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Texas | Columns


by Robert G. Cowser
Robert G. Cowser

My brother and I were not disappointed when Mamma told us one Thursday evening that we would not be going to school the next day. I hope I won’t be misunderstood—I liked going to school and usually minded when the school bus could not maneuver the muddy roads after heavy rains in the winter or spring. We lived at the end of the school bus route, five miles from the consolidated school at Saltillo.

A chance to go to town on a weekday was a rare opportunity. We could eat hamburgers in a cozy café instead of red beans, corn bread and cucumber pickles in the drafty lunchroom at school. Daddy’s business might even keep him in town long enough for us to catch a weekday matinee at one of the three movie theaters.

“You boys need shoes,” Mamma said, “and you need to try them on before we pay for them. Your feet are growin’ so fast we don’t need to buy a pair you can wear only three or four months. Your daddy has to go to a meetin’ at the Agriculture Department office, so we’ll all just go along.”

The next morning we got up at the usual time, ate breakfast, and Daddy drove us to Sulphur Springs, about fifteen miles from our farm. It was a frosty morning, but the sun was bright.

Daddy parked the car on the courthouse square, and we all walked to King’s Dry Goods Store. The store had apparently just opened. The smell of shoe leather intermingled with the smell of bolts of fabric stacked seven or eight feet high on the counters.

A short, stocky man with gray hair and rimless glasses walked toward us. I noticed that his hands were trembling.

“What can I help you folks with this mornin’?” the clerk asked.

“These boys need shoes,” Daddy said, pointing to my brother and me.

We followed the man to a row of chairs, each connected to the other. The chairs faced a shelf containing what appeared to be hundreds of dun-colored shoe boxes, each containing a logos of a red eagle perched on a branch.

As the clerk turned to face us, he blurted out. “I just had a horrible experience. After I came into the store at 7:30 this mornin’, I decided to take several empty cartons to the trash bin out back. No sooner had I opened the back door than I noticed a man layin’ in the alley beside the bin. When I came closer, I recognized Mr. Greenhill. There was dried blood on the side of his head, an’ I could tell he wasn’t breathin’.”

“Greenhill?” Daddy asked. “He’s the owner of the tailor shop just off the square, ain’t he?”

“Yes,” the clerk said. “We use the same trash bin as his business does. I went back into the store and called the sheriff’s office. Mr. Rasure and a deputy come right away, and in just a few minutes an employee of Tapp Funeral Home came to get the body.”

The clerk shivered uncontrollably.

“How awful,” Mamma said. “An’ Mr.Greenhill’s got a fam’ly, ain’t he?”

“Yes, a wife and a boy—high school age,” the clerk replied.

For the moment, I forgot why we had come to King’s Store.

“There was a tire tool layin’ beside Jim Hobby,” the clerk continued. Then, as if he suddenly thought of the possibility, he said, “If you want, you can look out the back door at the place where I found him.”

Then, as the clerk held the door for us, each of us took a turn looking into the alley where the rusty metal bin stood, piled with cardboard boxes of various sizes. When my turn came, I noticed the grimy spots on the pavement near the bin. Years later when I reflected on the experience I realized a person’s life might end anywhere at any time.

After the clerk closed the back door, he said, “The sheriff took with him a tire tool that was layin’ beside the ----body.”

“At least Bear has some evidence to use when he is tryin’ to find out who the killer is,” Daddy said.

Avera Rasure was the name of the sheriff, but most people in the county called him “Bear.” Three years before he had defeated three other opponents in a hotly-contested race.

Daddy bought brown oxfords for my brother and me, and we took the packages to the car. Then he went to the office in the courthouse for his meeting, and Mamma, my brother and I killed time by browsing in the four variety stores in town, one on each side of the square. In one of the stores Mamma bought a hair net and a tube of Ipana toothpaste while my brother and I inspected the comic books in the rack at the front of the store. After Daddy met us at the car, he and Mamma ate plate lunches in Chamberlain’s Café. My brother and I ate hamburgers with mustard and pickle chips. That evening my parents told our weekend visitors, my father’s sister and her husband, about the experience. Though I heard firsthand the clerk describe what he saw when he went to the trash bin behind the dry goods store, I lingered with the adults that evening to hear once again Daddy’s account of what had happened that morning.

Two or three years later a suspect was arrested, but a grand jury failed to indict the man. As far as I know, no one was ever prosecuted for the murder of Mr. Greenhill.

The family had moved to Texas from Alabama. After Mr. Greenhill’s death, his widow and son returned to that state.

© Robert G. Cowser
August 29, 2009 column

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