Stray cat saves man from fire at infamous site

  In the same spot where a shootout involving the infamous “Bonnie and Clyde” gang left a sheriff’s deputy dead and the sheriff severely wounded eight decades ago, a stray cat has made history again — this time saving a life. The cat visited the bar-turned-fruit-and-vegetable-stand for a year and woke its 85-year-old clerk when a massive fire broke out, ultimately burning the stand to the ground.

By MICHAEL OVERALL World Staff WriterPublished: 7/5/2012  2:17 AM Last Modified: 7/5/2012  7:35 AM

STRINGTOWN, OK –  Parked at a juke joint south of town, Clyde Barrow was sitting in a stolen car with a couple of other guys from the notorious “Bonnie and Clyde” gang.
The music spilled outside and the crowd came with it, trying to catch a breeze in the Dust Bowl heat, still sweltering after dusk.

Sheriff Charles Maxwell didn’t know it was Barrow, at least not at first. But he went over to the car anyway.
Some say he thought the group looked suspicious.
Others insist that he just wanted to tell the guys to put their moonshine away, since Prohibition was still in effect.
Either way, the conversation didn’t go well.
On the west side of U.S. 69 about two hours south of Tulsa, a stone marker commemorates “The Stringtown Shootout” of Aug. 5, 1932.
By most accounts, it really wasn’t much of a shootout.
The sheriff noticed a gun in the car and then recognized Barrow.
“You can consider yourselves under arrest,” witnesses heard him say just before he fell to the ground with seven gunshot wounds.
Maxwell somehow survived. But his deputy, Eugene Moore, took a fatal bullet to the head before he could fire a single shot.
Barrow and his gang got away. And that’s about all the excitement that ever came to this little town.
Until now.
Maybe Stringtown needs a second historical marker in this very same spot  –  to remember a disaster that was averted and the unlikely hero who saved a man’s life.

Night watchman

A doctor had told 85-year-old Leland Duff that he shouldn’t live alone anymore, so he moved to South Dakota to stay with his son.
“It was unbelievably cold,” he says. “And I didn’t have anything to do up there but sit around all day.”
A couple of friends offered to drive 1,600 miles round-trip to bring him back to Oklahoma last year. But Duff doesn’t take charity.
He would come but only if he could repay them by working at their family fruit stand.
The place didn’t have a name. The sign just said “Tomatoes and Peaches.” But locals knew it was the famous old saloon.
Instead of contraband whiskey, Phyllis McPherson kept watermelons behind the bar. Where a jazz band used to play, she piled up cartons of squash and cucumbers.
“It wasn’t a very big place,” McPherson explains. “Back then, a tavern didn’t have to be. But it was big enough for us.”
Duff slept in a back room, partly because he didn’t have anywhere else to go. But the fruit stand also needed a night watchman.
“People around here have a habit of picking things up and walking off,” Duff says, “especially when nobody else is looking.”
About a year ago, a stray cat started coming around, and Duff would leave food out for her.
She found a place to squeeze through a crack in the walls, coming and going as she pleased. But she never bothered Duff, until one night in early April.
“About 4 a.m.,” he remembers, “she jumps up on my bed and lets out a big ‘meow.’ I thought, ‘What’s wrong with this cat?’ ”
Half asleep, he smelled smoke and decided to get up.
“I walked outside and didn’t see nothing,” Duff says. “Then I turn around and, whoa! The whole top of the building is on fire.”

Feline family

A rectangle of scorched dirt is all that’s left of the place.
But Duff and McPherson have reopened outdoors with a couple of lawn chairs and some netting for shade.
He lost all of his family photos and his clothes.
“But I have nothing to complain about,” Duff says. “If it hadn’t been for that cat, I would’ve burned up in there myself.”
They hope to rebuild, but without insurance, it could take a while to find the money.
Duff keeps the stand open seven days a week, sun-up to sundown.
But business stays pretty slow until the weekends, when drivers stop on the way back and forth between Dallas and Tulsa.
After the fire, the cat disappeared, and Duff figured she must have died.
Then, four days later, she showed up again with two  kittens.
They live with Duff in a borrowed camper, no bigger than the bed of a pickup, parked about where Barrow and his gang must have been sitting all those years ago.
“I keep the little ones safe inside, but the momma cat can run around all she wants,” Duff says.
“She’s under my feet most of the time, except when she goes off hunting. Ever since the fire, she hardly never leaves my side.”
Like the fruit stand, the cat still doesn’t have a name.
People have made a few suggestions  –  probably the best one being “Peaches,” considering the color of her fur and the stand’s most popular item.
But Duff doesn’t see the point.
“I just yell ‘Hey, kitty!’ and she comes running,” he says. “She’s just like a dog that way.”

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