Friday, January 23, 2009

Harper Creek Part I

Part I

Bessie Cowan lived in a small farming town in the Texas panhandle. The town was called Harper Creek but there was no creek in sight. There was a creek about 17 miles west of town and, according to local historians, that was the site of the original township. When the state put in the highway back in 1903 the town was moved next to the highway with the hopes of becoming a thriving city. That never happened. The population of Harper Creek was 437 and everybody knew everybody whether they wanted to or not.

Bessie was a stout farm wife and mother of 9 grown children. Her husband Bill was a cotton farmer and handyman. They grew a nice garden and had a small peach orchard along with a few cows and some chickens. Bessie made a little “mad money” by selling eggs in town and some of the peaches and vegetables to one of the produce stands along the highway. Because he could build, fix and paint just about anything, Bill often hired out his services in town and in a few of the other little towns nearby. Now that Bessie and Bill's children had all grown and moved out of the house they lived a comfortable life on their little farm.

Only 2 of their children still lived near the little town of Harper Creek. Darla lived on a farm with her husband and 3 children about 5 miles out of town and Wanda lived in town with her 4 children. Wanda was a disappointment to Bessie but she never told that to anyone. Wanda had married right after she finished high school. She married the first guy that came along. He was an Air Force man who was stationed in Clovis, NM when they met. Wanda's senior class had gone to Clovis on a field trip to visit the Air Force base and they met in the commissary. Bessie tried her darnedest to talk Wanda out of marrying that man. She knew Wanda just wanted to get out of Harper Creek and thought that Air Force man would show her the world. They were married 5 years and they never got out of Clovis. Well, he got out alright. He took off with another woman and went AWOL when Wanda was pregnant with his 4th child. Wanda divorced that lowlife and moved back to Harper Creek to have her baby and raise her children. She got a job waiting tables at Nan's Highway Cafe.

Bessie and Wanda didn't have a great relationship. Wanda worked long hours and she kept a clean house but she spent a lot of Saturday nights at a bar over in Willis County. Harper Creek was in Jackson County and Jackson County was dry. Bessie thought it wasn't fitting for a single mother to be out gallivanting around. She should be home with her children and if she wanted to find a husband she should be looking at church, not at a bar.

One Friday morning Bessie had just gathered the eggs from the chicken coop and was standing at the kitchen sink washing and drying them off and putting them in the egg cartons that her customers and friends dutifully saved for her. As she washed the eggs she sang "Muskrat Love" and wished she could get that song out of her head. She heard it on the radio earlier in the morning and she'd had it in her head ever since. Then she heard a knock at her front door. She laid the egg in the sink and dried her hands before she went to the door to see who was there. She cocked her head to one side and squinted her eyes as she approached the screen door to see who was standing there. Standing on the front porch was a man in a brown suit with his hands in his pockets and facing the yard. She called out, "Hello there" to get his attention.

The man quickly turned around and smiled big as he said, "Hello ma'am. I'm Henry Johnson and I'm from the Garden of Eden Bible Company in Kansas City. I would like to show you a family bible that I think you'll be very interested in." As he said this he reached down and picked up a briefcase.
"Well, Mr. Johnson I already have a bible so..."
"But do you have a bible like this?" Mr. Johnson swung the brief case up to rest on one hand and quickly opened the two latches and lifted the lid. Bessie was impressed by his smooth action but didn't want to let on. Mr. Johnson was a handsome man who looked to be in his mid to late thirties. His suit was neatly pressed and his hair was neatly trimmed and parted to one side. Bessie looked at his finger nails and saw that they were neatly trimmed and clean. Mr. Johnson was holding the case with his left hand and Bessie wondered if there was a ring on his middle finger. There was something about this man that she liked. She thought to herself, "Now why can't Wanda find a man like this?"
She hadn't had a chance to look at the bible before Mr. Johnson asked,"May I take a few minutes of your time to show you all the features in this beautiful book of the Lord's word?"
"Well, I suppose it wouldn't hurt to look." Bessie unlatched the hook on the screen door to open it and motioned Mr. Johnson inside. She pointed to the sofa and told him to have a seat.
"Would you like a glass of iced tea or some water Mr. Johnson?"
"No thank you ma'am and please, call me Henry."
Bessie moved her crochet work out of her chair and put it on the end table and sat down.

Henry had taken the bible out of the briefcase and was holding it out to Bessie.
She took the thick bible and noticed the cover had a beautiful picture of Jesus with a slight smile and sparkling eyes that seemed to be looking right at her. The rest of the bible was padded and covered with a burgundy material that felt like leather. It was heavy and much larger than the bible she carried to church. Henry reached over and opened the cover to the first page.
She noticed that Henry didn't have a ring on his wedding finger and smiled. Henry took the smile to mean that she was impressed with the bible so far.
There was an inscription on the page that read, "Johnson Family Bible." Henry pointed to the inscription and said, "We'll inscribe your bible with your family name at no extra cost to you. May I ask your family name ma'am?"
"Why, I'm sorry Henry. It's Cowan, I'm Bessie Cowan."

He contiued to show her other pages where Bessie could record births, deaths and marriages. Then he pointed out the bolder, easy to read print and that Jesus' words were printed in red in the New Testament. He showed her the index and maps of the old world in the back and the color pictures throughout the bible depicting scenes as they were described in the bible.
Bessie liked the bible and had always wanted a nice family bible to set on her coffee table. She didn't really like the burgundy and asked Henry if that was the only color available. He opened his brief case and pulled out a card that had 6 blocks of different colors on it. He handed her the card and told her she could choose any of those colors at no extra charge.
Bessie was sold. Not so much on the bible but she was devising a plan and she had to think quick.
"How much is the bible Mr. Johnson, er Henry?" Bessie was practically beaming.
"This one-of-a-kind bible can be yours to pass along to future generations for years to come for $75." Henry studied Bessie's face as he said this and noticed a frown forming.
"I know that's a lot of money ma'am but it's not just a bible, it's a family heirloom. Not only would it look beautiful sitting right there on your coffee table for everyone to enjoy but it would also hold your family's memories for years to come. This is something that your grandchildren's grandchildren will cherish one day."

The frown was still on Bessie's face but Henry saw a glimmer in her eyes and knew it was time for the hook.
"I'll tell you what Mrs. Cowan, without the inscription I could knock $10 off the price and you can pay it in 3 monthly installments."
Bessie got an idea and asked, "Can you give me some time to think about it and let me talk to my husband?"
Henry shook his head from side to side and said, "Well, ma'am I'm just passing through town and have a couple of other stops but I have to be moving on."
Bessie knew that Wanda was working at the cafe until 7 o'clock that evening so she said, "Oh dear, I guess I'll have to pass then. I just couldn't spend that kind of money without talking to my husband." Now it was time for Bessie's hook, "It's a beautiful bible and I would love to have it but I guess it just wasn't meant to be."
"Well, now Mrs. Cowan I'll tell you what. I'll be coming back through town next Wednesday. Do you think I could stop by and get your answer then?"
Henry's disappointment was obvious but Bessie was very pleased with herself and she beamed, "Why yes! That would be just fine." They both stood up at the same time and Henry gently shook Bessie's hand and promised to see her the following week as he walked out the front door. Bessie stood at the door and watched him get in his car and drive down the road. Now, she just had to figure out how she would get Wanda to come over next Monday.

Harper Creek Part II

Part II
Bessie watched the dust cloud behind Henry Johnson's car as it rolled down the dirt road to the highway and then she picked up her crochet work and sat down to plan her strategy. Meanwhile, her daughter Wanda was busy at Nan's Highway Cafe getting ready for the lunch rush. The little cafe filled up with local farmers and other townspeople who worked on Main Street. Wanda's best friend Faye Watson waited tables with her. They had grown up together, graduated high school together and both got married and left town the first chance they got.
Faye's marriage lasted only 3 years and she moved back to Harper Creek a single woman with 3 kids to raise.

The 2 best friends were practically inseparable. They lived on the same street just 2 houses apart and their kids all played and fought together like brothers and sisters. Wanda and Faye each had a teenage daughter so they didn't have to worry about babysitters when they went out on Saturday nights. They were like sisters who shared clothes and giggled about silly things. They commiserated with each other about men, money, and their meddling mothers.

Wanda lackadaisically filled the ketchup and mustard bottles while Faye rolled silverware in the white paper napkins. Faye's oldest daughter Tabitha was starting to date and Faye was none too happy about it. Tabitha's dates were beginning to conflict with Faye's Saturday nights out. That left the babysitting to Wanda's daughter Cathy. Both knew that Cathy would be dating soon too and that would create a real problem for Wanda's and Faye's social life. They might just have to hire a babysitter.

Henry Johnson made one more sales call before lunch. Lou Ann Stewart turned out to be an easy sell. Lou Ann seemed a little too happy to welcome Henry into her house and he was sure he smelled bourbon on her breath. She was a rather large woman who Henry guessed to be in her mid to late 50s and she sat a little too close to him on the sofa while he showed her all the features of the family bible. She marveled at every little thing he said and oohed and awed as he turned each page. As he tried to close the sale, she asked question after question while looking dreamily into Henry's eyes. It took her 15 minutes just to decide on a color and she finally chose burgundy. She didn't flinch at the $75 price but it took her another 15 minutes to find her checkbook and write the check. Lou Ann seemed disappointed to learn that Henry wouldn't personally deliver her new bible. He finally left Lou Ann's house feeling sorry for her husband but glad he would never see her again. It was half past noon and Henry was hungry so he pulled into Nan's Highway Cafe for lunch. He had to park on a dirt lot next to the cafe and right next to an abandoned service station. He guessed everybody in town was at the cafe for lunch. He knew his good looks and being a stranger in town would get a lot of attention inside. If he played his cards right, subtly flirting with the ladies would increase his afternoon sales in Harper Creek.

Just as he thought, everyone stared when he walked in the door and waited to be seated. He was used to the stares. He had started selling bibles last spring and was used to being a stranger after traveling from town to town over the past year. Finally Faye walked past with both arms full of plates and told him to seat himself. Faye noticed the handsome man and hoped he would sit on her side of the restaurant but she was too busy to pay him much attention. He sat down at a booth on Wanda's side of the restaurant and Wanda took him a menu and got his drink order. Wanda noticed that the man was rather handsome but didn't pay him much more attention after his food arrived and he was eating. The highway brought plenty of strangers into the little cafe and Wanda didn't really like clean cut men. She liked them a little rough around the edges. Faye teased her a lot, telling her that if she didn't have 4 kids she would probably be riding down the road on the back of a Harley or in a semi with some big hairy man with tattoos. Wanda just laughed and told Faye she was crazy but Wanda thought to herself that Faye might just be right. She would never know anyway, she figured she would always be a single mother with 4 kids in Harper Creek.

The lunch rush started to slow as people finished their food and went back to work. Henry managed to talk to a few ladies and none seemed very interested in what he had to sell but they seemed to like talking to him. One lady had to go back to work but told Henry he should see her mother and she gave him directions to her mother's house. Henry was happy to take the referral. If he could get another $75 bible order in Harper Creek he could cash the checks at the Harper Creek State Bank and have a nice dinner in the next town where he would spend the weekend and start all over again on Monday. He waited at the front counter to pay his bill and Faye hurried over. Now that all of her tables were taken care of, she had a few minutes to flirt with the handsome stranger.

Faye was rather bold when it came to men and she had no problem striking up a conversation with the handsome ones. She was a pretty lady and had kept a nice figure. She kept Henry talking and learned that he was a bible salesman. She thought that was funny, but she kept that to herself. During their conversation she managed to get a date with Henry and he left after she wrote down her phone number and directions to her house for that very evening. Wanda saw what was going on and laughed at Faye after Henry walked out the door.
“Girl, you sure work fast. At that rate you'll be married by the end of next week.”
“Honey, we may do plenty by the end of next week but I'll be damned if I marry a bible salesman.”
They both laughed out loud as they bussed the empty tables and refilled tea glasses.

Henry whistled as he drove down Main Street looking for his turn just past the First Baptist Church. There were no street signs in Harper Creek and Main Street was the only paved street in town except for the highway. It had been a while since he'd had a date and he knew he really needed to make another sale now that he would have to pay for 2 dinners that evening. He slowed the car as he came to the 4th house on the left after the right turn at the church. It was a green stucco house just as Faye had described and he looked in the mirror to check his hair and straighten his tie. After combing his hair he grabbed his briefcase and got out of the car. Faye's mother, Wilma, was a very nice lady with very bright red hair that was neatly curled and backcombed high atop her head. Henry actually enjoyed talking with her and she was another easy sale. He left with a $75 check and Wilma gave him a few more prospects so he set off hoping to make a couple more sales before 4 PM. He had learned that women were usually an easier sell if they were alone so he made it a point to end his business day at 4PM just to avoid husbands.

Faye rushed home after work to shower and get ready for her date that evening. She argued with Tabitha about babysitting that night. Tabitha had a date and was furious that Faye wanted her to change her plans so she could go on a date. Faye finally called Wanda and convinced her to babysit for the evening. Wanda didn't have any plans anyway so she didn't mind. Bessie had left a message for her and the kids to come over for a fried chicken dinner that evening but she had decided not to go. She could tell by the tone of Bessie's voice on the answering machine that she was up to something and Wanda just wasn't in the mood to deal with her mother that night. Wanda dialed Bessie's number to tell her she wouldn't come to dinner. She was happy to have the babysitting excuse to get out of going. Bessie was constantly nagging Wanda about going to church on Sunday instead of "gallivanting all over the countryside" on Saturday.
Bessie had rung the neck of one of her older hens and was boiling water to dunk the chicken in before she plucked its feathers when the phone rang.
"Hello, Mom. I got your message but I'm babysitting tonight so we can't come to dinner."
"Well, who are you babysitting for dear?" Bessie was really irritated but tried not to show it.
"Faye has a date tonight and Tabitha and Cathy are both going to the basketball game so I'm babysitting."
Bessie prided herself on being a quick thinker, "Well you can just bring those kids with you. We have plenty of food and I've already killed a chicken. Your father and I really want to spend the evening with you. We just don't see you and our grand kids very much you know."
Faye knew she was beat and reluctantly agreed to dinner before they said goodbye and hung up the phone. "Oh well," she muttered "at least I don't have to cook tonight."

The dinner was good and the kids played and talked while their grandpa teased and joked with them. Bessie decided to make small talk before she launched her plan to get Wanda to take off work next Wednesday.
"Well, I noticed that Otis Hooper's truck was over at Faye's house last Tuesday while I was delivering eggs. Is that who she's out with tonight?"
Wanda laughed out loud, "Are you kidding Mom? Otis Hooper is an old drunk. Faye wouldn't go out with him."
"Well, I did see his truck in front of her house so I just thought..."she trailed off not knowing what else to say.
"Faye met a cute bible salesman at the cafe today and he asked her out."
Bessie's eyes were as big as saucers and she put her hand over her mouth to keep from cussing.
"What's wrong?" Wanda asked.
"Oh nothing. Just nothing." Bessie cleared her throat before she got up and started picking up plates. Bill wasn't through with his but she took it anyway while he was distracted with the kids.
"Well, what's gotten into you mother?" Wanda stood up to help with the dishes. She took her father's plate from Bessie's hands and sat it back down in front of her father. He never knew it was gone. Bessie and Wanda washed the dishes in silence while Bill and the kids finished and then they washed those dishes too. Bessie's plan was foiled before it even got off the ground. Wanda noticed her mother's demeanor had changed but didn't pry any further. It was probably a can of worms that didn't need to be opened.

The next day at work Faye was in an especially good mood. She gushed and went on and on about Henry to the point of annoying Wanda. She didn't say anything because she didn't want to spoil Faye's mood, but she got tired of hearing about Henry Johnson all day long. The days turned into weeks and Faye and Henry had seen each other almost every night since they first met. It was truly a whirlwind romance and Wanda was a little jealous. She wasn't jealous because Faye had a boyfriend; she was jealous because Faye was spending less time with her. She felt a little guilty when she thought to herself that she would be glad when the relationship ended and Henry Johnson moved on. She wanted her best friend back.

One morning she got to work and Faye was already there. She was sitting at a booth with Nan and they looked to be having a serious talk. Wanda wandered over not knowing if she would be prying or if she was missing a rare and impromptu employee meeting. Nan looked up at Wanda and forced a smile and Faye bit her lip and finally looked at Wanda too.
“Henry asked me to marry him!” Faye didn't realize she shouted this and the cook poked his head out of the kitchen door. Nan motioned for him to get back in the kitchen.
Wanda was dumbfounded, “Faye, you barely met the guy.”
“Oh, I know what you're thinking and Nan has been trying to talk me out of it too but it won't do any good. I've said yes. I'm moving to Kansas City.” Faye stood up and hugged Wanda.
“Oh, Wanda. I'm going to miss you, but you and the kids can come visit and we'll come back here to visit too. He's wonderful. He loves the kids and treats me like a queen. I love him!”
Wanda was too stunned to hug Faye back and she looked helplessly at Nan who just threw her hands in the air and went into the kitchen.
Faye had agreed to work the rest of the week and her and Henry had arranged to be married by the Justice of the Peace on Saturday. Henry was taking Faye to Florida for their honeymoon and then they would come back to get the kids and move to Kansas City. Wanda eventually accepted the fact that her best friend was moving away and she would be stuck in Harper Creek by herself with her 4 kids. She did a good job of hiding her disappointment and even threw Faye a baby shower on Friday before they married on Saturday. Only 7 people showed up for the shower but Faye and Wanda both knew it was because of the short notice.

Henry went back to Bessie's house as promised to get her decision on the bible. Bessie was over the shock of the wedding news by then and was polite to Henry, but she didn't buy the bible. That was just too much money for a bible, even a fancy one like that. Henry was disappointed when he left because he sure could have used that money.

Henry and Faye got married on Saturday as planned and Faye's mother had a small reception at her house. Bessie and Wanda and the kids all went and had cake and wished the happy couple well. Bessie really wished it was Wanda who was marrying the handsome bible salesman. She wondered if Wanda would ever find another man. Not many men would take a woman with 4 kids and Wanda didn't seem to care anyway. After the reception Faye and Henry left for their honeymoon and Wanda and Bessie went home to their humdrum lives.

Sunday morning Bessie woke up late. She got up and went to the kitchen and poured a cup of coffee. She noticed that Bill had made himself breakfast. She looked out the back window and saw him in the garden hoeing and she smiled and wished that Wanda could find a good man too. She scrambled some eggs and toasted a piece of bread and sat down to read the newspaper. As she scanned the front page, an article near the bottom caught her eye. As she read the article her mouth fell open and she repeated, “Oh my, oh my, oh my....”
After finishing the article she jumped up and hurried to the phone with the newspaper. She looked at the article again and dialed the number.

Murderer May Be Stalking Texas Panhandle
Law enforcement officials are warning panhandle residents to be on the lookout for a dangerous criminal. On Saturday, Sheriff Joe Barton received a fax from law enforcement officials in Kansas City warning that a murder suspect may be in the area.
According to Kansas officials, the man has brown hair, blue eyes and is about 6 feet tall. He uses the alias Henry Johnson, Harry Jackson, and Hank Henry. He has been known to dupe unsuspecting housewives out of money by selling bibles. He goes door-to-door taking orders for family bibles and charging $50 to $75 dollars and promising the bibles will arrive in the mail within a few weeks. The bibles never arrive and the checks are cashed at local banks the day he receives them.
This same man fits the description of a man suspected in a string of murders in the Kansas City area last spring. He has also married at least 3 unsuspecting women in the Kansas City area and all 3 women are now missing.
Sheriff Joe Barton warned that the man is probably armed and dangerous and should not be approached. If you have any information or have been a victim of the bible scam please call the sheriff's office at 555-2254.

Monday, January 5, 2009


Sophie looked out the window and watched the birds flit around in the yard. She scratched at the ice that had formed on the inside of the window and was glad to be inside a warm house. Still, she longed to feel the wind and to feel the grass scrunching under her shoes. It had been at least 3 years since she had been outside. She shook her head as if to shake away the memories of that day. Those memories have made her a prisoner in her own home.

She stood up and pulled the shades together. Determined to clear her mind of those horrible memories, she went about her daily chores. She dusted the living room furniture and moved on to the bedroom of her small home. The shades in the bedroom window were open and she moved quickly, looking away from the window, to close them. She dusted the bedroom furniture slowly and daydreamed that she was laying on a warm sandy beach listening to the waves crash nearby and the seagulls squawking above. She felt something move behind her and quickly spun around to find nothing there. After she dusted the old armoire she went into the bathroom to dust and tidy up the sink. She stood still in front of the frosted window and let the warm sun bathe her pale skin. Sometimes she stood in that spot for almost an hour until the sun moved and the warm beam disappeared. She felt something brush against the back of her leg and she turned to see a shadow moving quickly across the floor of the hallway.

After she finished her work in the bathroom she returned to the living room to get the vacuum out of the closet. She noticed the open shades in the living room window and, without looking out the window, she closed the shades again. As she turned toward the closet where she kept the vacuum cleaner she saw the menacing green eyes staring at her. She stared back for a few seconds and hurriedly took the vacuum cleaner from the closet and plugged it into the outlet. She vacuumed the rug in the living room and unplugged the cleaner. As she took it into the bedroom she knew the shades would be opened and she would close them again before she vacuumed the room.

That was her routine every day. She ate very little and cleaned the kitchen after every meal. The window in front of the sink was covered in aluminum foil so the kitchen was always dark without the light on. That made it a dreary room but without the foil she would be closing the shades every time she turned around. As she stood in front of the sink she would often wonder if the bird feeder still hung outside the kitchen window. She used to fill the feeder every couple of days and she watched the birds gather and eat the seeds. But now she wouldn't dare go outside to fill the feeder or for anything else. Not after what happened the last time she went outside.

It was a beautiful summer morning and Sophie had gone outside to fill the bird feeder and add fresh water to the birdbath. There were several cats that roamed the neighborhood and she always shooed them away when she saw them. She knew they were there to catch the birds that came to eat from her feeder and bathe in her birdbath. She never really cared for cats anyway but one cat caught her attention. He seemed to be more interested in her than in the birds. The cat was skinny and dirty looking. He had yellow fur and piercing green eyes in a head that seemed too big for his body. He followed her around the yard as if he was stalking her. She filled the feeder and went to turn on the hose to freshen the birdbath. Out of the corner of her eye she saw a black cat running towards the feeder and she picked up the water hose and ran toward the feeder. The cat had caught a finch by the time she reached it and was walking toward the street when Sophie swung the water hose at the cat and hit it in the head with the end of the hose. The bird fell out of the cat's mouth, fluttered about for a few seconds and flew away. The cat lay motinonless on the ground as blood oozed out of the cut in the top of its head. Sophie felt a shiver run down her spine and the hair on the back of her neck stood on end. She turned to run to the front porch and froze in her tracks. There were dozens of cats of all colors sitting on the porch. All staring at her with their ears pulled flat on their heads and their mouths slightly open. She moved towards them and waved her hands to shoo them away but they hissed back at her and sat motionless. Finally, one cat walked from the porch between Sophie and the other cats to the side of the house. Sophie watched him and he seemed to be coaxing her to follow. She reluctantly walked toward the yellow cat and he led her to the back of her house and to the back door. She realized he was saving her from the other angry cats and she moved to open the screen door. As she opened the door she felt the cat run between her legs and into her house.

Sophie tried to shoo the cat out of the house but he wouldn't budge. Finally she got a broom and swatted at the cat. He looked at her and again at the living room window. There were 8 cats sitting on the window ledge looking in at her. She opened the back door and propped the screen door open to try and shoo the yellow cat out the door. Just as she picked up the broom the yellow cat walked slowly to the back door. She thought she had won when she noticed dozens more cats sitting outside the door with their ears drawn back and their mouths slightly open. The yellow cat stared at her and she stared back and forth between the cats outside and the yellow cat inside. She put the broom down and carefully shut the back door. The yellow cat walked into the living room and jumped on the sofa. The cats in the window all jumped down and ran out of the yard. She looked out the window and the dead cat was laying on her porch in front of the door.

Sophie finished her vacuuming and sat down to make the grocery list. She would call the supermarket and have this weeks' groceries delivered to the back door. The first few times she placed the order the man on the other end of the phone wrote down her items as she called them out and when she said, "14 cans of albacore tuna" he would repeat it as a question. He didn't do that any more and he would end the call with "okay lady, we'll leave it on your back porch. Same credit card?"
After the groceries were delivered, with the yellow cat sitting by the back door, she would open it and quickly bring the groceries inside and shut the door. When she grabbed the groceries from the porch she could see the cats out of the corner of her eye. They all sat on the fence staring at her. She put the groceries up and went into the living room to close the shades again.


The stories posted on this blog (Peculiar Impartations) are orginal fiction written by Steve Hamilton.
They are copyrighted on the date they are published on this blog.

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