· Sheriff Fay F. Brown’s Badge: Wilkinson’s Watermelon·
(Part 1 of 2)
It’s Sunday night, August 21, 1927 in Hutchinson, Kansas. Cora and Fay Brown are having a conversation while Pal, their one-year-old German shepherd, is lying on the floor, dreaming.
Pal’s asleep. He’s no Rin-Tin-Tin, but he’s an intelligent and handsome German police dog. However, Pal can be fiercely protective of Cora, matron and cook of the Reno County Jail, and every prisoner knows it.
“The farmers can stop praying for rain now,” said Fay, sheriff, and husband to Cora. “Hutchinson may have avoided flooding, but the county roads and bridges, the Santa Fe tracks, and the farmer’s crops between here and Nickerson have suffered expensive damage.”
“I’m just glad the city didn’t get flooded,” said Cora. “The old timers still talk about 1876, when portions of the wooden sidewalks would break off, carrying people into the swift current as though they were cast out to sea.”
“As long as our deputies can get off to Lansing in the morning, I’m content,” said Fay. “Truman Reynolds and Ralph Fleeman will be shackled together for the entire trip. If Fleeman tries jumping out a train window, he’ll have to take Reynolds with him.”
“I thought you might want to make that trip,” said Cora, “but I’m glad you’re staying home. You travel enough.”
“I’ve added Deputy John Applegate for an extra set of eyes and another gun,” Fay responded.
“Those two men are troubled, but they didn’t murder anyone,” said Cora. “Unlike Sacco and Vanzetti, they’ll have an opportunity to turn their lives around. The two anarchists will most likely meet their maker tomorrow night.”
“It’s about time,” answered Fay. “I think their attorneys have run out of appeals. Seven years is too long for justice. The electric chair waits.”
Fay stood up, then yawned and stretched. As if on cue, the telephone rang. Cora knew he wasn’t going to bed early, as planned.
Answering the phone, Fay said, “Sheriff Fay F. Brown, may I help you?”
“Two boys got caught raiding a watermelon patch east of town,” said Fay to Cora. “Leonard Wilkinson of Lake Bedell Road, said he’s in his house and he’s got ‘Betsy’, his shotgun, trained on the young thieves. Says the boys have been no trouble so far but that his trigger-finger is getting itchy. You heard what I told him, ‘Lower your gun. I’m on my way.’”
Old Man Wilkinson was a strange bird. Some people claimed he was demented. Wilkinson enjoyed catching watermelon thieves more than rabbit hunting. These latest boys were easy pickens thanks to Nell, his hunting dog. Rather than bark, sit, or point, she was trained to find Wilkinson when anyone was trespassing.
The boys thought they were real gangsters, wearing dark clothing and parking their car off the road behind a clump of red cedars. They imagined getting away with one of Old Man Wilkinson’s prized watermelons, the one’s he grew for Hutchinson’s State Fair. The official opening day was in less than a month.
Sheriff Brown hurried to Lake Bedell where, he knew, Wilkinson enjoyed his solitude. Fay wasn’t looking forward to entering the old man’s dilapidated structure for fear of crawling critters. The last time the lawman had made a house call, Wilkinson’s son was present. The younger Wilkinson was conflicted about whether to support his father’s proclaimed right to protect his life and property. Instead of taking the two-barreled Betsy, he filled his pockets with all the shotgun shells he could find and took them home.
Brown approached the front porch because its light was on, and then carefully checked for rotten boards. He knocked and yelled, “MR. WILKINSON! IT’S THE SHERIFF! COME OPEN THE DOOR!” After a few minutes of silence, Fay walked around to the back door where he spotted Wilkinson inside with his shotgun, pointed towards the ceiling.
Fay was invited inside. As he entered, he pulled his elbows against the side of his body, held his breath, and tried not to touch anything. Last time, after he returned home, he was itching for a week.
Once Fay exhaled, he found it difficult to take a new breath. It was hot and suffocating. The windows were nailed shut. Soon, the perspiration on Fay’s forehead and upper lip beaded up and glistened.
The sheriff’s eyes scanned the room and stopped at the shotgun. Treat every gun as though it’s loaded, thought Fay. The old man’s right hand held the gun’s fore-end while the stock rested on his hip. He resembled a prison guard working a chain gang. At least, thought Fay, Wilkinson’s itchy trigger-finger was behaving.
Leonard Wilkinson was thinner than a bean pole. He wore the same bib overalls as he had on the last emergency call, with the same chewing tobacco stains on his clothing and face. He was unshaven. Instead of a full beard, intermittent patches of disorganized hair, like crabgrass, protruded awkwardly at different lengths and angles. The only thing that was notably different about Wilkinson from prior visits, was a necklace made of Indian corn displaying a variety of rich earthly tones.
Fay swatted away flies and gnats that buzzed his head, then noticed an army of them on decaying watermelon rinds atop a nearby table. The dead melons explained the moldy smell that Fay had been attempting to identify. Beside each melon was a group of dried seeds lying atop individual envelopes. Curious, Fay took a step toward the table and leaned over it. He read the block lettering on the nearest paper. It said, “BIG MAMA.”
“SLAP!” The boys jumped. It was the sound of Fay killing a giant mosquito who was draining blood from his neck.
Sitting next to Wilkinson, alert, was Nell, Leonard’s hunting dog.
“These are the criminals I was telling you about,” said Wilkinson. “They belong at the reformatory or the penitentiary. I could have shot both of them dead and used their flesh as fertilizer for my pumpkins.”
“You did the right thing,” said the sheriff. “You can put your shotgun down now. I’ll handle this.”
End of Part 1. Conclusion next week.
Until next time, happy writing and reading.