General Fiction posted October 8, 2019

This work has reached the exceptional level
Country store - back in the day

The Scuzzy Stranger

by Gail Denham

Hero Contest Winner 
He looked so scuzzy as he shuffled into the store. Actual scared me jes' a bit. Felt I oughta' keep my distance. I scurried back behind the counter.

"Whatcha' have mister?" I asked, trying hard to put on a welcome look.

He didn't answer. Maybe his words wouldn't get past that enormous moustache, or through what looked like two years worth of grey-white beard. Faded red suspenders held up his baggy pants. They sure needed somthin' to hitch 'em up.

Finally the old man selected and plunked down a couple cans. "Need coffee," he said, "and a pound of yer best fatback. Somethin' with a streak of meat in it."

Then I got a whiff. Whew. The old guy hadn't been near a creek of late, that's for sure. Wish Pa would get back here. He'd went to fetch the mail. Prob'ly stopped off for a chin wag with the regulars at Mae's Boarding House.

The old man moved closer to the counter, sorta' leaned on it. He looked peaky.

"You ok, mister," I ventured.

"Never you mind missy. Say, ain't you Francine? Little Francie? I seen you when you wuz' so high."

Now I was worried. He knew my name. Pa done told me "Never get into conversation much with customers or strangers." And this one shore looked strange.

Just then the store front door bell rang. Here come Miz Wilson, toting a crate of eggs.

"Thought you'd be ready fer some fresh hen fruit," she said. Then she stopped cold. She stared hard at the figure placing his order.

"Francine," she says. "Where's your pa?" Somethin' in her voice sent shivers up behind my neck.

"He's...he's out back," I stammered. Mrs. Wilson sidled over to the end of the counter.

"You best fetch him. I'm here with the eggs."

"I can handle it," I said, kinda' sharp.

"s'ok, Francie. I need to see your Pa."

The old gent turned and watched Miz Wilson set down the egg box. "Ain't you Lula Faye Bounders?" he rasped.

"No. I'm Miz Wilson, old-timer." Her voice was guarded and low. "Francie, hurry on," she said. "Go out back and fetch yer Pa."

What wuz wrong here? Miz Wilson wuz lookin' plenty worried. Oh I wish Pa would hurry on over.

By now, Miz Wilson was close on beside me. The customer set down a sack of grits. Sorta' looked as if his lips curled in a sneer.

Miz Wilson turned her back and whispered. "This un's no good, Francie. He been in prison. I know, cuz 'twas my Pa's cattle he stole. I was only twelve back then, but I saw it all. And he could be worsn' that."

My knees were shakin' till I had to lean as well.

'How 'bout that fatback, missy. And don't cheat me on the pound of coffee. I gotta' get goin'." He slapped the counter. "I'll come back tomorrow to see yer Pa. Tally up my grub."

That'll be four dollars and sixty-five cents, mister," I said. My voice had a tremble to it.

"When Pa finally sauntered in, the fellow had loaded his pack and gone, making our bell clang extra loud, seemed to me. He paid up all right, but I still felt scared. He'd be back.

"What's the problem, Pa asked. Miz Wilson was still standing next to me, had ahold of my arm.

"Oh Pa. Where you been? This outlaw done come in fer supplies and..."

"It was Hank Crane who come in, bold as brass." Miz Wilson cut in. "He snarled at me, he did. Wanted to know wuz I Lulu Faye Bounders. Course I set him straight. Oh dear. Now I guess me and the mister better keep our gun loaded."

Pa patted Miz Wilson on the back. "Don't you worry, Lulu Faye. Reckon he don't carry no grudges. He was let go early since they discovered the real rustler wuz his cousin, George. They sorta' look similar somehow. Hank's been livin' rough for some weeks, tryin' to get back here.

"Anyhow. Hank wrote me last week. Wants to know 'iffen I'd help him get a job. Thought I'd put him to work in the store maybe, least for awhile.

"But Pa, he was so rude."

"Yup, I reckon being in prison will do that to a fella'. We'll knock off them rough edges, should he be around us. Still, I think he'll work out. Sides, turns out he's some'ut of a hero. Fact is he saved the life of another inmate, with some kinda' homegrown procedure, when the prison doctor had give up. He's gonna' be studyin' to get into the medical line of work. That's his goal."

"Pa, I was sure scared this time. I hope you know what yer doin'."

"Don't you worry missy. And this way, you can get in more school hours." Pa hugged me to his denim shirt. "You've been a big help girl, but..."

"Never you mind, Pa. I'll be right happy to get out from behind this counter. Never know who's gonna' come through that door. Course 'iffen you take that fella' on, he's gonna' need a whole lot of washin' down to be servin' our customers."

About that time Miz Wilson stomped out of the store, makin' the bell clang right proper. Oh boy, Pa's goin' have some back talk takin' on that Hank fella'. But didn't we learn in church school that we should be willin' to help others? And my Pa wuz one of them that always took that serious. I went off to store them eggs.

Contest Winner


I can just see those old stores - and I read a lot about how they work. Twas fun to write about it. Thanks to Cammy Cards for the picture which fit.
Pays one point and 2 member cents.

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