes to get on with their peers.” Miss Letty turned her regard towards Richard. “I’m afraid it will fall to you, Richard – to make allowances for this, as you work together.”

Richard sighed. “My dear Miss Letty, I have worked with such numpties in the kitchen that you would not believe – and both they and I survived. Well, just barely…”

Miss Letty frowned, very slightly. Too late, Richard recalled that Miss Letty had an excellent command of English slang, based on her youthful service in the European theater. “Lucas is not an idiot, Richard – just … odd. But very skilled at what he does. I trust that you will take his personal idiosyncrasies into account. I must say that we – that Stephen and I were pleased beyond belief with his cooking audition. The boy has definite talent. If his peculiarities can be managed skillfully, I dare to venture that he will be a credit and a benefit to the Café.”

“I’m certain that he will, Miss Letty,” Jess came to his rescue, as she settled her son into his carrier. “So – when should we announce regular supper service?”

“I suggest in time for Valentine’s Day,” Richard thumbed through his mental calendar. “We can do a couple of weekends, unannounced, just to work out the kinks…”

He ignored Jess’s snort of smothered laughter, too late remembering that crude slang went both ways.

“Very good,” Miss Letty gathered up her own notes. “Good night, then, Richard.”

“Do you need a lift home, Miss Letty?” Jess ventured. “I wasn’t going that way, but …”

“No – a lady always departs with the gentleman who brought her,” Miss Letty replied with a wintery smile. So that was why Harry Vaughn still waited outside the Café. “It’s a treat on a mild day, to travel in an open car, with the wind in your hair.”

“All right, then,” Richard supposed that his day was now done, some hours after he was accustomed to ending them. But this had been a special day, although he was still unsure about why this should be so. Another chapter in the doings of the Café, and of his involvement in the doings of Luna City, a place which had now set bonds – Richard refused to think of them as tentacles – so tightly now around him, that he feared that he would never be able to shrug them off and leave, even if he really wanted to do so. Kate Heisel, Ozymandius-King-of-Kings, the nurturing of the clients at the Café, for the schoolchildren which he had taken on the mission of teaching about proper food, the friendship of Joe and Jess, of Berto and Araceli and Pat, and all the others, to include the uncouth Grants … and now the care of a fellow with no social skills whatever?

He wandered into the kitchen, where Araceli had already efficiently cleaned up after the unexpected late afternoon spasm of cooking.

“Hey, Chef – I think we’re done for the day. I guess the new guy is hired. Can we all close up and go home?”

“Yes, yes, and yes,” Richard replied, whereupon Araceli favored him with a brilliant smile.

“He’ll be a good addition,” she assured Richard, with a relatively straight face. “Yeah – he’s weird, but, hey – he knew what he was doing, and wasn’t half as obnoxious as some of the other guys that Miss Letty and Doc hired. Believe me – I’ve seen them all, and outlasted them all – does that make me an expert?”

“It does,” Richard acknowledged with weary acquiescence. “So – tomorrow morning, after the breakfast rush – we all sit down and have a talk about where we are going with this thing. I’ve got approval to take on Beatriz for the front of the house, and another waitress of your recommendation. In a couple of weeks, as soon as we work it all out – we’ll be doing regular dinner service. Neither one of us can work seven days a week, and eighteen hours a day – so, we need to work out what we can do and the proper lines of authority.”

“On it, Chef,” Araceli replied, smartly.

And Richard had no doubt that she had.

What a waste of good managerial authority, in a dinky, small-town café, he thought, as he locked up for the day. In any first-rate place, Araceli would have been commanding a princely salary.

But then – so would he.

He got out his bicycle from where it had been leaning against the wall at the back of the Café, whistled for Ozzie – who appeared from the Stein’s garden, hopping easily up onto the basket on the back of it, nobly taking no notice of the bucket of kitchen scraps dedicated to the Grant’s chickens.

When he came around the end of the block, though – it was to see Luc’s Vespa go by, at a decorous pace, around the margins of Town Square, with Miss Letty, sitting demurely side-saddle on the back, with one arm around Luc’s waist, the other holding onto her hat.

Yes, that was Luna City – a world apart and all of itself. Richard waved to Miss Letty, and pedaled out on the road that led home. Home, in Luna City. It had a nice sound to it.

13. January 2018 · Comments Off on A New Employee at the Cafe! · Categories: Chapters From the Latest Book, Luna City

(From the next Luna City installation, now under construction, with an expanded cast of characters, a new challenge for Richard … plus the ongoing mystery of the unidentified skeleton found during construction of the expanded Mills Farm resort — I bring you another snippet of the plot …)

The New Hire

“Now that Jess is back to work, we can consider moving ahead with your new hires for the Café,” Doc Wyler remarked, one Tuesday morning, as a gust of cold wind stirred errant dead oak leaves across the sidewalk, from where they had escaped from the trees in Town Square. Across the table, Jess nodded with her mouth full of a bite of warm cinnamon roll. At her feet, Little Joe – fast asleep in his carrier with a faint scowl on his infant features – appeared to have no objections worth making.
“I didn’t think you’d be back at work so soon,” Richard said to her – it was in his mind that Jess would have wanted to take slightly longer of a break, tending to the first new sprout on the Abernathy-Vaughn family tree. “What with a new baby and all…”
“After I got over the exhaustion, I was bored to tears with staying home all day, every day,” Jess replied. “There’s plenty of work that I can do without going very far, and Little Joe is a good baby … aren’t you, sugar?” she added with a fatuous expression as she glanced down at her sleeping offspring.
“I should think he would be better off, sleeping at home in his crib,” Doc Wyler grumbled. “Can’t be doing him very much good, you gadding about in this weather, and Jess sighed. Her eyes met Richards’ in a mutual understanding; Doc was of that generation where good mothers stayed at home with a new baby, usually until the little sprout toddled off to school.
“I could take him home this instant,” Jess answered, “And sneak him into bed … and he would be awake and howling in five minutes. Honestly, he sleeps best in the car, or in a noisy office.”
“Singular,” Richard murmured, while Doc Wyler riffled through the stack of receipts in the folder which Jess had put before them. Finally, he looked at Richard over his reading glasses and said, “Three new staff for the café; that was what we agreed on?”
“Full-time, yes,” Richard replied. “And a part-time cook, on Saturday and Sunday, for breakfast and lunch service.”
“That would be Robbie Walcott?” Jess put in, and Richard nodded.
“He came along very well, over the summer. I was quite pleased with both of them, by the way. And he wants to go on working on weekends. Why his parents approve of this I cannot imagine – don’t they know anything about the kind of people who work in food service?” Richard added, plaintively, and Jess giggled.
“Well, between you, ‘Celi, and Allen Lee, I think Robbie is off to a good start when it comes to jobs. At least, Sook and Clovis are OK with him having a job in the first place.”
“Builds character,” Doc Wyler grunted. “My first job when I was his age was working at Bodie’s, in the feed mill. Anyway, what are your ideas about new employees? Do you have someone in mind, or do we need put an ad in the Bee, or the Beacon?”
“Beatriz Gonzales,” Richard answered. “For the front of the house, full time. She’s worked off and on at the Café, and finished school in the spring. Araceli gave her full marks, and she has my approval. Now … if we are to open for regular supper service on Fridays and weekends, I’d like to hire another cook, besides another full-time waitress. Sefton Grant knows of a chap working at a place in Karnesville desirous of improving his situation. Sefton says he’s a pretty fair cook, worked food-service at a couple of oil-field cafeterias. Currently working the grill at Sefton’s favorite Arby’s … which is hardly top-drawer, in my opinion,” Richard shrugged. “But Sefton says that this chap’s command of the off-menu specialties is without peer and above reproach. I asked to interview him here tomorrow, about 2:00, see if he is someone I can work with.”
“Someone we can work with,” Doc Wyler nodded. “Don’t you forget, the investors in this enterprise expect to make a profit at the end of every year. That’s how business rolls. And I’ll want Miss Letty to have a look-see at Sefton’s friend. Best right-off-the-bat judge of character that I know. Tomorrow at 2 it is, then. Pass on to Sefton that his pal ought to wear his best interview suit – or the best that he has on hand.”
“I will do that,” Richard answered – and he did, that afternoon, when he pedaled slowly up the hill towards the Amazing Straw Castle Aquarius, serene in it’s grove of bare-leaved oak trees.
“Got your chickens their daily ration of raw gourmet leavings,” Richard said, as he handed the bucket of peelings and vegetable ends to Sefton – who because of the winter chill, was sensibly clad in jeans, boots, and a battered barn coat worn to the point where it was hard to see what color it had been originally. “And tell your job-seeking chum – what’s his name, by the way?”
“Lucas – Lucas Massie,” Sefton tilted his battered straw cowboy hat to a more rakish angle. “Nice kid, has the right instincts, but his social manner could use some work. What should I tell him?”
“Tomorrow, at the Café, 2:00 PM, in his best bib and tucker… er, his best interview attire. He’ll be meeting with the owners, and their financial advisor, as well as myself, so a word to the wise.”
“I’ll … er … pass on the word,” Sefton answered, and Richard – oblivious as he was to most unspoken social cues – did not notice that Sefton appeared rather shaken. “Ricardo, I ain’t certain that Lucas even has a best bib and whatever.”
Richard sighed, rather deeply. Yes, a dismaying number of kitchen geniuses that he had met over his time in the field were – if not actually barking mad, located somewhere along the functioning levels of the autism spectrum. “Then you should tell him that whatever he wears should be clean. And cover up the elemental naughty bits.”
“All right, then,” Sefton’s expression cleared. He took out his cellphone from the pocket of his jeans and was dialing in a number as Richard wheeled away. “OK … hey, it’s on, Lucas. Tomorrow at 2 … hey, come see Judikins and me afterwards, tell us how it went. But ix-nay on the Ark-ay stuff, ya know? Judikins is that dedicated … See ya tomorrow, pal. ‘Bye.”

11. January 2018 · Comments Off on From the Next Luna City Book · Categories: Chapters From the Latest Book, Luna City

(So – the skull and other relics found on the site of the new Mills Farm project just bring up more puzzles. Yes, I’m having fun tantalizing readers…”

Seven Buttons and a German Bayonet

Richard stared into the box; like the others present, with a mixture of horror and curiosity. No one quite wanted to touch the skull; jawless, with the open eye-holes still partly-clogged with the damp earth from which it had been dug. The bayonet with the German maker’s initials lay to one side, and Joe Vaughn was quietly bagging up the deformed metal bullet in a small zip-lock bag which Jess had produced from the suit-cased sized diaper bag. There were about half a dozen small corroded metal items knocking around in the bottom of the box, objects about the size of a 10p coin. Allen Lee Mayne reached over Richard’s shoulder and picked up one of them.
“A button,” Richard observed, and Allen Lee nodded, and gently buffed away the grime and corrosion with a paper napkin. “Looky here – it’s got some kinda raised design on it. Can you make it out?”
“Looks like military,” Joe ventured. “An eagle and an anchor, under an arch of stars. Navy, mebbe. You got another baggie, Jess?”
“Either our mystery man shopped at the Army Navy store, or he was a soldier,” Richard ventured, and Allen shook his head.
“Man, that’s an old Marine Corps button. Really old. Their buttons have had a globe on them now, along with the eagle and anchor. My old man was Marine in Vietnam, that’s how I know this sh*t.”
“Let me look, cher,” That was Lew Dubois, his expression yet more serious. “Ah, yes – what I thought; It is an old Marine overcoat button. My dear Grand-père Louis, for whom I am named – he served in the Marines. He fought in the great battle in the Belleau Wood, and he had his old overcoat, one with buttons just like this! He used to wear it on cold mornings, when he took me duck-hunting on the bayou. He was very old, and I was just a boy, and his namesake – a special treat for me, to go hunting with my grandfather. That is why I recollect so clearly.”
“I don’t think that this is your grandfather,” Richard belatedly wished that he hadn’t spoken, for Joe, Lew, and Allen Lee all looked at him with severely condemning expressions. “Sorry – a bit of misplaced levity, chaps, for which I apologize. But the fact remains; this is a dead chap, of some vintage. Not, perchance, one of yours? That is – local to Luna City. You wouldn’t have misplaced one of your own, all these years ago?”
Both Araceli and Jess shook their heads, and Jess answered, “I’d have to double-check with Miss Letty, of course, but I am pretty certain that just about all the Luna City volunteers for WWI were for the Army.”
“Looks like whoever he was – he got his Purple Heart the hard way, and no mistake,” Joe looked down at the deformed and scarred skull, with an expression which Richard found hard to decipher. “Not from here, then. Drifted into here … wasn’t there some tale locally about a scar-faced drifter? I’m sure Kate wrote about it, coupla weeks ago. Weird-looking guy, used to haunt the place, back during the Depression?”
“The Scar-Faced Tramp,” Araceli replied, and the light of blooming comprehension shone on every face. “Katie interviewed Abuelita for that story! The Tramp frightened her into running home screaming – she was only five or six at the time,” Araceli added hastily, for no one present could imagine Abuelita Adeliza, the elderly absolute ruler of the sprawling Gonzales-Gonzalez, running screaming in terror from anything less than a fire-breathing tyrannosaurus rex. “Her mother scolded her when she got home. The scar-faced man was only a poor vagrant, living in a camp in the woods, who got by on doing odd jobs for people in town. I’ll call Katie – she’s be thrilled to know about this!”
“Must you?” Joe finished bagging the buttons, all seven of them. “Can you wait a day or so? Look, I don’t want to make a big media thing about this until we have some positive answers. Can you give me enough time to let me set up an investigation with the county sheriff’s office – and whoever they have available for an emergency dig – before unleashing the media hounds on us?”
“Katie isn’t a media hound!” Araceli was indignant. “She has better sense than that, and she is one of us: OK, second cousin by marriage – but she is one of us!”
“Indeed,” Richard agreed, with a small clearing of his throat. “Miss Heisel has been … well, remarkably restrained and discrete, with regard to my own rather fraught position with the national press. I would be inclined to trust her, as being sensitive to local concerns. She’s a good egg,” Richard finished, with a sense that he was being particularly lame. He strenuously ignored Araceli’s muttered footnote. “Yeah, she’d love to jump your bones, Chef – given any sort of encouragement,” as well as Allen Lee’s distinctly lewd chuckle of agreement.
“All right then,” Joe nodded, as he placed the two plastic bags in the cardboard box with the skull. “Lew … I’m sorry, this will put a crimp in your construction schedule. The work gotta be on hold until forensics can go over the area. Nothing I can do about a delay, but I promise, I’ll do what I can to instill a sense of urgency.”
“It is not a problem, cher,” Lew sounded extraordinarily mellow for a corporate executive whose’ multi-million-dollar project was now on the tipping-point of failure – or at least, an expensive delay – through being delayed by the inconvenient circumstance of a dead body found at the construction site. Even if the dead body was – by Richard’s estimate and his vague recall of Kate talking to him about her months-ago feature story – at least six or seven decades old. Now, Lew added, in philosophical tones, “There is no urgency for this poor fellow. It has been a long time. Still … we should know something, I t’ink. Of who he was, and of his passing. If he was a comrade of my dear Grand-père Louis … for the honor of that service a hundred years ago – I owe him that generous consideration. My time and interest are at your disposal with regard to this puzzle, Chief Vaughn.”
“Appreciated,” Joe nodded, bundling up the box under one arm, and collecting up the baby carrier with his other. “Hey – ‘Celi, make our order a take-out, can you? Jess is bushed, and I wanna get my family (and perhaps only Richard noted the special emphasis with which Joe said those two words) home and settled. ‘Kay, Babe? Gotta case to work,” he added to Jess, who actually did appear pretty pale, frazzled and exhausted.
“My time and interest, too.” That was Allen Lee, most unexpectedly. “My Daddy served at Khe Sanh. Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 9th Marines. Daddy would want this. Count me in.”
“Right, then,” Joe said. “I’ll put out the word.”

(To be continued…)

(Richard, and four other Lunaites have committed to babysitting Joe and Jess’ baby son for a week. Richard, having worked up from a potted plant to a cat, is now ready for the care of a small human being … or is he?)

He had nearly forgotten about it all – or at least, shoved the trepidations to the farthest and most neglected corner of his mental attic, when the Café’s door opened and shut to a musical jingle, and Jerry appeared, with the baby – a tiny pink-faced morsel dwarfed by a monumental stroller. Richard could verily swear that he had seen smaller motorcycle sidecars. The enormous necessity bag was stowed at the back of the stroller. With some difficulty, Jerry maneuvered it through the dining room and into the kitchen. Richard was there alone; Robbie and the girls having capably dealt with the with the most immediate pressing post-lunch-rush chores.

“Here we are!” Jerry announced. “Little Joe is all ready to spend quality time with Unca Richard.” He almost succeeded in concealing a yawn. “He’s already had his midday bottle – you’ll want to give him another just before five. It’s in the side pocket of his ditty-bag with an ice-pack to keep cold. Just warm it up before you give it to him. Blood warm is about the right temperature. Remember, how I showed you how to hold him for feeding? Yeah, that. Remember to burp him, when he’s done – and check his diaper, too – he’ll probably poop again, just to make room for the fresh intake.”

“What do I do with the little … little tyke until then?” Richard demanded. He had almost made himself forget his promised child-minding obligation.”

“No idea,” Jerry yawned again. “Talk to him. Play simple games, pay attention to him, stimulate his imagination.  That is, when he isn’t sleeping, eating, or pooping. Use your own … sorry … imagination. See you tomorrow, the same time. Chris will take over from you at five-thirty.” Upon delivering this dispiriting intelligence, Jerry took himself out the door – the bell chiming musically. Little Joe and Richard looked at each other.

“Goosh,” commented Little Joe, blowing a spit-bubble. It sounded philosophical; neither hostile or overly-affectionate.

“The same to you, my little man,” Richard replied. Well, that took care of the social niceties. “Look, sport – you’re a little young to become a kitchen apprentice. And I’m told that … well, you aren’t quite old enough to start cultivating a sophisticated palate. How about just keeping me company while I prep for tomorrow?”

“Goob-gurgle,” replied Little Joe with perfect amiability.

“Right then,” Richard said, and fetched one of the three high-chairs from the front of the house, setting it up next to the big all-purpose table which served as prep-space. Summoning up all of his nerve and silently sending up a prayer to the heavens that he not inadvertently damage the little sprout in any way, shape or form – since Joe and Jess between them had the capacity and will to inflict horrific damage on anyone who harmed a single one of the barely-visible hairs on the head of their tiny offspring – he lifted Little Joe from the stroller and settled him into the high chair. Regarding his handiwork, Richard thought the infant was sagging a little too far to one side in the chair – which would accommodate a much larger child. A pair of small cushions wedged in on either side of Little Joe did the trick. The two of them regarded each other solemnly across the worktable, and Richard continued his prepping for the following day’s business.

“Cinnamon rolls,” Richard ventured. “It’s cinnamon rolls for tomorrow.”

“Goo-goosh!” commented Little Joe, and Richard was heartened. Didn’t Jerry advise talking to the little sprout? Stimulate his development, or some such child-rearing mumbo-jumbo? “They’re a mainstay at the Café, don’t you know – well, you should. I think your Mum had one every morning. So – here’s the dough for them. Been rising in the warmer for a couple of hours. Now, this is the mixture that goes onto the dough, once I have patted it out just so. Light on the flour, by the way…” he continued in this vein, as if he were explaining and training a new apprentice, as he worked the dough with the expertise of long practice, and the yeasty odor of newly-risen dough filled the workspace. Little Joe was even drooling a bit. “Pity you’re just not old enough for a taste,” Richard commiserated. “Never mind, young-chappie-my-lad; soon enough, soon enough.”

 

He had run out of prep-work to demonstrate to Little Joe well before five o’clock; for the last hour and a half of his stint, he pulled in a chair from the dining room, opened his trusty edition of Larousse, and read aloud from it to the child. It was impressive, the drama potential which could be invested in the chapter regarding the preparation of various kinds of court-boullion. Little Joe did begin to fuss a bit, when Richard began on the varieties of crab and their preparation for various tasty dishes; oh, bottle-time. Recalling how the bottle must be served up warm, Richard half-filled one of the smallest saucepans in the place with water and set it on the burner – just as a ripe odor began permeating the air. Richard swiftly ran the source to earth – it was strongest in the vicinity of Little Joe, who was now eyeing Richard with a reproachful expression.

“Sorry, Chum,” Richard gasped, lifting the baby out of the chair – and there was a distinct, squishy feel around the child’s bottom. Richard’s left hand felt something soft, malleable … and the stench intensified. “You might have waited!” Richard exclaimed – oh, god, he would have to deal with the unspeakable now – change a diaper. And a more than usually disgusting one, from the feel and the smell. Holding Little Joe out before him, both hands firmly grasping the little wiggler around the chest, Richard made a run for the commodiously-equipped ladies’ lavatory in the Café – that space four times larger and three times better-lit then the male equivalent. One of the additional benefits of the ladies’ (in addition to a fully-lit makeup mirror and a full-sized chaise-lounge) was a fold-out changing table, installed to address the very problem he faced at this moment.

Holding Little Joe one-handed, he put down the table, laid the child upon the surface, and begin striping off those abominably-saturated lower layers. Off came the lower-reaches of the onsie-stretchy-terry thing which was the infant’s garment – one which fastened up the front and down the legs in a series of snaps … oh, god, they were hideously-soaked, about the lower margins, with a vile-smelling materiel which rather looked like yellow-tinted large curds of cottage cheese leaking out from the diaper. Richard stripped garment and diaper from the small, pink, wiggly infant, swabbed Little Joe’s nether regions with dampened paper towels – oh, god, he had neglected to bring in the diaper bag, that fount of fresh, clean coverings!  And no, he could not leave the little wiggler unattended on the fold-out changing shelf in the Ladies’ – by god, he could not! Little Joe might roll over, roll over and off the shelf, falling onto the floor … and Joe and Jess would kill him for injuring their precious first sprout on the family tree. His reputation in Luna City would be utterly destroyed. Richard took up the naked infant, holding him in one arm, praying desperately to all the powers that might or might not be, that there would be no more demonstrations of Little Joe’s digestive system being in perfect yet smelly working order. He went out from the Ladies, grabbed the Brobagnignian-sized diaper bag with the other, and dragged it back to the Ladies’. Fresh diaper, fresh clean onsie – Richard set about reassembling the baby in his garments, realizing that he would have to take out the soiled diaper and paper towels to the outside dumpster, otherwise the disgusting reek rising from the trash receptacle would permeate the whole place. He prayed that the food safety inspector would not pick this particular moment to pay a visit.

Replacing Little Joe in the safe confines of the stroller, Richard rushed back to take out the Ladies’ room trash, holding his breath as much as possible – but there was still a smell lingering in the kitchen – a throat-catching stink of … burnt milk, and scorching plastic! He caught up a towel, cursing under his breath, and pulled the saucepan off the burner, cursing even more.

The saucepan with Little Joe’s bottle in it had boiled dry, melting the bottom of the bottle, and covering the saucepan with a volcanic mixture of seething milk and bubbling plastic. Richard swore again. This was insupportable – and adding to the fraught atmosphere, Little Joe began whimpering.

“A minute, Small Chum!” Richard exclaimed, knowing to his own ears that he sounded desperate. Was there another bottle secreted in the depths of the bounteously bottomless diaper bag – thank god, there was, only this one was yet half-thawed! Resolving to pay better attention this time, Richard filled another saucepan, settled the second bottle into it – and decided that there was no way to comfort the little wriggler, other than to pick him up from the stroller, and hold him while the new bottle warmed. “There, there, Small Chum – not so bad, is it?” Richard settled into the chair from the dining room, hoping that this would suffice to comfort the baby. Which it did, for a few minutes, anyway. Blast! Little Joe scowled, looking more and more like his father in a very bad mood. “Look, Small Chum – maybe some more about crab a la bretonne? All right, then.” Tucking the infant into the crook of his left arm, Richard opened up Larousse with his right, and began to read, giving proper RADA dramatic intonation to the words. Alas – Larousse was not quite the soothing influence it had been all afternoon. Little Joe’s unhappiness became ever more marked. Richard got up several times to check on progress of the bottle-warming. Turn up the flame higher – and speed the warming process! No; the disgusting remains of the previous attempt still sat in the bottom of the main sink. God, that saucepan might very well be ruined. Richard went from sink, to stove, to chair, pleading under his breath for peace and understanding, and read some more Larousse to Little Joe.

Well, at least that seemed to be working. And in the fresh saucepan, the water burbled gently. Richard plucked forth the bottle, shook it, and turned the business end of it towards the inside of his wrist – that wrist attached to the arm cradling Little Joe, who eyed with bottle with gluttonous interest as it came within his near-sighted baby vision. Victory – the milk within was blood-warm, as he squeezed the bottle and splashed a small spurt against his wrist. Richard settled into the dining room chair, remembering to hold the bottle at the proper angle, while Little Joe sucked with energy. How readily those lips resembled a carps’, closed around the bottle nipple to suction out the nourishment within!

So, maybe this baby-sitting job couldn’t be so hard as all that. Warm, fed, change out where they had crapped … rather like a cat, save that Ozzie was rather more self-cleaning. Richard, sitting in the Café kitchen, with the comfortable, warm, and pliable weight in his arm, experienced a fleeting sense of … what was that – contentment? A kind of fulfillment enveloped him … well, really, wasn’t this a kind of human core experience? Caring for the helpless young of the species, nurturing, caring, training them up in the proper paths …”

And then Chris came in through the back door of the Café.

“Jesus, Rich – what is that godawful smell?”

(To be continued …)

03. January 2018 · Comments Off on A New Luna City Story – Five Men and a Baby · Categories: Chapters From the Latest Book, Luna City

(The next Luna City installment will be called A Half Dozen of Luna City – and herewith a snippet of one of the stories.)

Five Men and a Baby

“The whole thing came up at the last minute,” Joe Vaughn groaned. He sat at one of the picnic tables out in back of the VFW, while a mild spring breeze stirred the leaves of the monumental sycamore tree overhead. Sitting in a monumental car-seat/baby carrier/rocker set on the table top, the infant Little Joe sucked on his tiny pink fist and regarded those gathered for guest night with eyes which had already gone as dark as blackberries. “I’ve been subpoenaed to testify in a court case – Monday in San Antonio. Not in Karnesville, which would be a walk in the park. God knows how long the trial will drag on; guarantee I’ll be sitting on my ass in the Bexar County courthouse for a week, at least.”
“I don’t see what the problem is,” replied Richard, sitting across from Joe and nursing a very respectable ale produced by a local small brewer. Really, he reflected privately – there were subtle advantages to this place, which no one coming from the outside would ever have considered. It was guest night at the VFW; he was enjoying the ale, and the company of Joe, Berto, Chris, Sylvester Gonzalez, and Jerry Walcott.
Joe sighed, heavily for dramatic effect. “Baby-sitting, Ricardo. Jess is away at the Methodist women’s retreat as of yesterday – until next Sunday.”
“So?” Richard sank another satisfying draft of ale and ventured a friendly wink at Little Joe – who merely chomped again on his baby fist and scowled in reply.
“Everyone – that is, every one of our female kin is also on that same retreat,” Joe answered glumly. “Every single one of them. Even Miss Letty – she would advise me as to who would be a good fill-in. Pat and Araceli chose this weekend for a get-away to the coast for some relaxation, or I would ask them. Look, guys – this is Jess and mine own first-born child. Handing him off to strangers, or giggly teenagers for a week is just not an option.”
“Tell me about it,” Richard acknowledged in a morose tone of voice. Beatriz and Blanca were filling in adequately, as far as front of the house service went – between giggling, and Robbie Walcott helped out at the back – but dammit, this was a disruption to his routine! Richard did not welcome disruptions, or handle them gracefully when they occurred.
“What about your parents?” Berto Gonzales asked, in a tone of voice which suggested an attempt at being helpful.
“Off on a Caribbean cruise,” Joe replied, dolefully. “They flew out yesterday – not back until two weeks.” He fetched up a deep sigh, from the very core of his being. “Screwed, blued and tattooed, guys. I need a babysitter for Little Joe … else I am taking him into the Bexar County Courthouse every day, and giving him to the bailiff to hold, when I am called to the witness stand.”
“What’s the problem with that?” Berto asked, in genuine curiosity, and Joe sighed again.
“Look – the bailiffs aren’t there to do that job. And anyway – have you seen the stuff you have to take along with a baby? They search everything. It will take me half the day just to get through security at the courthouse alone. God – think of the bugs that he would be exposed to! Just from being in that old building, with all those people! He’s too young to be exposed to all those viral cruds; kindergarten is soon enough.”
“They’re so small,” mused Sylvester, dapper in his usual retro-nerd wardrobe – today a pair of classic chinos and a fetching short-sleeved aloha shirt printed with images of palm trees, surfers and pineapples. “Babies, I mean – but all their stuff! It takes up so much space!”
“Tell me about it,” Joe grunted. Under the table was a diaper and sundries bag the size of a small steamer trunk.
“We could take care of him for you, Joe,” Jerry Walcott was home in Luna City for the weekend; a gentle and competent late-twenty-something, who worked as a nurse at the Karnesville Medical Center. “Seriously,” Jerry added, in serene response to the skeptical looks on the faces of the other men at the table. “I did my last rotation in pediatrics. It’ll be a gas to look after a healthy kid. Serious, you guys.”
“I can help, Berto offered. “It’s spring break. I gotta help Papi at the garage during the day, though.”
“I’m done at the Tip-Top ‘bout half-past five every evening,” Chris ventured, thoughtfully. “And Ricardo – you’re free in the afternoons, aren’t you?”
“Well…” Richard temporized. “I’m busy at the Café from about five in the morning until after lunch.”
“We can do it in shifts,” Sylvester pulled out a small spiral notebook. “When are you done at the hospital, Jerry?”
“Six AM,” Jerry replied, and Richard protested, “Look, chaps – I don’t know anything about caring for infants. I’ve barely worked up to having a cat…”
“Nothing to it,” Jerry answered. “Bottle at one end, clean diapers at the other, keep them from being too hot or too cold…”
“A piece of cake, as long as I don’t confuse one end with the other,” Richard meant to sound derisive, but both Berto and Jerry were impervious to sarcasm, and in any case, Sylvester was already mapping out a schedule.
“Ok, five of us – we can cover the baby-sitting duties round the clock. Four hours and forty-five minutes each – no sweat.”
In the space of five minutes and another round of drinks, Sylvester had worked out a rotation, while Jerry gave a swift demonstration of applying a bottle to the appropriate end of Little Joe and a diaper (accompanied by hygienic wipes and sticky white diaper-rash ointment) to the other. Berto and Sylvester volunteered to spend their nights at Joe and Jess’s house for their shifts – “Hey, the kid can sleep nights in his own bed, ‘kay?”. At around 6:30, when Jerry got home from the hospital, he would take Little Joe for nearly five hours. Then – it would be Richard’s turn, for the afternoon, until Chris finished at the Tip-Top. The plan had Chris delivering Little Joe home to Sylvester and Berto after supper, to begin the whole cycle again. Still, Joe’s expression as he looked around the table, and regarded his offspring was one torn between gratitude and worry.
“I owe you guys,” he confessed at last. “But I dunno about handing him around like a hot potato. I mean, Jess will have a conniption fit…”
“Babies thrive on the stimulation,” Jerry said. “And doesn’t Jess take him with her, when does her client consultations?”
“Yes, but …”
“I don’t see the difference,” Jerry said. “If he’s used to it, he probably likes it.”
Richard had a feeling that Joe didn’t precisely agree – but in the face of a workable solution, he had no other choice.
“We’ll start on Monday,” Sylvester folded away his notebook, after writing down a copy of the schedule for everyone else. “Any questions?”
Richard briefly considered asking for release from the rota – but then he considered Little Joe, and his own long-term plans to inculcate an appreciation for good food into a younger generation – and really, how much younger could you get than a six-month old? This merited careful consideration, but when he asked it of the table, both Jerry and Joe laughed.
“At this age? Rice cereal, and not much of it,” Jerry replied, and Joe snorted.
“Mother’s milk. No – really. The fridge is full – Jess began stocking up weeks ago.”
“Moth – oh, I see,” Richard considered that he had already looked enough of an idiot in front of the others; best now enjoy the weekend, before flinging himself into the baby-minding rota.

He had nearly forgotten about it all – or at least, shoved the trepidations to the farthest and most neglected corner of his mental attic, when the Café’s door opened and shut to a musical jingle, and Jerry appeared, with the baby – a tiny pink-faced morsel dwarfed by a monumental stroller. Richard could verily swear that he had seen smaller motorcycle sidecars. The enormous necessity bag was stowed at the back of the stroller. With some difficulty, Jerry maneuvered it through the dining room and into the kitchen. Richard was there alone; Robbie and the girls having capably dealt with the with the most immediate pressing post-lunch-rush chores.
“Here we are!” Jerry announced. “Little Joe is all ready to spend quality time with Unca Richard.” He almost succeeded in concealing a yawn. “He’s already had his midday bottle – you’ll want to give him another just before five. It’s in the side pocket of his ditty-bag with an ice-pack to keep cold. Just warm it up before you give it to him. Blood warm is about the right temperature. Remember, how I showed you how to hold him for feeding? Yeah, that. Remember to burp him, when he’s done – and check his diaper, too – he’ll probably poop again, just to make room for the fresh intake.”
“What do I do with the little … little tyke until then?” Richard demanded. He had almost made himself forget his promised child-minding obligation.”
“No idea,” Jerry yawned again. “Talk to him. Play simple games, pay attention to him, stimulate his imagination. That is, when he isn’t sleeping, eating, or pooping. Use your own … sorry … imagination. See you tomorrow, the same time. Chris will take over from you at five-thirty.” Upon delivering this dispiriting intelligence, Jerry took himself out the door – the bell chiming musically. Little Joe and Richard looked at each other.
“Goosh,” commented Little Joe, blowing a spit-bubble. It sounded philosophical; neither hostile or overly-affectionate.
“The same to you, my little man,” Richard replied. Well, that took care of the social niceties. “Look, sport – you’re a little young to become a kitchen apprentice. And I’m told that … well, you aren’t quite old enough to start cultivating a sophisticated palate. How about just keeping me company while I prep for tomorrow?”
“Goob-gurgle,” replied Little Joe with perfect amiability.
“Right then,” Richard said, and fetched one of the three high-chairs from the front of the house, setting it up next to the big all-purpose table which served as prep-space. Summoning up all of his nerve and silently sending up a prayer to the heavens that he not inadvertently damage the little sprout in any way, shape or form – since Joe and Jess between them had the capacity and will to inflict horrific damage on anyone who harmed a single one of the barely-visible hairs on the head of their tiny offspring – he lifted Little Joe from the stroller and settled him into the high chair. Regarding his handiwork, Richard thought the infant was sagging a little too far to one side in the chair – which would accommodate a much larger child. A pair of small cushions wedged in on either side of Little Joe did the trick. The two of them regarded each other solemnly across the worktable, and Richard continued his prepping for the following day’s business.
“Cinnamon rolls,” Richard ventured. “It’s cinnamon rolls for tomorrow.”
“Goo-goosh!” commented Little Joe, and Richard was heartened. Didn’t Jerry advise talking to the little sprout? Stimulate his development, or some such child-rearing mumbo-jumbo. “They’re a mainstay at the Café, don’t you know – well, you should. I think your Mum had one every morning. So – here’s the dough for them. Been rising in the warmer for a couple of hours. Now, this is the mixture that goes onto the dough, once I have patted it out just so. Light on the flour, by the way…” he continued in this vein, as if he were explaining and training a new apprentice, as he worked the dough with the expertise of long practice, and the yeasty odor of newly-risen dough filled the workspace. Little Joe was even drooling a bit. “Pity you’re just not old enough for a taste,” Richard commiserated. “Never mind, young-chappie-my-lad; soon enough, soon enough.”

 

To be available as an e-book by December 1, and in print in time for Christmas! Mark it on your calendar now!

29. October 2017 · Comments Off on A Snippet of the Next Book – Lone Star Glory · Categories: Chapters From the Latest Book
All right – the final story for the next Lone Star Sons collection is almost done! Lone Star Glory, the continuing adventures of Texas Ranger Jim Reade and his Delaware Indian blood-brother Toby Shaw, should be available in ebook by mid-November.

The Borderlands Beast

“It’s the damnest thing,” Jack Hays mused. “Here I have a letter from our friend Mr. Biddle in Laredo, passing on tales of a strange hairy beast supposedly attacking, mutilating and murdering people – and now I read the same thing in the Texas Register and by a completely different correspondent… Is there some kind of moon-madness afflicting people down along the Rio Grande? Or has everyone started eating locoweed stewed in aguardiente?”
“No idea,” Jim replied, as Jack handed him the folded sheets of the Texas Register. They were sitting at a table out in back of a saloon and beer-garden on Soledad Street, in the oldest part of Bexar. The establishment – narrow and dark, presented a fortress-like aspect to the street and ran down to the river edge, fringed with rushes and shaded by immense old cypress trees. The proprietors of the saloon/beer garden had set out rough tables and chairs under the trees. It was just twilight of a mild spring day, and the oil lamps hanging from lower tree branches cast a pleasant golden glow; just enough between their light and sunlight fading from the pale sky to read the tiny print of the newspaper. At the riverbank, lightening-bugs flashed their tiny brief lights among the rushes.
“… fleeting glimpses of an immense, shaggy black shape, nimbly leaping from wall to tree, leaving the victim, one Augustine Santiago sprawled on the ground, dismembered and hideously mutilated about the face, his throat chewed through as if by razor-sharp teeth set in a monstrously strong jaw …” Jim shook his head. “And his right arm torn entirely off his body. It would take inhuman strength to perform that feat. I’ve heard a lot of stories about what the Comanche get up to when the devil is in them and they have an enemy to torture – but I’ve never heard anything this outlandish. I suppose one of those grizzly bears could mutilate a man in that fashion with their great claws, but the description of the beast moving and leaping sounds like anything but a bear. What does Albert Biddle have to say?”
“Only that this Santiago murder is the latest,” Jack replied, unfolding the pages of the letter from Laredo. “And Biddle is a sensible man, not given to megrims and alarms…”
“Who was this Augustine Santiago?” Jim wondered aloud. He had not gotten that far in the newspaper.
“A Mexican merchant with a large establishment across the river in Nueva Laredo … distant kin to Dona Graciela, which is why your friend wrote to me. There is more than has been put in the newspaper, you see. Biddle writes that several young shepherds in the vicinity have been found dead, and also savagely mutilated in much the same manner. The common folk blame the Indians … but the condition of the bodies is so different from we have been accustomed to see in our various wars with the wild tribes. And it seems,” Jack cleared his throat, meaningfully, “That this murderous beast has likewise been preying upon them as well. Those in Laredo of Biddle’s acquaintance who maintain friendly relations with certain of the Comanche and Lipan and others say that the Indians are frightened as well – frightened almost out of their skins, telling tales of flying death bats and cannibal skulls with wings, and child-sized monsters with a taste for human flesh. And significantly, they blame the white man, or perhaps the Mexicans for bringing the monster into the region. The Mexicans and the Americans, of course, are equally eager to blame some mad renegade amongst the Indians – as if there was any excuse needed to set all parties at each other’s throats. I’d like to put out this little bonfire before it grows any bigger. Since you and Mr. Shaw have the friendship of Old Owl and his Penateka folk, I will task you to go to Laredo and see what you can find out about this monstrous man-killing beast … and if possible, put an end to it. Show off the pelt in the market-place, so that everyone knows the matter is settled.”
“Give us a day or so to pack our traps,” Jim replied. “And plenty of lead… do you know – there was a man-killing wolf which supposedly killed and ate a hundred people in Southern France, in the days of one of the Louies. It was eventually shot and killed by a hunter using a special silver bullet which had been blessed by the local priest. Do you suppose I should take that kind of precaution, Jack?”
“If you chose to do so, pay out of your own purse for it,” Jack replied. “In my experience, cold lead with black powder behind it has been fitting enough to do the job.”

The next day, when Toby Shaw appeared at Jack’s quarters in an old adobe house on Main Plaza, Jim’s Indian blood-brother listened to Jack outline the new mission with a wholly impassive expression on his face. When Jack had finished, Toby shook his head.
“This is a monster, such as the old ones of my people called a ‘wendigo’. This is a very dangerous creature to hunt, according to the old tales. I have no relish for this hunt – but as you say – this is a perilous matter. The wendigo is an unnatural thing, leaving no tracks by which a man might hunt it. But it sounds as if this is a living thing – and living things leave tracks by which they may be followed. Only …” Toby paused, and It unsettled Jim, how Toby’s hand had gone to fiddle with the star-iron talisman at his throat, a piece of unearthly metal the size of a pecan-meat, strung on a thong about his blood-brother’s neck, as it had been since the very first day of their meeting – at the scene of a bloody killing in the Nueces strip.
“Only – what?” Jim said, and Toby shook his head.
“Nothing, Brother. Only this matter has the stink of a great evil about it.”

Three days later, Jim and Toby set out for Laredo, bearing with them a letter on heavy paper with Jack’s signature, authorizing them to make inquiries on both sides of the border. Jack had signed it with an especially impressive flourish, with his official title, and the official seal of the Republic embossed below.
“That should open some doors, in Nueva Laredo, at the very least,” Jack said, as he handed it to Jim on the morning of their departure. “Don’t know if it will impress the Penateka or the Lipan, much – for that, you and Shaw need to depend on your own swift wits and clever line of palaver. Good luck. And when you kill this beast … bring me a souvenir; a scalp, or a set of claws, or teeth; something that I can put on the shelf and brag about to folk.”
Jim sensed his blood-brother’s doubtful thoughts about this mission, although forbore to speak of it, until they were well on the trail towards Laredo, and the ramble of Bexar, punctuated by the blunt dome of San Fernando had diminished at their backs. Spring rains falling on the gentle rolling hills and grasslands had brought forth a bounty of wildflowers – blue buffalo clover, purple verbena, pink wild primrose and yellow tickseed in such numbers that in places, the green grass was overpainted with blossoms.
“This is a dangerous hunt, Brother,” Toby said at last. “More dangerous than any search we have undertaken before. Whether it is an evil of this world, the world of men who walk in the light of the sun, or from the spirit world … we must be very careful. This wendigo has greater powers than any of which I have ever heard.”
“I don’t think that the beast is anything other than of this world,” Jim replied, trying to hearten himself as well as his blood-brother. “Of this world in the here and now. Ghostly apparitions do not appear out of the ether, and tear and rend human flesh with anything other than earthly talons and teeth. Depend on it – this is some animal, perhaps a wild catamount, or a wolf with a taste for human flesh. There is no danger to us, being armed and doubly wary.”

 
07. August 2017 · Comments Off on A Lone Star Glory Adventure: Into the Wild Part 4 · Categories: Chapters From the Latest Book, Old West

(This is one of the adventures which may be included in the next Lone Star Sons volume. I am intending this to be released in time for Christmas. If the plot seems somewhat familiar, it is because I have lifted one element – the US Army going rogue and joining an Indian tribe –  from the book and movie Dances With Wolves. From a historical perspective, that seemed to be almost too late in history for that development to be entirely convincing. But an officer leading an exploring party in the Southwest some fifteen years earlier? That seemed to me to be much more workable, as a plot.)

 

Part 4 – Into the Wild

 

“Camels!” Ned Beale exclaimed in delight, when he showed Jim and Toby their means of transport at least as far as the fabled canyon of the Colorado in the vast New Mexico Territory. Beale was a little younger than Jim, a lively and gangly young Yankee with a high sloping forehead which merged into a magnificently beaky nose adorned at the lower margin with an equally magnificent and bushy mustache. His Navy rank on a strength report was a relatively lowly one – but his functioning level appeared to be much higher, due to friends in high places and to his recent daring exploits in crossing the continent several times on his own, armored with nothing but a spirit of his own recklessness. With a certain sinking of heart, Jim realized that here was another enthusiast with an insatiable appetite for adventure, for experiences and arcane knowledge. Not that there was anything amiss with such qualities, in moderation – but individuals possessing an excess of them were apt to go haring off in unexpected and usually dangerous tangents. “Ain’t they a marvel? And what better use for traversing the vast deserts than creatures ideally suited to it! They carry burdens which would buckle the knees of half a dozen mules, without complaint, go for days without food and water …”

“They look like a horse designed by a government committee, smell like Satan’s own privy, and frighten the daylights out of all the horses, mules and oxen around,” Jim replied, refusing to be moved by Ned’s enthusiasm.

“But you see, Jim – I may call you Jim, may I? And you should call me Ned, of course. They are perfectly designed by nature for the harsh climes of this new territory! What better use can we make of them… I am charged to explore the natural route to California from Texas and to see how the camels perform …Hey, Walid Ali – what do you think of their fitness for six months in crossing the southern deserts?”

“A desert – like any other, sire,” replied one of the beasts’ hired handlers, a wiry sun-burned man, who wouldn’t have appeared out of place in a Ranger company, save that his head was wrapped in a turban of fine green cloth. He spoke English fluently enough, although with a strange accent. The other handler looked off into the distance; he was an older man with a thick grey-streaked beard, who never spoke, but was usually to be found somewhere about the camel corral.

“Nonetheless, I am not riding on one of those critters,” Jim announced, flatly. “I’ll stick to the evil I know, rather than fly to that which I know nothing of.”

“You have no sense of adventure, Jim,” Ned laughed in delight. “I tell you, it’s a delightful experience – rather like rocking along in a row-boat on a mild swell … certain I cannot convince you to try it out? We’ll be away tomorrow at first light now that you are here and ready for traveling.” Ned hesitated, and then blurted, “I’m not really sure of why your fellows are detailed to join us. A Texas ranger, and a Delaware Indian, with a wet-behind-the-ears ensign and an old soldier like Owen; you must know that my fellows will be curious, having such an odd collection added on to our party at the last minute. We were supposed to test the camels, map out a good alternate road, and hurry along to California… you know, they have found gold there – and in amazing quantities, just this last autumn – and I know about secrecy and the security of missions and all that. I won’t ask your purpose in this, but the fellows will wonder. A word to the wise, Jim – have some convincing story to tell in answer to questions. For they will ask them, you know. Around the campfire of an evening.”

“Certainly,” Jim replied. “Should anyone ask of you – tell them that we are to recover certain records and items left in a cache on the banks of the Colorado, after the failure of the O’Neill expedition. The party was sent out at great expense, and following upon the disaster which cost the lives of so many – those records were left concealed for later recovery. Sergeant Owen is our guide in this, as he was one of that party, and Mr. Shaw serves as translator, should we encounter any of the local natives.”

Ned Beale nodded, comprehending. “Yes, that is a yarn which will convince. Although there will be embroideries upon it, trust me on that, Jim.”

Jim felt a sudden conviction that Ned was far cleverer and more diplomatic than he had let on. Best to change the subject, then. “Gold in California, you say? I had read of it, but thought it was only stories in the sensational press.”

“No,” Ned shook his head. “Tis all true about the gold. I brought the samples east myself, not three months ago. It is real and an amazingly rich find – so rich that every fortune-hunter in these States – and even farther afield – will be heading California-ward. No, strike that; Captain Reade, I am assured they will be heading to California even as we set out.”

“As long as they do not interfere with our mission,” Jim insisted, and Ned Beale laughed and clapped him on the shoulder. “Nor mine as well. I tell you, Jim – I do not hunger for riches, myself. Knowledge, experiences, the sight of new horizons… all that is worth more to me than any quantity of gold. Still, ‘tis curious. The Spanish came to this place, this new world, avid for gold. And found it, now and again in rich mines and taken from the native tribes in Mexico and Peru. But they never found it here, no matter how their conquistadores searched for the Seven Golden Cities, for Quivera, the greatest of them all. It is a curious coincidence that once their hold on these places in the northern continent was shattered … that a man building a humble saw-mill should find gold, gold in such quantities to beggar the imagination.”

“An irony, indeed.” Jim replied. Another thought occurred, as he and Ned watched the camels in their enclosure, walking to and fro with their particular swaying stride. “Ned, what do you think? What do you know of our Sergeant Owen? Is he a man to be trusted?”

“I honestly do not know,” Ned replied after a moment of considering silence. “I have heard nothing disparaging to his character. But he is an enlisted man, not an officer. Two worlds, Jim – to us of the profession of arms. I would trust him with my life and the lives of my men, based on his repute. But I do not know him, having never served with him, not as you have with Mr. Shaw.” He added, with a smile, “I do not know you, either, save that Colonel Hays, whose reputation as a commander of irregular soldiers is a byword – has vouched for you to the satisfaction of my own commander – and to my own.”

“Thank you, Ned,” Jim replied. “We’ll be ready in the morning. Mr. Shaw and I are accustomed to travel light and fast – although I cannot speak for our Army contingent.”

“They’d better be ready as well,” Ned chuckled. “Or they will be playing catch-up all the day.”

“We’ll be ready,” Jim said, and strolled away to the ramshackle and rambling quarters – a crude-built dog-trot cabin of logs, from which most of the chinking had already fallen, which the commander at Camp Verde felt to be all the hospitality necessary for visitors, important or not. Toby was already sitting outside of it, cross-legged in Indian fashion, contemplating the fading sunset, a blaze of red, purple and gold on the western horizon.

“We’re away in the morning,” Jim said, softly. There was a rough bench sitting on the bit of turf outside the cabin. He sank into it. He and Lt. Barnes were bunked for the night in one part of the cabin, Sergeant Owen and Toby in the other – although Toby, as was his usual habit, had taken his bedroll and spread it out underneath a generously sheltering oak nearby.

“We’re away at sunrise,” Jim told him, “Camels and all,” and Toby nodded.

“As I expected.”  He returned to his contemplation of the sunset. Very little surprised Toby. “James, do you think that we will find the missing Captain O’Neill? And that if we do – will he want to return?”

“Of course, we will find him,” Jim replied. “We’re Jack Hays’ finest stiletto-men. And he will wish to return – he is a white man, a soldier. Duty requires it. Why would he not?”

“I have been talking a little with young Barnes,” Toby replied. “He said that Captain O’Neill had a … fondness as a cadet for the tales of Fenimore Cooper, and a great interest in relics and weapons of my people, and those Others. Barnes says that he used to laugh at himself – saying that he was meant to be a wild Indian or an Arab corsair, but by mistake his soul was wrapped in the flesh and bones of a Christian. It struck young Barnes as curious, which is why young he remembered. If such is the case, your Captain may not wish to return, and what would we say to convince him?”

“I don’t know,” Jim replied. Yes, this was another dimension. “We’ll burn that bridge when we get to it, I guess.” And yet another random thought occurred to him; his own instinctive dislike of Sergeant Owen. “Toby, do you remember that treacherous Englishman, Vibart-Jones – the one involved in the Wilkinson letters, and the matter of the Spanish treasure at San Saba? I am given to wonder if he has turned up again, in disguise. The man was an actor, after all. And at a squint, Sergeant Owen looks enough like him, and the age is right…”

“No, James,” Toby shook his head, very definitely. “They are not the same man, even though there is a likeness.”

“How can you be so certain?” Jim was diverted, but not convinced. Toby considered gravely, before replying. “Two things, James; things which no man can disguise through art or effort for very long. First, the lobes of Sergeant Owen’s ears are not attached to his head, but droop, separately, to the width of my thumb. Vibart the English spy – the lobes of his ears were narrow and attached. And have you not noticed how a man favors one hand over the other, for holding a pistol, a knife, a pen? Vibart the English spy favored his left hand. You and I, and Sergeant Owen, all favor our right hand. Sergeant Owen is not Vibart. He is who he claims to be, a soldier of long service in many lands. I would say we can trust him with our lives. Perhaps not with the good name and virtue of our sisters, though.” Toby added, with a grin.

 

In the cool of a dew-spangled morning, Ned Beale’s exploring party set off; twenty men and a dozen camels, most laden with half-a wagon load of gear, and led on a string by Walid Ali and his assistant, the mute Hassim.  Jim could not find the proper words to express how very strange and alien they looked – the long necks and longer legs, the oddly-humped bodies piled high with gear and supplies, plodding relentlessly along the track from Camp Verde to the north-west.

“They say that every one of them can carry more than four pack mules,” Young Joe Barnes observed in admiration, and Jim replied, “And smell worse than four pack mules, too. He had already agreed with Ned Beale that he, Toby and the others in their party would ride upwind of the camels on the trail, and picket their horses apart from them at night, although Ned assured him that their horses would eventually become accustomed to the odor and behavior of the beasts. Jim doubted that, profoundly; his own horse – normally a steady-tempered brown gelding turned jittery and restless whenever within sight and smell of the camels, his eyes showing white all the way around. The one pack mule that he and Toby shared was even more reluctant to associate with the camels. He could only hope that any curious Comanche with a taste for stealing exotic stock would be just as unsettled – and their own horses even more so.

Still, the first part of the journey was a relatively pleasant one; folk came out from their houses and fields, just to watch the camels amble past, and to cheer the Federal soldiers in their neat blue uniforms. At long last, perhaps there would be a relief from the dangers of Comanche war parties, striking deep into settled territory! They were invited to settle for the night in pleasant pastures, and more came to marvel at the gangling camels, and to offer hospitality, food, and drink to the soldiers – which was much appreciated. At one camping-place, an obliging Walid Ali clipped a fine harvest of hair from the camels, presenting the women of the locality with better than a bushel of coarse stuff, which they carried away in triumph, saying that they were going to spin it into yarn and knit stockings from it.

What Jim also appreciated – especially when it rained, or an unseasonable spring norther blew – was that among the burdens carried by the camels were several commodious canvas tents. They lived in some comfort, for the soldiers were most practiced at setting up the tents of an evening, and the baggage also included numerous items of folding camp furniture. One soldier in particular proved to be a most accomplished cook, for which all were grateful.

“He was detailed for that skill, let me assure you,” Ned Beale asserted. “French creole from New Orleans, prolly got a drop of the African in him, but he looks white enough, and so I don’t enquire too close. Best not, when someone is cooking the food you eat. Tastes prime, though – doesn’t it?”

“Best Army meal I’ve ever eaten,” Jim acknowledged – for it was. Corporal Fournier was indeed a masterful cook, commander of the cook-fire, the array of skillets and iron ovens deployed over them, the Army rations seasoned with spices and additions conjured up from his own private stores. Even the corporal’s corn-dodgers were amazing.

Even better, of an evening after a supper provided by the expert corporal were the yarns told around the fire, for the party proved to have some excellent spinners of same around them. Ned Beale, as a raconteur, ordinarily would have been a champion among them, but his stories of California and the fabled gold mines paled next to those told by Sergeant Owen, and most unexpectedly – by Walid Ali. The sergeant had an inexhaustible fund of stories, of his service in India for the British crown and the India Company; accounts of intrigue and spectacle, of Indian princes and princesses, clad in silks and jewels of incredible richness, of deeds of derring-do – most of which Sergeant Owen modestly averred had been those performed by other men, and of which he had only heard second-hand. Walid Ali also had stories; fantastical stories of the middle east, in which names of towns known in the Bible featured heavily; Damascus, Jerusalem, Babylon, and Antioch. Such enthralled the party, every evening, even the mute Hassim, who did not speak but apparently could understand English.

“Poor fellow,” Ned explained early on. “He’s from Baku on the Caspian Sea, so I was told – I’d guess that he is mostly Russian, or Crim Tatar. They say that the local Bey’s men cut out his tongue as a punishment for something or other. But he’s a hard worker, and does what we tell him. God knows, he could have finished up in worse conditions.”

06. July 2017 · Comments Off on Another Lone Star Glory Adventure – Into the Wild · Categories: Chapters From the Latest Book

(Picking up the story as I am writing this and another adventure for Lone Star Glory – the continuing adventures of Texas Ranger Jim Reade and Delaware Indian scout Toby Shaw – Part 1 is here, Part 2 here.)

Into the Wild – Part 3

“Camels!” Ned Beale exclaimed in delight, when he showed Jim and Toby their means of transport at least as far as the fabled canyon of the Colorado in the vast New Mexico Territory. Beale was a little younger than Jim, a lively and gangly young Yankee with a high sloping forehead which merged into a magnificently beaky nose adorned at the lower margin with an equally magnificent and bushy mustache. His Navy rank on a strength report was a relatively lowly one – but his functioning level appeared to be much higher, due to a number of friends in high places and to his recent daring exploits in crossing the continent several times on his own, armored with nothing but a spirit of his own recklessness. With a certain sinking of heart, Jim realized that here was another enthusiast with an insatiable appetite for adventure, for experiences and arcane knowledge. Not that there was anything amiss with such qualities, in moderation – but individuals possessing an excess of them were apt to go haring off in unexpected and usually dangerous tangents. “Ain’t they a marvel? And what better use for traversing the vast deserts than creatures ideally suited to it! They carry burdens which would buckle the knees of half a dozen mules, without complaint, go for days without food and water …”
“They look like a horse designed by a government committee, smell like Satan’s own privy, and frighten the daylights out of all the horses, mules and oxen around,” Jim replied, refusing to be moved by Ned’s enthusiasm.
“But you see, Jim – I may call you Jim, may I? And you should call me Ned, of course. They are perfectly designed by nature for the harsh climes of this new territory! What better use can we make of them… I am charged to explore the natural route to California from Texas and to see how the camels perform …Hey, Walid Ali – what do you think of their fitness for six months in crossing the southern deserts?”
“A desert – like any other, sire,” replied one of the beasts’ hired handlers, a wiry sun-burned man, who wouldn’t have appeared out of place in a Ranger company, save that his head was wrapped in a turban of fine green cloth. He spoke English fluently enough, although with a strange accent. The other handler looked off into the distance; he was an older man with a thick grey-streaked beard, who never spoke, but was usually to be found somewhere about the camel corral.
“Nonetheless, I am not riding on one of those critters,” Jim announced, flatly. “I’ll stick to the evil I know, rather than fly to that which I know nothing of.”
“You have no sense of adventure, Jim,” Ned laughed in delight. “I tell you, it’s a delightful experience – rather like rocking along in a row-boat on a mild swell … certain I cannot convince you to try it out? We’ll be away tomorrow at first light now that you are here and ready for traveling.” Ned hesitated, and then blurted, “I’m not really sure of why your fellows are detailed to join us. A Texas ranger, and a Delaware Indian, with a wet-behind-the-ears ensign and an old soldier like Owen; you must know that my fellows will be curious, having such an odd collection added on to our party at the last minute. We were supposed to test the camels, map out a good alternate road, and hurry along to California… you know, they have found gold there – and in amazing quantities, just this last autumn – and I know about secrecy and the security of missions and all that. I won’t ask your purpose in this, but the fellows – they will wonder. A word to the wise, Jim – have some convincing story to tell in answer to questions. For they will ask them, you know. Around the campfire of an evening.”
“Certainly,” Jim replied. “Should anyone ask of you – tell them that we are to recover certain records and items left in a cache on the banks of the Colorado, after the failure of the O’Neill expedition. The party was sent out at great expense, and following upon the disaster which cost the lives of so many – those records were left concealed for later recovery. Sergeant Owen is our guide in this, as he was one of that party, and Mr. Shaw serves as translator, should we encounter any of the local natives.”
Ned Beale nodded, comprehending. “Yes, that is a yarn which will convince. Although there will be embroideries upon it, trust me on that, Jim.”
Jim felt a sudden conviction that Ned was far cleverer and more diplomatic than he had let on. Best to change the subject, then. “Gold in California, you say? I had read of it, but thought it was only stories in the sensational press.”
“No,” Ned shook his head. “Tis all true about the gold. I brought the samples east myself, not three months ago. It is real and an amazingly rich find – so rich that every fortune-hunter in these States – and even farther afield – will be heading California-ward. No, strike that; Captain Reade, I am assured they will be heading to California even as we set out.”
“As long as they do not interfere with our mission,” Jim insisted, and Ned Beale laughed and clapped him on the shoulder. “Nor mine as well. I tell you, Jim – I do not hunger for riches, myself. Knowledge, experiences, the sight of new horizons… all that is worth more to me than any quantity of gold. Still, ‘tis curious. The Spanish came to this place, this new world, avid for gold. And found it, now and again in rich mines and taken from the native tribes in Mexico and Peru. But they never found it here, no matter how their conquistadores searched for the Seven Golden Cities, for Quivera, the greatest of them all. It is a curious coincidence that once their hold on these places in the northern continent was shattered … that a man building a humble saw-mill should find gold, gold in such quantities to beggar the imagination.”
“An irony, indeed.” Jim replied. Another thought occurred, as he and Ned watched the camels in their enclosure, walking to and fro with their particular swaying stride. “Ned, what do you think? What do you know of our Sergeant Owen? Is he a man to be trusted?”
“I honestly do not know,” Ned replied after a moment of considering silence. “I have heard nothing disparaging to his character. But he is an enlisted man, not an officer. Two worlds, Jim – to us of the profession of arms. I would trust him with my life and the lives of my men, based on his repute. But I do not know him, having never served with him, not as you have with Mr. Shaw.” He added, with a smile, “I do not know you, either, save that Colonel Hays, whose reputation as a commander of irregular soldiers is a byword – has vouched for you to the satisfaction of my own commander – and to my own.”
“Thank you, Ned,” Jim replied. “We’ll be ready in the morning. Mr. Shaw and I are accustomed to travel light and fast – although I cannot speak for our Army contingent.”
“They’d better be ready as well,” Ned chuckled. “Or they will be playing catch-up all the day.”
“We’ll be ready,” Jim said, and strolled away to the ramshackle and rambling quarters – a crude-built dog-trot cabin of logs, from which most of the chinking had already fallen, which the commander at Camp Verde felt to be all the hospitality necessary for visitors, important or not. Toby was already sitting outside of it, cross-legged in Indian fashion, contemplating the fading sunset, a blaze of red, purple and gold on the western horizon.
“We’re away in the morning,” Jim said, softly. There was a rough bench sitting on the bit of turf outside the cabin. He sank into it. He and Lt. Barnes were bunked for the night in one part of the cabin, Sergeant Owen and Toby in the other – although Toby, as was his usual wont, had taken his bedroll and spread it out underneath a generously sheltering oak nearby.
“We’re away at sunrise,” Jim told him, “Camels and all,” and Toby nodded.
“As I expected.” He returned to his contemplation of the sunset. Very little surprised Toby. “James, do you think that we will find the missing Captain O’Neill? And that if we do – will he want to return?”
“Of course, we will find him,” Jim replied. “We’re Jack Hays’ finest stiletto-men. And he will wish to return – he is a white man, a soldier. Duty requires it. Why would he not?”
“I have been talking a little with young Barnes,” Toby replied. “He said that Captain O’Neill had a … fondness as a cadet for the tales of Fenimore Cooper, and a great interest in relics and weapons of my people, and those Others. Barnes says that he used to laugh at himself – saying that he was meant to be a wild Indian or an Arab corsair, but by mistake his soul was wrapped in the flesh and bones of a Christian. It struck young Barnes as curious, which is why young he remembered. If such is the case, your Captain may not wish to return, and what would we say to convince him?”
“I don’t know,” Jim replied. Yes, this was another dimension. “We’ll burn that bridge when we get to it, I guess.” And yet another random thought occurred to him; his own instinctive dislike of Sergeant Owen. “Toby, do you remember that treacherous Englishman, Vibart-Jones – the one involved in the Wilkinson letters, and the matter of the Spanish treasure at San Saba? I am given to wonder if he has turned up again, in disguise. The man was an actor, after all. And at a squint, Sergeant Owen looks enough like him, and the age is right…”
“No, James,” Toby shook his head, very definitely. “They are not the same man, even though there is a likeness.”
“How can you be so certain?” Jim was diverted, but not convinced. Toby considered gravely, before replying. “Two things, James; things which no man can disguise through art or effort for very long. First, the lobes of Sergeant Owen’s ears are not attached to his head, but droop, separately, to the width of my thumb. Vibart the English spy – the lobes of his ears were narrow and attached. And have you not noticed how a man favors one hand over the other, for holding a pistol, a knife, a pen? Vibart the English spy favored his left hand. You and I, and Sergeant Owen, all favor our right hand. Sergeant Owen is not Vibart. He is who he claims to be, a soldier of long service in many lands. I would say we can trust him with our lives. Perhaps not with the good name and virtue of our sisters, though.” Toby added, with a grin.