“What do you reckon he's cooking up this year?” wondered Peetie Womac. He was staring dejectedly at the new bottle of Pearl that he was idly spinning on its axis between a gnarled thumb and forefinger, the worried brow on his weathered face propped up on his other hand.
“No telling,” said Hooter with a wide grin as he wandered by on his way to punch up another round of Patsy Cline on the War Wagon jukebox.
As Apache Flats' newly appointed, first-time volunteer mayor, Peetie had good reason for concern.
Basically, the mayor didn't have to do much to fulfill his responsibilities here. Liz Bacon—some claimed she was older that Aunt Pinkie and Nelda Finkelfrack combined—had been taking care of the town's requisite paperwork for years. Nope, all the mayor had to do was oversee coordination of the town's annual Flew Year Pageant. And, that was the problem.
Each of the town's previous 10 mayors had been removed from office following the pageant, making the full mayoral term for each not quite 60 days. To a man and three women, each one said upon hearing news of their impeachment, “You can't fire me, I'm a volunteer.”
The downfall of each mayor hadn't been the pageant they helped plan. It was the fact the pageant never came off, exactly, because it was interrupted by an unplanned, unsolicited, potentially fatal pyrotechnics display presented by Rio Rojo's one known hermit, Lucius “Flash” Stromquist.
Lighting the Fire
If you're unfamiliar with the Flew Year Pageant, each year the folks in and around Apache Flats gather in front of the War Wagon saloon promptly at sundown December 31 to begin celebrating the year that was. “I don't know about the coming year, but we survived this one!” is the motto.
For years the festivities went without a hitch. They built a bonfire in the middle of the street, lined up cars at each end of the street with their high-beams on for light, then danced and reveled the night away until it was time for January 1 football games. Without a hitch, until a decade ago, when for some unknown reason, yet unexplained, Lucius Stromquist climbed atop the War Wagon, unbeknownst to the crowd below, and he set off what can only be described as a fire storm from the south side of Hell. Huge fireballs lit up the crystalline clear night, explosions and the smell of gasoline and burnt gunpowder wafting through the air. The town thought they must be under some kind of attack. Quick as a wink, all you could see were about 80 sets of taillights making a beeline out of both ends of town. All except for Delmar Jacobs—already full to the brim with Flew Year cheer—who was still wrestling to unharness the deer rifle from his pickup when the boys found him upon returning about an hour later after they were sure the commotion was over.
“T-t-take cover you Comm…comm..comm…pinkos. He-he-here I come.”
Surprisingly, other than a few scorch marks and some spent matches, the top of the saloon was no worse for the wear. Tacked to the back of the false-front sign was an old feed sack with the simple inscription, “Happy Flew Year!”
Through a keen sense of deduction, and the fact that Lucius had signed his name, the town discovered the perpetrator. What took longer to figure out, or at least assume, was why Lucius had done such a thing. He'd never been mean, far as anyone could remember. The one time each month he came to town for supplies, he never said a word to anyone, but was always respectful. He'd pay for what he bought, then head back out of town in a banged up and rusted old Apache pickup. No one saw him any other time on the road or off it. No one knew how he made his money. He just kept to himself on the little patch of ground he owned about 20 miles north of town.
A few concerned locals kept an eye on Lucius' drive for about a week after the incident. Finally, after he showed up in town to buy supplies a month later, same as usual, the Apache Flats citizenry assumed he had meant no harm. Rather, it was just his way of trying to join in the fun and say Happy Flew Year to the town.
The town kept that in mind the next year when a similar rain of fireballs brewed up unexpectedly behind the cars at one end of the street. Sure enough, at daybreak they found another feed sack with the same note. Since then, they had come to count on Lucius sending up some type of fireworks, presumably homemade.
“You know how he's missing the top part of those three fingers?” old man Jesperson had wheezed after the first year's display. “I used to be in school with him. He was kinda odd back then, too. We called him Flash because he loved chemistry and would've made Merlin look like Betty Crocker. He was always mixing up something. That's how he lost those finger tops, and how it was we finally got the new school, by the way.”
So, the town had come to expect an interruption to the pageant. The problem was that since they didn't know exactly when to expect it, and because the displays always rained down with such terrifying ferocity, the pageant broke up soon afterward, whether it had been in progress most of the night like most years or only 15 minutes like last year.
Out of sport, if nothing else, the town held the mayor personally responsible for the lack of municipal control. And, no one wanted to approach Lucius and see if they might could plan the time of his detonations.
Fanning the Flames
“It's not like I really want to be mayor,” said Peetie weakly, taking a sip of his Pearl. “It's just that I don't like failing, you know?”
“Yeah, but there ain't nothing like going out with a bang!” said Hooter.
“That's not funny.”
“It's the truth, though.”
“Yeah, Peetie,” said Lonnie Johnson. “Besides, who knows, maybe ol' flash will wait until the end of the pageant for the grand finale.”
“Who knows,” agreed cousin Charlie, “You might be the first mayor in a decade to make it clean through to Ground Hog's Day.”
Peetie looked furtively around. “I gotta tell you something boys. I drove out there to talk with Lucius.”
Silence fell and everyone's head turned. “What did he say?”
“I never talked to him, exactly. I wanted to, but you should have seen it.” He took a long draw on the bottle as if he couldn't bear the visions he must be seeing.
“Go on,” said Charlie.
Bang! Crack! Pow!
Before Peetie could continue, someone had pitched a package of Black Cats—the real thing—through the front door. The boys—everyone except Jackson, the proprietor, who was already over the top of the bar with a ball bat in one meaty hand and an empty bottle in the other—peered over the top of the table just in time to see Jackson dragging Izzy Franklin in by a headlock that judging by Izzy's gasps and gurgles was fairly effective.
“Izzy, you pig-eyed idgit!” said Hooter. “We got business going on here and you about gave poor ol' Peetie here a cardiac unrest.”
“Yeah, there's a time and place, slug butt,” agreed Lonnie.
Jackson let Izzy go just long enough to grab him by the front of his shirt. “You ever do something like that in here again, you won't be coming back, and it will be a long time before you'd want to, sabe?”
Izzy's tan face was turning as red as was possible, in sincere shame. “You're right…man, it sure seemed funny when I was lighting the fuse. I'm sorry, Jackson. No excuse, never again. Peetie, I'm sorry, too. I was just trying to cheer you up”
After a long silence, a nod from both Jackson and Peetie, Hooter just said, “Now, get a chair and shut up. Peetie here was fixing to tell us about his visit with Lucius.”
Peetie began again. “Well, like I said, I drove out there yesterday to talk with him. I parked a ways off, though, I didn't want to surprise him, you know?”
The boys nodded.
“Well, I'd never been out there before. So, I'm walking down the drive and I hear the dangdest racket, like a cross between a scalded bobcat and a power sander on sheet metal. I peer over the top of this ridge and there's Lucius. He's all dressed up like a rodeo clown, makeup and all, sitting in the middle of a buckin' barrel strung between three mesquite trees, raking that old barrel and screaming like a banshee. Then he'd stop. Then he'd start again. How do you talk to a situation like that?”
“Remember when old man Jesperson told us about Flash in school?” said Charlie. “He said something about Lucius rodeoing for a while.”
“I don't remember that,” said Peetie. “All I know is that a rodeo clown with a fetish for chemistry sets will make you stop and think.”
“Or just stop,” tried Izzy.
Cold stares all around.
“You did the right thing,” said Lonnie. “Just leaving him alone.”
“Yeah, sleeping dogs and all that,” said Charlie.
Peetie pushed his chair back. “Well, I tried, but it sure didn't do anything to solve our little dilemma with the pageant.”
“Look on the bright side,” said Izzy with caution. “Maybe he'll get so wrapped up with that barrel that he'll forget all about Flew Year.”
Just then they heard a low rumble building from the north and the darkened saloon windows were tinted with light as if from a sunset. A bright orange light, spectacular to see from a distance, slowly rose into the sky.
“Or not,” they said in unison.