Almost everyone in the mountain hamlet of Temperance knew when Vesta Thompson was baking pies. Vesta ran the main boarding house on Cumberland Lane, and her boarders were always treated to fine meals.
However, it was her pies from her Wedgewood stove imported from California which sent the taste buds salivating around the neighborhood. For you see her house was on top of the hill, and when a mountain breeze caught the pies cooling in her kitchen window, it would carry the fragrance far and wide.
Vesta had a young son named Thomas Jefferson Thompson and a daughter Thelma Susan. Being twelve, Thelma Sue was always a help around the place; Tommy was nine and very mischievous when he got together with his best friend Billie Piper.
Vesta overlooked her son’s impishness, especially on Thursdays when he and Billie would go fishing at the nearby river. Later that afternoon they would be coming home wet and muddy but hauling at least two dozen midsized bass.
How could a mother not love a boy who brought fish home for Friday night fish-fry. Vesta would prepare the bass and place them in the Williams Ice-O-Matic Ice Box next to her General Electric Monitor-Top fridge to save for next Friday.
Back to the pies. Vesta just had made four rhubarb pies with her special fruit sauce and placed them in the kitchen window to cool. She and Thelma Sue had picked the rhubarb from her flower and vegetable gardens.
They both sat down in the parlor to relax, except for Thelma Sue who had to practice for an hour on the harpsichord. One would think that Thelma Sue would be exhausted from baking all morning, but one thing which she loved above all else was playing the harpsichord, which had been given to her grandfather by Howard T. Winslow, Soldier of Fortune and Adventurer. It was a gift from his commander in the French Foreign Legion and built by the great Paschal Taskin himself.
Now, one would assume that Vesta would be concerned about pesky varmints snatching pie samples from her window. She seemed to have a truce with those creatures since she made sure the leftovers of the day were placed outside for them to consume. They left her kitchen window alone.
After Thelma Sue was done playing, they went back to the kitchen. It Thelma Sue who noticed the kitchen window.
“Mommy!” She exclaimed. “There’re only three pies.”
Vesta looked at the kitchen window and carefully examined the sill. She had Thelma Sue placed the pies in the maple bread box built by her husband, George.
The slight wisp of fish caught her culinary nose. “AH!” She uttered. She shook her head and looked at Thelma Sue.
Her daughter instantly recognized that look. “They are in the tree house,” Thelma Sue stated with slight irritation.
“Tree house,” hummed Vesta. “ Get on your bonnet and let’s take a walk over to the Old Winslow House to visit our pie thieves.”
The Piper family had had a change of fortune since we last visited Temperance. Charles Piper was given a job by the Tarrwater Family on their railroad. He was so happy to be out of the coal mines.
In addition, Betsy Tarrwater could stand it no longer that her Aunt Louise Winslow’s House stood vacant and silent. She had rented it to the Pipers for a pittance. She had such fun memories of playing in that old house with her sisters and listening to her Uncle Howard tell her of exotic adventures in the mysterious lands of Asia and Africa.
As they left by the kitchen door, Thelma Sue picked up the old hickory switch on the rain barrel. Vesta glanced at her daughter.
“You think a switching is needed if Thomas is guilty of taking the pie?”
“He’s guilty, Momma. No doubt.”
“We shall see, my dear.” Thelma Sue planned to be a teacher and a true disciplinarian.
As they walked down the lane and across the creek bridge, Vesta remembered that when she was young that she would come over to this bridge and meet George Thompson. They would not say a word, but they stood side by side almost touching hands as they watched the stars appear and the moon rise. The night air had been crisp and clean with a smidge of chestnut smoke and coal ash.
Soon they reached the infamous tree house. Boxcar, the Pipers’ dog, lay at the foot of the tree. He wagged his tail as they came near.
Boxcar had been found a year and half earlier by Charles Piper. A mother dog of mixed heritage had crawled into an open boxcar and had her litter. Charles found homes for them all and kept the black and white one for his family. Boxcar had a sweet disposition.
“Thomas Jefferson!” Vesta shouted up at the abode of the boys. Thelma Sue kept touching her dress with the hickory switch as Boxcar watched her right hand dance.
Two heads popped out the window. “Yes, Mommy?” Tom said.
“Come down here. Both you and Jamie. I need to ask you a serious question.”
Both boys scurried down the rope. They both saw the switch in Thelma Sue’s right hand and the sadistic look on her face.
“Boys, one of my fresh-baked pies is missing. Any idea what happened to it?”
“No, Ma’am,” they both stated in unison.
Looking at the boys carefully, she replied, “Did you see anyone around the house when you came back from fishing or when you left to come over here?”
Billie responded, “Roscoe Smith was by the alley gate when we came with the fish and then he left.”
“What was he doing? Did he say?”
“Just standing there. He smiled as we came and went,” Tom stated.
“Go back to your playing.”
The boys climbed the rope back into their sanctuary. Thelma Sue almost said something but held her tongue. “At least, this time TJ, her nickname for her younger sibling, is not guilty, but there will be another time,” she pondered.
As Vesta and Thelma Sue walked back toward the house, Thelma Sue asked, “Should I go get Sheriff Daniels?”
“My dear, Sheriff Daniels has more important things to do than find a pie thief. We don’t know if Mr. Smith took the pie. Let’s go see his wife.”
Roscoe Smith had been a welder at the Ballard Steel Works. An unfortunate accident happened when a steel beam broke loose from its rope and struck him in the back of the head.
It was a miracle that he survived. He had a steel plate inserted to replace the damaged portion of his skull.
When things went missing in the community, Roscoe was usually responsible. His lapses in judgment were overlooked and forgiven by the people of Temperance, since he was such a gentle soul and could sing like a warbler in the church choir.
Arriving at the Smith’s cottage by the river, Vesta spotted Elise Smith hanging wash on the lines. Elise was a seamstress and did washings.
When Elise saw Vesta and Thelma Sue, she came over to them. “What did my husband do this time? I know the look.”
She was upset. Her tone was one of a bit of shame and sadness.
“Elsie, we are not sure. One of my pies went missing and Roscoe was seen at the back gate of the house.”
“Vesta, you know he loves your pies. I believe he came home a few minutes ago. Let’s go inside.”
Roscoe sat at the table staring off into space. He had worked most of the day cleaning out the attic of Mrs. Herbert Willis’ house a block from Vesta’s.
When he saw the ladies, he stood. He was always the perfect gentleman.
“Roscoe,” Elsie began. “One of Vesta’s pies went missing this afternoon. Have you seen it?”
“Vesta, you make the best pies in the county. That’s the gospel truth.”
“Thank you, Roscoe. Jamie and Tommy said you were at the back gate of the house when they came back from fishing.”
“Yes, Ma’am. Those were some fine bass those boys caught. There’s nothing like fried bass on Friday night with black pepper and roasted corn.”
“Did you see anyone around back of my house, Roscoe?”
“Let me think. I was resting against your gate. Mrs. Willis worked me hard today, and I was plum tuckered out. I’m not as young as I used to be.” He thought for a long time.
“January Marlow’s son was standing across the street when the boys left your house. After resting a bit more, I headed home. He was still there when I rounded the corner and ran into Mr. Hall who asked if I could help him move some boxes.”
“You have been a big help, Roscoe. I will send down a pie for you and Elsie.”
“Bless you, Vesta,” Roscoe replied. Elsie smiled with relief.
On the way back to the house Thelma Sue said, “Gary Marlow is a troublemaker in school.”
“That may be so, daughter, but we don’t know if he is guilty of stealing the pie.”
“He is,” Thelma Sue said to herself. “He needs a good switching.”
The Marlows were newcomers to Temperance. Harrison Marlow was a bookkeeper for the Ballards. He was a cousin on George Ballard’s mother’s side. January Marlow was the social bee for the Ballard’s special events.
They had one son, Gary, who was thirteen. He was a serious young man in many ways, but very handsome with coal black hair and blue eyes. He kept to himself and had no friends.
Vesta had Agnes Sorensen, the main operator, ring the Marlow House. Gary answered.
“Gary, this is Vesta Thompson. I have a question for you.”
“Yes, Mrs. Thompson?”
“Gary, I understand that you were standing across the street from my house early afternoon. Did you see anything suspicious?”
“Besides Roscoe Smith?”
“Yes, besides, Mr. Smith.”
There was a long pause. “What’s missing, Mrs. Thompson?”
“One of my pies that Thelma Sue and I baked this morning.”
“Oh!” There was another long pause. “Mrs. Thompson, I should come over to talk with you. Is that ok?”
“Sure, Gary. Are you coming right over?”
“See you in about fifteen minutes.”
After she hung up the phone, Vesta turned to Thelma Sue and said that Gary was coming over.
“I surely know that he took our pie. If I was his mother, I would give him a good switching.”
“It will be best if I talk with him alone. I want you to take one of the pies to the Smiths’ house. Take your time.”
Thelma Sue was about to protest, but she did as her mother requested. She would drop by Aunt Sally’s house after her errand to tell her about her day. This should give her mother plenty of time to deal with Gary Marlow, pie thief and chief troublemaker of Temperance.
Gary Marlow arrived and they sat down at the kitchen table. Gary looked very sheepish and darted his eyes around the kitchen.
“What’s do you have to tell me, Gary?”
After several long moments, he said, “I have a confession to make. The reason that I was standing across the street was because I was listening to Thelma playing.”
It was not what Vesta expected. “I see. You like listening to Thelma Sue play?”
“Yes, Mrs. Thompson, but please don’t tell her. I don’t want her to think that I like her or something.”
Vesta smiled. “It’s between us. Do you know anything about my missing pie?”
“No, Ma’am. After Tom and Billie left, I saw no one but Roscoe, but he didn’t take your pie. I left soon after Roscoe did. Two blocks later I saw him helping Mr. Hall with some boxes.”
“Are you hungry, Gary?” Vesta could sense when a child was hungry.
“I have not eaten since supper.”
“No, my parents had an outing to go to the lake with the Ballards and some other people. They won’t be back until late.”
Vesta wondered, “Did they not make breakfast for you?”
“They kind of forgot about me.”
“I have some fried chicken and red potatoes. I think I have one piece of coconut cake left. A growing boy needs to eat.”
For the next hour they talked as Gary ate one of the best meals that he ever had. The home-made buttermilk biscuits with red raspberry jam hit the spot.
Later that afternoon George Thompson arrived home after a busy day at his justice of the peace office at the courthouse. Vesta greeted him with a kiss.
Supper had finished about half an hour earlier. Vesta placed George’s supper on the kitchen table since George did not like eating alone at the large twenty-seat table.
As they talked, Vesta discussed her missing pie and her interviews. George listened intently without saying a word.
After Vesta finished, George in his usual way said, “Some mysteries are just inscrutable.”
“I would like to know what happened to my pie.”
“Dear, be content that only one went missing.”
“I just hope whoever took it enjoyed it as much as Thelma Sue and I did making it.”
“I am certain that the perpetrator of such a dastardly deed relished his crime with great delight.”
Vesta laughed. “George, you certainly have a way with words.”
What was crossing George’s mind was a conversation he had that morning with a young man, a drifter, who had a bad run of luck. George had shown mercy and not sentenced him to 30 days in jail for stealing fish at the fishery, but George did ask that he leave town on the next open freight car and return home.
During the conversation they had talked about the young man’s mother and how as a boy he loved his mamma’s cooking, especially her pies. George mentioned about Vesta’s pies and how she set them out on the kitchen window to cool.
George wondered if, on his way to the rail yards, this young man had paused by the open window and taken one of the fresh pies. It would be a temptation hard to resist even for a parson.
No need to accuse the poor boy without evidence, George pondered. If he did take the pie, perhaps, his journey home would be that much sweeter.
Vesta placed a large piece of rhubarb pie in front of him. “Definitely,” he began, “The aroma of heaven. I am sure the Good Lord will put you in charge of heaven’s kitchens.”
Vesta smiled. She kissed him on the forehead and sat down to watch her husband devour his pie with relish and glee.
G. D. Williams © 2013