It was such a fine August afternoon in the town of Holly Hollow, that you just knew something horrible would occur to ruin it. Many of the residents were out walking to enjoy it. It was not overly hot that day, after the unusually rain-soaked summer had made them forget what decent weather felt like. It wasn’t like they could afford to do much else. Since the crash of ’29, everyone’s income had shrunk so much that the peasants of medieval Europe were envied; at least they could kill a chicken for supper. But not here, unless you had the money to pay for it, and few did.
Many of the buildings in town were abandoned and boarded up now, a testament to the mass evictions that were hitting hard everywhere in the United States. The residents who still remained debated between leaving town to try starting life anew, or staying to stick it out. It was a loud shout that disturbed the atmosphere of the quiet street.
“Stop thief!” cried the clerk of the general store, as several teenaged boys noisily ran out of the building, knocking more items to the floor. “Come back with my merchandise!”
“Run, Alfie, or we’ll be caught for dead sure this time!” yelled the youngest boy at the back of the group. Bumping and jostling the startled passersby, they ran as fast as they could towards the edge of the town, the store clerk giving chase. Unfortunately, his stamina would not allow him to keep up with boys that were a good thirty years younger and several pounds lighter than he was. Before he had pursued them half a block, he had to give up. He was puffing harder than the Big Bad Wolf, but without the satisfaction of blowing down little houses. And he dearly would have relished blowing down those boys who had stolen from him again and again. Angrily, he plodded back to his store, defeated, to clean up the mess the young idiots had left behind. Why do these things happen to me?
Two blocks away, the thieves were still running fast and laughing in triumph. They had, once again, got away with their crime. It was a beautiful day.
“Hoodlums!” muttered an old man, shaking his worn cane at them as they passed. “I’d love to give em’ a taste o’ this!”
“And I,” agreed a woman who was window-shopping nearby. “They terrorize my daughters at school. Never saw them cry so much in a single term.”
“I’m not surprised,” said the old man, putting his cane down.
“Why don’t the police do anything about them?” the woman cried angrily. “What are they waiting for?”
The man shrugged. “I’ll tell you what I know from talking to my friend Geoffrey Philpotts, the chief of police: they haven’t been able to do much because they fear the retribution of the rest of the gang. The key to stopping them is to catch all six of them at once. However, they always seem to get away.”
“As we just saw,” said the woman. “But if they were all caught together…”
“…they could go to trial without any followers exacting revenge,” finished the man. “One would think the mayor would lend his assistance, but he’s useless. Not like the one we had in my youth. Briggs was his name, and he was the best. He’d see to those young reprobates. Too bad he’s in the graveyard now.”
“It looks like the ruffians are headed there as well,” said the woman, clutching her cloche hat in the sudden wind. “They looked to be going that way.”
“They’d better not vandalize the headstones again, or my wife’ll probably cast a kitten if she finds out.”
“Did they do something to the stones of her relatives?”
“Thank God, no, but they dumped paint on her tombstone.”
The woman gasped. “I had no idea. When did this happen?”
“About two years ago,” said the old man, “in November of 1930. It was just after her death. I was going to the graveyard to visit, when I saw her white marker, splattered with red paint. The boys likely thought it would be funny to make it look ‘bloody.’ Well, I sure wasn’t laughin.’ ”
“Oh, how awful! Were you able to get the stone cleaned?”
The man shook his head. “Do you know how long it would take to chisel dried paint off a stone? I’m too old to do the job myself, and too poor to pay someone to do it.”
“And how!” said the woman. “It’s all I can do to eke out the next meal and keep our clothes from turning into dish rags.”
“It’s the same with me,” said the old man. “Well, good luck to you.” He tipped the brim of his fedora, and walked on.
* * * * *
“Alright boys, dump out your pockets; let’s see the loot!” ordered Alfred Owens, who was the leader of the group. Casually, he leaned against a tall obelisk and lit a cigarette he had made of tobacco stolen from his father’s coat pocket. He always celebrated his achievements in this way. Every puff seemed to make him feel more like a man than the eighteen years he actually was.
The pile of loot from the general store included four apples, a pinup magazine, a bag of lemon drops, and a fountain pen. There was quite a scuffle for the magazine and the candy, but the real prizes were the pen and the apples. The pen could be sold on the street for cash, but since most families were without enough food, it was the fruit that caused the real ruckus. Unfortunately, dividing four apples between six hungry teenaged boys was akin to dividing a nickel between four homeless people. No one would get much to speak of, and there would most likely be bloodshed for the tiny amount one did get.
“Give one here; it was me who nicked em’!” demanded a slightly plump blond boy, whose name was Stephen Hastings. At thirteen, he was the youngest in the group, and was considered only slightly more valuable than the squirrels that populated the surrounding woods.
“Hand them over,” said Alfred, crushing the remains of his cigarette on a weathered tombstone with the surname of ‘O’Callahan’ on it. “I’m in charge, so I’ll dish them out.”
He tossed one apple to Stephen. “One for you, because you got them…”
Stephen’s teeth tore into the apple with the ferocity of a mountain lion, causing the other boys to stare longingly at him as the fragrant juices ran down his chin.
“…and one for me, ’cause I’m the leader. You four can fight over the last two.” He took the largest apple for himself, and tossed the rest among the other boys, who gave Stephen ugly looks before digging out their pocket knives to divide up the fruit.
“Barney, you and Wally goin’ huntin’ again this weekend?” asked Craig Ferguson, who was sixteen.
“How else is my old man supposed to get meat for us? He’s been out of work for months. And don’t call me Barney; it’s Barnes.”
“Well, can I come along then, Barnes? My grandma and I ain’t had no fresh meat for weeks.”
“Well, alright. But you’d better bring your own ammo this time.”
The little gang of miscreants had not always been the terror of Holly Hollow. As young children, they had led contented (if not privileged) lives in the prosperity of the previous decade. But when the stock market crash of ’29 dropped a bomb on the American economy, their lives had been blown sky-high in the aftermath. One by one, each boy’s father lost his job (except for Craig’s, as his dad had been killed in WWI and his mother was dead) and was forced to do odd jobs around town or go hunting in order to provide for his family. Yet, their efforts were never enough. Their families, like so many others in town, were clothed in rags and often went without meals.
Though the boys regularly disagreed amongst themselves, hunger was the one thing they all had in common and understood. It was what had first driven them to thievery, after their efforts to find work had failed. Once they had become adept at stealing, their arrogance led them to other crimes like vandalism and bullying, and even the occasional bootlegging right underneath Prohibition’s dry nose. The group’s most potent weapon was that they were quite an efficient team when they stopped bickering long enough to work together, which enabled them to avoid being caught at their various infractions. This was why the police were powerless to do anything about them, and everyone knew it.
“Anyone wanna go to the pictures tonight?” asked Lawrence Layton, who had nearly lost a finger in securing his share of half a bruised apple. “My brother says he can sneak us all in through the back, so we don’t have to pay. They stopped giving out free passes.”
“Westley still works there? He’s lucky.” Said Wally. “At least he gets to wear nice clothes for the job.”
Lawrence sneered. “Ha! I wouldn’t be caught dead in that fancy-shmancy get-up. He looks like the organ-grinder’s monkey.”
The boys who were gnawing lemon drops nearly choked on them.
“Yeah,” said Wally, once he had stopped laughing, “and I bet that outfit’s worth more than your house.” It was a well-known fact that Lawrence’s house was just one rusty nail away from being condemned, as any repairs were unaffordable. Even with his brother working, money was scarce. Even in a fancy-schmancy organ grinder’s monkey suit.
“I’ll go,” said Alfred. “If the rest of you aren’t too chicken, I suppose you can come too.”
“We’ll come,” said Wally and Barnes. Like most brothers, they stuck together on many things.
“Me too!” said Stephen.
“Leave him home; he’ll just make a racket and we’ll get caught,” said Craig.
Stephen shot him a dirty look. “Will not! How do ya think I got the job as our lookout?”
“You only got it ’cause you’re too fat to run fast with the rest of us,” said Barnes. “It isn’t like there’s anything else you can do.”
“Shut up, Barney!” Shouted Stephen, standing up. He was rather sensitive about his weight. He threw his hat on the ground, and fought back angry tears.
Barnes got up too, towering more than a foot over Stephen’s head. “Call me Barney just one more time, and I’ll…”
“Knock it off, you two!” ordered Alfred, roughly shoving the two boys to the ground. “I’ve had just about enough of your bickering!” He had to admit that he sometimes felt more like a parent than a gang leader. Or perhaps a referee.
“Ow! I was just teasin,’ him, Boss,” griped Barnes, rubbing his sore behind where it had hit the hard stone. “He ain’t got feelings anyway.”
“Have too!” shot back Stephen, wiping his eyes furiously and trying hard not to cry.
“Hey, look at the big crybaby! Should I run and get your mama?”
“Enough.” The tone in Alfred’s voice was unmistakable; if they didn’t keep quiet, someone would require medical attention. Which none of them could afford.
The group was silent for a few moments, no one daring to say anything. Alfred continued to stare at the town in the valley below, deep in thought, puffing away on his cigarette as if nothing had happened. Barnes made faces at Stephen, who tried to ignore him.
“Lay off him already,” Wally whispered to Barnes. Stephen kept glancing around nervously, as if he did not know where to rest his eyes without attracting attention. He soon settled into staring at a place between his feet, pulling up blades of grass and twisting them between finger and thumb. Occasionally he sniffed.
“Need a hanky, shrimpo?” whispered Barnes under his breath.
“Sure; lemme borrow your sleeve,” Stephen shot back, his eyes red.
“Well, I gotta get home,” said Lawrence, before another explosion could detonate. “If any of you wanna see a show tonight, meet me behind the theater at 8:00, and my brother’ll let us in. Don’t let anyone see you.” Leaving them with that to think over, he walked down the slope, out of the graveyard gates, and down the road that led back to town.