Reunion

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Women lowered their eyes and clutched their children more tightly by the hand when they walked past her on the street. Men tipped their hats and greeted her politely, but she saw the frank curiosity in some eyes, the open longing in others.

Once, when she was sitting on the verandah of her house on Fort Worth’s Fourth Street, a man walked by with his son, who looked to be about six and was wearing cowboy boots and jeans, just like his daddy. The two shared the same, carefully cultivated bowlegged way of walking. When the father, now directly in front of her, tipped his Stetson and said, “Mornin’, Miz Parker,” he gave the boy a jab in the shoulder. The boy looked at her shyly and muttered, “Mornin’.” She smiled at both of them, returned their greeting and watched them walk on down the street. They were less than half a block away when she saw the father lean over and whisper in the boy’s ear. The boy looked up at his father, puzzled. Then the father leaned down and gave a longer explanation, and the boy turned to look again in her direction. Seeing her watching him, he quickly turned away again, shoved his hands in his tiny pockets, and swaggered off down the street.

She could hear their conversation in her mind:

Father: Son, you know who that was?

Boy: No, sir.

Father: That’s Eunice Parker, and you got to always be polite to her.

Son: You told me I got to be polite to everyone.

Father: But Miz Parker, she’s special. Her real name is Etta Place, and she was the Sundance Kid’s girlfriend.

Boy: Who’s that?

Father: The Sundance Kid? Why, him and Butch Cassidy were the most famous outlaws ever in the Old West, robbing trains and banks and no one could catch them. No sir, not a sheriff or a posse or even that Pinkerton detective that trailed them.

Boy: Was she an outlaw?

Father: I suppose she was. She rode with them on those robberies, and she followed them when they went to South America. Yes, son, I suppose she was an outlaw once. But she’s respectable now, and you got to be polite to her. It’s sort of an honor that she lives right here in Fort Worth, Texas.

Boy: Yes, sir.

A respectable outlaw, she mused. What a way to be known!

* * *

But Eunice Parker was respectable. It was 1934, in the midst of the Great Depression, and she ran a clean and proper boardinghouse in Fort Worth, Texas, with four boarders–two men who were drummers and gone a lot, selling their wares across Texas, a schoolteacher with owlish glasses who spoke little at meals and spent his entire life, out of school, holed up in his room, preparing his lessons one presumed. And then there was Mrs. Foster, a widow old beyond her fifty-some years, who spent her time crocheting afghan squares. Eunice thought she must have made enough squares for twenty afghans, but she never saw Mrs. Foster piece them together.

If Eunice Parker was Etta Place and had an ill-gotten fortune hidden away somewhere, it wasn’t obvious from her house or her life. Inez Jones, a black woman, kept the boardinghouse clean, changed the linen, and sometimes served as the parlor maid by answering the door and turning away door-to-door salesmen, undesirable people who wanted to rent a room, and men who were just curious. Eunice herself cooked breakfast and supper for her tenants; they got their midday meal on their own. Even that fueled the rumors, for hadn’t Etta Place cooked for the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang?

Miz Parker attended church regularly, gave generously to charity, and had lavish treats for the children on Halloween, though few parents allowed their offspring to knock on her door. She drove about town in an old Ford kept immaculately clean by Andrew Wilson, a black man who tended the lawn around her house and saw to her car. She had a good relationship with her banker–he considered her one of his more reliable clients–and a charge account at the grocery. She was, indeed, a model citizen, although no one knew, beyond that persistent rumor, where she came from or why she was in Fort Worth.

Eunice had a few friends but very few. Sometimes she sat on the verandah with Mrs. Foster and listened as the old woman talked, her crochet hook flying in and out of the latest square. Eunice wondered if she would sometime forget herself and keep going until a square was big enough to be a coverlet in itself.

“I bet you could tell us a lot of stories,” the older woman said. (Actually, she wasn’t that much older than Eunice, but she looked and acted of another generation.) “I hear rumors at church about you, and from what I hear you have some grand and exciting adventures to tell.”

“I’ve had some grand and exciting adventures,” Eunice admitted, “but I don’t exactly want to tell them. Thinking about the past makes me sad.”

“Well, now, dearie, ain’t that true for all of us. Thinking about my dear Albert makes me sad, but gone is gone, and I have to accept that. Don’t mean I won’t talk about the good times we had together. Did I ever tell you about the day Fort Worth burned? Watched it together, we did. Went right down there to the South Side and stood so close we could feel the heat of the flames.”

Eunice thought that sounded foolish, but she didn’t say so. Neither did she ask for the story of the day Fort Worth burned. She knew it would be forthcoming.

“Nineteen-hundred-and-nine, it was. And we was married, with a family. But we took those babies and went right down there, just like the young folks did. It was the most exciting thing I ever saw. Burned Broadway Baptist Church, the Presbyterian church, a whole lot of railroad cars, and some businesses and lots of houses. One fireman even died–I forget his name. Newman or something. And you know, standing there right as plain as God, there was one of them fancy no-good ladies from Hell’s Half Acre.” The minute the words were out of her mouth, Mrs. Foster regretted them. After all, Eunice Parker had practically been the same as those “fancy ladies.” She clasped a hand over her mouth and said, “Oh, my dear, I am sorry. I didn’t mean nothin’. . . .”

But then the woman would be right back to the subject of Eunice’s stories that she could tell, if only she would. “You ever been to South America?” she asked one afternoon.

Eunice smiled at her lack of subtlety. “Yes,” she said, “I’ve been there.”

“Heard there was a gunfight down there, twenty-some years ago or more, and two Americans were killed by the local police. But no one knows for sure who the two were.”

Eunice considered her reply carefully. Most people assumed the two were Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, but rumors flew that Cassidy had survived, that it was Kid Curry who died with Sundance. Eunice herself believed that and wondered often about Butch—where was he? Would he come looking for her? Sometimes she was convinced he was dead, simply because he hadn’t found her. Other times, her imagination took off in flights as her mind’s eye saw him somewhere with a new identity, perhaps a respectable businessman, even a banker. The thought made her smile.

“I always heard they were two outlaws, wanted both here and in South America,” she told Mrs. Foster.

The other woman sniffed. “Just thought, havin’ been there and all, you might know a little more about it.”

“Strange you should ask,” Eunice said and rose to go into the house.

Eunice Parker sometimes tired of Mrs. Foster. She liked Freddy Wisenhut a lot better. He was the policeman who patrolled the bluff area on foot, overlooking the Trinity River, where Eunice’s boardinghouse was located. He’d stop of an evening on his rounds because he knew Miz Parker would give him coffee and pie, if there was any left over.

“How’s it goin’, Miz Parker?” he’d ask as he forked a mouthful of apple pie. “People treatin’ you okay?”

“Sure, Freddy, folks are nice to me.” Just distant and cautious, she thought.

“You don’t have friends, like my wife does. She’s always got a gaggle of women to talk to and play bridge with and all that. Keeps her from gettin’ lonely while I’m working. Sometimes I worry about you. Ain’t you lonely?”

She laughed aloud. “Freddy, I don’t want a gaggle of women about me. And no, I’m not lonely.”

“Got memories to keep you company, I ‘spect,” he’d say.

“Yes,” Eunice said, “I do.”

And Freddy didn’t push it any farther, the way Mrs. Foster would have.

Freddy and Mrs. Foster and all the others, even Pastor Robinson at First Methodist, wanted her to confess and tell the truth about her identity, titillate them with stories of the old days with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang. Eunice Parker wasn’t about to do that. She kept her counsel, and she wondered about Butch Cassidy, who and where he was now.

* * *

Bill Phillips sat in his office in the Phillips Manufacturing Company in the Spokane, Washington. He stared for a long time at the framed picture of his wife, Gertrude, and their adopted son, Billy Dick, that sat on his desk. Gertrude had tried, God bless her, but she couldn’t keep up with him in any way. There was the time during Prohibition when she’d poured all that raspberry wine down the sink, during a party. “It’s against the law,” she said indignantly, when the hostess of the party complained loud and long, wanting Bill to do something to right this terrible wrong that could not be righted. Etta, he thought, was never bothered by what was against the law. And Gertrude had long since banished him from the marriage bed—“no children ever going to come of it, so there’s no need,” she had said. No need?

Gertrude was always trying to get him to church, when he wasn’t at all sure the Lord would welcome him. “It’s your duty as a parent,” she shrilled, and he shrugged, remembering long rides in the mountains with Etta, when she talked about feeling the spirit of the Lord in the trees and mountain meadows.

“If you made more money with that company, we could send Billy Dick to private school,” Gertrude said too often. “You should ask Riblet Tramway for more money for the metal you sell to them.” Etta never worried about money. When they had it, she loved spending it, loved the clothes Sundance bought her, the fancy dinner at the Brown Hotel in Denver; when they didn’t have it, she knuckled down, cooked from her garden, and wore Sundance’s old shirts.

Bill Phillips knew this wasn’t how it should’ve turned out. He remembered days at Hole-in-the-Wall, when it was the three of them–Butch, Sundance and Etta–against the world. They’d laughed and played and drank and had snowball fights. Sometimes he was jealous of Sundance, but most times he snuck off to see Mary in Caspar. Even then, he carried the image of Etta with him. And now, all these years later, she wouldn’t let him go. Etta, with her dark good looks, her frank enjoyment of everything from a neighborhood Thanksgiving supper to a bank robbery, her willingness to be “game,” no matter what it cost her in discomfort.

“How did it turn out this way?” he asked himself, a question not new to him.

Suddenly he turned the picture of Gertrude and Billy Dick face down on his desk, rose and went to the door, locking it securely from the inside. Back at his desk, he reached into the center drawer and fumbled for the locked, hidden compartment. Twisting the key to release its contents, he pulled out several papers and a photograph.

He unfolded a large, yellowing sheet of paper. Smoothing it with one hand, he read the words: “Reward. Hole in the Wall Gang. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” He didn’t bother with the small type. He knew by heart that they had only offered $500, and he had considered it at the time an insult. Now, no one would pay fifty cents for the capture of Butch Cassidy. All interest in the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang had died out, since everyone assumed Butch and Sundance had died in a shootout in Bolivia.

He stared next at the photograph. It showed a man and a woman in their late twenties, perhaps early thirties. Clearly the man was not Phillips–he was slimmer, shorter, and looked to be fairer in complexion, though photography of the day made that hard to determine. The woman, though, was strikingly beautiful, her dark hair fixed in a roll around her face, her expression serious but ever so gentle. She wore a dark dress with a splash of lace bursting from the front—Butch knew that lace trimming had a name, because Etta had tried to teach it to him, but he never could remember. Pinned on the dress was a lapel watch. Phillips sighed, remembering how important that watch had been to her. He’d bought it for her, when Sundance had spent all his money on a diamond tiepin for himself. Damned selfish Sundance, with that beautiful woman on his arm!

Finally he smoothed out a letter on Pinkerton Detective Agency letterhead. The irony of going to Pinkerton for help pleased him. The letter was dated February 1934, long after Pinkerton’s had given up the search for Butch Cassidy. Now the detective assigned to “the Phillips case” wrote that he had located a woman in Fort Worth, Texas, who was probably Etta Place.

Long ago his love for Etta had necessarily come second to his loyalty to the Sundance Kid, and the love had remained hidden. But since Sundance died in that shootout in Bolivia, Phillips, as he called himself, had dreamed of finding Etta. He’d even gone to some of the places they’d been—Hole-in-the-Wall, though he knew better than to expect her to be at that isolated cabin by herself. And San Antonio, where he and Sundance had first met her—but Fannie Porter’s sporting house was closed and shuttered, the neighborhood on San Saba Street now respectable. He thought about the Brown Hotel in Denver, which she’d loved, but he doubted she’d be there. In the old days, he would have known how to find her himself, but now he’d had to turn to Pinkerton’s. And they’d done the job for him.

He knew he was going to Fort Worth. When Riblet Tramways wanted to send him to Bolivia–Bolivia, for God’s sake, of all places!–he had refused to go. Now he’d just tell Gertrude he had to travel to South America for the company. He’d drive to Fort Worth so no railway ticket couldn’t be traced—old habits of caution die hard.

* * *

He arrived in Fort Worth on a Thursday afternoon in June. It was hot, as Texas June afternoons always are, and Eunice had closed the house against the fierce sun, hoping to retain any morning coolness the house might have captured. When she heard a car drive up, she pulled aside the drape, ever so slightly, and saw a grand and fancy Ford at the curb, dark black, of course, but polished to a sheen. The iron gate at the street squeaked open, and she watched him mount the stairs, a large but still graceful man with a round face, almost as baby-like as it had been in youth, though now he was well into his sixties or even beyond. He was wearing a suit, crumpled by the heat, and he looked uncomfortable but determined. Letting the curtain fabric drop, she called Inez.

“Answer the door, please. I’ll be in the parlor, and I’ll see our visitor.”

Within minutes, Inez announced a Mr. Phillips from Spokane, and Eunice asked her to show him in. Mr. Phillips from Spokane, she repeated to herself with amusement. When he came into the parlor, she stood at the mantel, her back to him.

“Etta?” His voice had a hopeful, soft quality, and she felt sorry for him.

But when she turned to face him, she said, “You didn’t die in Bolivia.” It was almost an accusation.

He stared at her. At length, he said, “You’re not Etta.” And his voice was strong with accusation and, at the same time, weakened with disappointment.

“Why do you say that?” she asked curiously.

“Your hair, it’s gray. And your movements . . . they’re just not Etta. And your eyes . . . I don’t know, but you don’t look . . . you’re not Etta, are you?” He was almost pleading with her to confirm his worst suspicion.

“I’m Eunice Parker,” She said it flatly, definitively. After a moment, she spoke again, “But you know, Etta would probably have gray hair by now. You do. And she might be wearing glasses like I am.” She took wicked delight in pointing these things out to him.

“But . . . .” He sank down on the sofa, rolling his hat in his hands.

“What took you so long to find me?” she asked.

“I didn’t know where to turn,” he said, raising his hands helplessly. “I done research, and I heard all these rumors, and Pinkerton’s, they reported to me. . . .”

“Pinkerton’s?” she echoed in disbelief. “Why would you go to the people who haunted you to the ends of the earth?” She couldn’t believe that he couldn’t have found her himself.

He shrugged. “Nobody cares any more about Hole-in-the-Wall. There’s no reward. And I tried, but I couldn’t find . . . ” he hesitated, “couldn’t find Etta myself.”

She waited, offering neither sympathy nor encouragement.

“It made sense to me,” he went on, “that Etta was living in Fort Worth and running a boardinghouse.” He gave her a smile, an ironic grin. “Not a house, but a boardinghouse. And . . . and I came to find her.” He paused a minute. “I remembered how you . . . I mean, how . . . ”

She wanted to go to him, to take his hands in hers and tell him how sorry she was. But she stood, stick-like, in front of the mantel. Instead, she spoke crisply. “Etta died. In Denver. Of appendicitis. Shortly after she came back from Bolivia.”

“She did make it back?”

Eunice nodded.

“Appendicitis?”

“It wasn’t diagnosed in time for surgery. That was more than twenty years ago. Still, it shouldn’t have happened. I don’t think she went to the doctor in time.”

“Maybe she was afraid to,” he speculated. Then he slammed his clenched fist into his other hand. “I . . . I needed to see her.”

“I’m sorry,” and she really was. “May I get you some lemonade?” It was, she knew, an inane offer.

He didn’t want lemonade–he wanted to belt back a drink and cry out to the gods about unfairness. But he said, “Yes. Yes, that would be good. Thank you.”

After Inez had served the lemonade and pulled the pocket doors discreetly shut, he looked at Eunice. She had by now taken a seat opposite him.

“Why?”

“Why what?”

“Why do you pretend to be Etta?”

She shrugged. “I don’t really. I’m Eunice Parker, which is really my name. But I was a nurse in Denver when she died . . . and she confided in me. It was as though she wanted at the last to tell her life story, to set the record straight, and she wanted to live on in history. I listened, and I took notes in my brain of what she was telling me. I can tell you about the hold-ups at Montpelier and Belle Fourche and Castle Gate. And when she died, I kind of took her identity. Maybe the way to say it is I identified with her. And I guess in Denver I talked about the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang so much that people suspected I was her. I didn’t ever correct them.”

“Why Fort Worth?” His voice was strangled, as though he was finding speech difficult.

“Sundance brought her here once and promised her a big house here. She loved this city.”

“And why do people here think you’re Etta?”

She shrugged. “Rumors spread from Denver to Fort Worth.”

“And to Washington,” he said bitterly. “Why would you let people think that about you?”

She laughed aloud then, the first sign of real emotion he’d seen from her. “That I was Etta Place? That’s so simple I can’t believe you don’t see it. Etta Place is probably the most fascinating woman of the West–everyone wonders what happened to her, why she rode with you, where she came from. She’s fascinating because there are so many mysteries about her. Me? I was Eunice Parker, nurse, dull, nobody. Never married, never had a lover. As Eunice Parker who used to be Etta Place, I have all those things, at least in people’s imaginations. And I get lots of attention.”

“And you fooled me,” he said, his tone was still bitter.

“Are you going to tell?” she asked.

“Are you going to tell that Butch Cassidy came to visit you?” he countered.

* * *

She wouldn’t have to tell. Mrs. Foster and Freddy Wisenhut would assume, and the word would be spread. Eunice Parker’s reputation in Fort Worth would go up one more notch.

Before Bill Phillips was even at the end of the block, Eunice Parker was brushing the gray powder out of her hair. She threw the glasses in a wastebasket.

Less than six months later Eunice Parker’s boardinghouse went up in flames late one evening. The boarders, including the talkative Mrs. Foster, escaped, but Eunice perished. Fire officials speculated that she had been smoking in bed and had fallen asleep, and gossips in town whispered that it was typical of “her kind” to be smoking in bed.

Pinkerton’s reported the death to Phillips, although he was no longer a client. It was, they said, a professional courtesy they extended. For the rest of his life—and it was neither long nor satisfactory—Phillips wondered about the identity of the woman he’d visited in Fort Worth. A nagging doubt bothered him—could she really have been Etta?