That summer, especially, it was a really good thing that Tommy Watkins had his golden puppy, Wiggles, because he was having such a hard time getting along with anybody else. He had never known his father. His mother, Alicia, was on disability because of a repetitive stress injury. During the day she enlisted pain killers and took in the soaps. At night she favored rum & Cokes and usually after a couple drinks she’d make and take phone calls in the next room.
Alicia often didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Nor did she realize, on account of her drinking, that Tommy could hear the difference through the thin bedroom wall, and that her cries of despair drove him under the covers with anxiety. He would pull Wiggles into the little bedding tent and say things to comfort Wiggles that he imagined were the things one would like to hear at times like these. But the puppy just wanted to play.
From all of this, Tommy decided that little Callista Turner was right. The bad things on the block would go away if there were a better marshal on the beat. Callista hadn’t exactly put it that way, but this is what the mind of a five and a half year-old cowboy could make of it. And it only seemed right, that after telling Wiggles how important it was to grow up and be a brave dog, that he would have to be a brave boy.
Inexorably, he talked himself into it. He rose early on a Thursday in mid-August, again put on his leather vest, and marshal’s badge, and tied his chaps over his jeans. He counted the last thirteen cheerios out of the box, floated them in a small puddle of milk in his “Popeye” bowl, and then drank it all down in one gulp.
Wiggles was a real puppy. But “Commander,” his pony, was merely a stuffed facsimile of a mustang’s head on a wooden stick. So as to gain the advantage of stealth, Tommy rode Commander toward the willow, through a thicket he imagined could be sage and pinion and chaparral and juniper, but which was really just a patch of unweeded tumblemustard and prickly lettuce. Satisfied that he’d reached the tree without being noticed, he pulled the rope swing to his position and waited.
As fate would have it, tiny Callista and Cindy were now headed in his direction, being playfully taunted by the Martinez brothers. Distracted by Angelo, Cindy had taken her eyes off his little brother, Vicenté, who deftly snatched her red beret. Vicente darted away but then stopped to entice Cindy to run after him. When she moved in his direction, he tossed the hat, like a frisbee, toward Angelo, who ran under it like a center fielder.
In a flash, Tommy released himself from his perch in the willow, riding Commander through the air and wailing has fiercely as he could. He struck Angelo in the shoulder blade, which had the result of knocking Angelo to the ground but also of sending Tommy and Commander crashing into a hedge of mahonia.
“Ay!” Angelo yelled. “What was that!”
“It was little dude, man!” Vicenté informed him with an incredulous look and a riff of laughter. “Attacked you out of the sun, on his flying toy horse.”
Cindy had the presence of mind to collect her beret, while Callista yelled for Tommy, thinking that he’d perished in the mahonia.
“You okay little dude?” Vicenté asked, directing his question into the bush.
“You’re under arrest!” Tommy barked back, holding his plastic and metal six-shooter aloft. “Both of you!”