Sutton County Line

9 Mar

From my latest collection of short stories, Sutton County Line, here’s an excerpt from a story called Stagecoach Plaza.

     Stagecoach Plaza was two years younger than I was, built in Nineteen Sixty-Two, when John Wayne Westerns ruled the nation’s big screens, and Gunsmoke, The Rifleman and Bonanza ruled the small ones. That was probably why the whole place was deliberately designed to look like a Wild West ghost town, complete with fake dilapidated storefronts, a creaky wooden boardwalk, and weathered wagon wheels leaning against cracked wooden posts at strategic locations.

The storefronts were arranged in a square, overlooking a small grassy central park, in which was set a pretty fair replica of a Nineteenth Century Wells Fargo stagecoach and a bronze statue of Alphonse Seuton, the founder of our small rural California town, Sutton.

Across the square, beyond the park, was a building that looked like an Old West saloon, complete with swinging double-doors and gold-leaf lettering on the front window; it was actually an office for an insurance company. The swinging double-doors opened to another, regular door, that led to a conventional business office full of laminated-wooden desks, clattering typewriters, and black rotary telephones.

The best feature of Stagecoach Plaza by far—and the one that made the place most memorable—was a collection of life-sized wooden figures that were propped up against outer walls of the storefronts at regular intervals along the boardwalk. These were crudely carved and garishly painted representations of Western heroes of yesteryear: lawmen, Indian chiefs, and desperados alike.

Sitting Bull, for instance, sternly guarded the 88 Cents Store, where everything on offer was priced at eighty-eight cents or less. Annie Oakley and Wild Bill Hickock stood on either side of the swinging double-doors of the fake saloon, while General Custer watched over the day-old Kilpatrick bread outlet. The great Apache chief, Geronimo, glowered incongruously in front of the Pink Poodle Beauty College, where my mother got her hair done by the students at a steep discount; Billy the Kid served a similar duty near the Brite-Glo Laundromat.

All in all, there were about two dozen of these enigmatic wooden figures situated on the boardwalk at Stagecoach Plaza. I had adored them as a small child, and even now, in my first whole month of being a teen-ager, they still brought about a slight feeling of awe. They were not realistic at all, rather cartoonish in representation, but they represented a link to the old Gold Rush past of Sutton—a past that was, sadly, disappearing quickly beneath a modern landslide of plastic gewgaws, hippie pants, and labor-saving electric devices.

Here’s the sign for the original model for Stagecoach Plaza. Sadly, I’m not sure if it’s even still in existence, or if the statues of Sitting Bull, etc. are still around.

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