They walked in silence for the entire two blocks, a few passersby looking at them with idle curiosity, and entered the park from the north side. It was a mostly open space with well-kept grass and an occasional bench for visitors to sit on. At the western edge was a small group of fairly young Western White Pine trees and this is where Lester motioned Leo to go, something he complied with reluctantly. He did stop next to one of the benches, peeking back over his shoulder only to see his former partner give a small shake of his head. By this time Leo had determined he may have made an error in pursuing a confrontation with Lester, who seemed simply intent on fulfilling his apparent desire to get some payback. He pushed the boughs of the young pines aside as they entered the copse, not bothering to hold them for Lester who remained close behind him. Finally they were in the middle of the trees, well screened from view even if someone had passed very close to the two men. Leo turned around.
“Listen, I know you think you have a beef with me Rob, but I’m telling you that I never did anything against you.”
Lester grunted in reply, pulling the gun, a Remington Model 51, fully into view and pointing it at Leo.
“Come on, don’t shoot, ok? Listen for a minute,” Leo pleaded.
“That’d be about how long you’ve got rat, I’ll give you about a minute of mercy. Then I’m going to shoot you.”
“I read your letter, the one you sent to Minnesota for me. It wasn’t until just a little while ago really, when I ended up back there this spring, but I read it and I’m telling you that what you think about me just ain’t true.”
“Of course you’d be saying that now, now that I’ve got you at the point of this gun, but I know what happened.”
“You think I ratted on you?” Leo asked.
“I know you did,” Lester replied while looking Leo squarely in the eyes.
“I read it and headed out here directly. I needed to set the record straight with you. Why would I come looking for you like that if what you think I did is true? Why would I see you and then chase you down on the street?”
Lester did not reply immediately, a slightly confused look on his face which he then shook off. “I don’t know or give a damn why, but I’ve been waiting all this time to square up with you and it’s gonna happen right now. Your minute’s up.”
“I’m no damn rat!” Leo shouted back, “and I won’t go down with you thinking I am. I never told nothing on you, not in Hawaii, not in prison and not since. I even wrote you a letter from McNeil telling you I never talked but I’m guessing you never got that, did you?”
“I didn’t.” Lester replied tersely, the gun still pointed at Leo.
“Well, I’m telling you I wrote it, hell I thought you were a free man at the time, they never even told me you got pinched on that scam. I was rung up so fast in Hawaii and shipped off to the rock, I never knew. I swear though Rob, I never said a damn word about you or our business. Now shoot me if you must but at least tell me you know I ain’t no rat.”
Lester continued to hold the gun on Leo but removed his finger from the trigger, tapping it instead on the slide of the gun as he continued to look at his former partner. There was still steel in his eyes but it was softening a little, and then he slowly lowered the weapon.
“I’ve been angry at you for a long time Leo, a long damn time. When they arrested me back then they told me you had given up the scheme, told it all. They had details too, ones I thought would’a had to have come from you. They knew so much I just plead guilty. But I guess maybe they just did a good investigation. I really held it against you though, figured you for a rat.”
“I’m telling you I’m no rat,” Leo replied sharply, “and you better tell me you know it.”
“You still ain’t in no position to be demanding things even if I do believe you,” Lester replied as he gave the lowered gun a small shake to illustrate he still had it ready for action.
“I think you see it now, the truth of it, and I need to hear you know I’m not a rat.” Leo’s voice was earnest and strong, pleading and demanding at the same time. “I know you’ve thought it for a long time but I won’t take that disrespect when it ain’t warranted. Like I said, shoot me if that’s still what you’re after, but say it first.”
Lester looked back thoughtfully, seeing the anxious desire to be validated in Leo’s eyes, the absolute need to have his reputation cleared even if he died afterward. He let it linger there for a few extra moments, just to make a point that he could not really explain, and then a slight smile crossed his face and he holstered the gun.
“Hell Leo, I know now that you ain’t no rat. You’re square with me. I hope that makes you feel better.”
“I does, it certainly does,” Leo replied as he wiped his forehead with a handkerchief. “What are you doing out here in Bakersfield anyway?”
“Escaping from Portland,” Lester replied with a wide grin before continuing, “I’m parched old friend, let’s go find one of those wonderful speakeasy’s they have around here and we’ll get caught up.”
They walked over to the National Bar, a soft drink stand run by a often arrested man named Albert Martin, and enjoyed several illegal libations over the course of the next two hours. There was still a little lingering tension between them but the conversation went well up until Leo gave a very vague overview of the scheme he was running with the Clockmaker. He had not intended to say anything at all about it but Lester had been pressing him hard and eventually it slipped out somewhere in-between the liquor and an old sense of camaraderie. He left out the name of his partner and their store but did tell how they were making the fake pieces of jewelry. Lester made his disapproval of that scheme apparent, telling Leo it was a sure way to get caught because someone would figure it out, probably sooner rather than later, and they would know exactly where they had gotten the fake item. Once one person made a fuss, another would and soon the police would be down upon Leo and there would not be much of a defense to offer. That comment sparked the nagging nervous feeling Leo already had considering what had happened at the store with the police and the other recent complications; however, he kept his cool and told Lester that the scheme was running fine and would continue to do so as long as no one ratted anyone out. He said that just to make sure Lester got the picture about keeping his mouth closed, kind of a way to shut the barn door after leaking out information he never intended to disclose anyway. Lester nodded in reply but kept pressing him, telling Leo to give up that business and get back into a scheme that the two of them could run together. They argued back and forth for awhile and eventually Leo said that although he was going to keep the jewelry business he would do some side jobs with Lester. That seemed to make the man happy and the two of them parted with a promise to meet back up in a few days.
…to be continued