Alternate history story. Written for Journey Through the Genres
|Word count 1431
The year 1931. The Great Depression
The back door flew open, Matt Stewart swept in, bringing the stiff wind with him. “I can’t believe it. He’s done it again!”
“Who’s done what, again?” His wife Peggy asked, picking up the coat and hat Matt hurled on the kitchen floor. She guessed now wasn’t the best time to berate him or untidiness.
“That bloody Shell Oil fella’. He’s been scrawling his slogans all over town.”
“I suppose he’s entitled to advertise, Matt.”
“He’ll be putting us out of business, Pegs. He’s started selling home cooked food now. We’ll never compete.”
“What else can you do? You’ve complained to the city fathers. They don’t seem to want to prosecute him for advertising.” Peggy paused. “You’re not thinking of painting over them again, are you?”
“What do you think? He’s directing all the trade away from our service station. We’ll be ruined if someone doesn’t do something.”
“You look as if you’ve been driving a while. Come far?” Harland asked as he filled up the customer’s gas tank.
The man leaned on the car, “Yeah, it’s a long drive. We’re going to our daughter’s place in Lexington. She’s just birthed her sixth. Her Ma,” he nodded to a portly woman coming from the outhouse, “she says she needs to go help out. Y’know how it is.”
Harland nodded as he washed the windscreen and topped up the oil. “You folks got a while to go then. You hungry?”
“Well, now you come to mention it, I was just thinkin’ something smells pretty good around here.”
Harlan pointed to the signs. They read: ‘Home cooking. Just like Mamma used to make.’
The customer smiled, “It’s a good thing I saw the sign on the roof of an old barn down the road a bit. We would have gone right past and stopped at the Standard Oil filling station.”
“Huh, huh. It’s great you spotted my sign. Some folk around here aren’t so appreciative of my artistic talents.” Harland laughed.
“Come on, Mable, let’s see what this young man’s got to feed us,” the man called his wife over.
“Well, you’ve got my famous Country Ham, that’s what smells so good.” Harlan carried on talking as he walked the couple to his house attached to the garage, “or I can cook you up a great steak if you’d prefer.”
Harland’s wife, Josephine, had taken some convincing to take up Shell Oil’s deal of this Service Station in North Corbin, Kentucky. They had been offered it for free with a percentage of the takings to go to Shell. Although Jo had confidence in her husband, she knew his enthusiasm for projects often waned after a short time. Since they married in 1909, when they were both only nineteen, he’d tried many occupations, including engine stoker and insurance sales agent. She knew he was a hard worker, but he had dreams of grandeur. Now they were nearing forty and still struggling to make a living.
“I’m not sure this is the best time, with the country being in Depression and all.”
“It’s for free, Jo. We can’t lose and it comes with a house. We could open a restaurant. Sell home cooked food to weary travellers.”
“Yes, but the area, Harland. I’m sure it’s not called, Hell’s Half Acre for nothing.”
“The folks who stop by, will be passing trade, on the way from all directions. They’ll be tired and hungry. I’m an excellent cook. You know I am.”
So Jo agreed, and the family moved to North Corbin, Kentucky.
At first business was very slow, most of the traffic passed by the little roadside service station on their way to the local competition at the bigger Standard Oil garage. It wasn’t until Harland had the bright idea of advertising his business by painting directions on the roofs of the many deserted old barns around the district that things improved.
There was no moon, the cloud cover complete, as a man dressed in dark clothing placed a long wooden ladder up against the wall of a barn. His wife passed a pot of white paint to her husband as he began his ascent. Then she too climbed half way up the rickety rungs and shone a torch onto the words painted on the roof in large letters: NEXT TURN RIGHT FOR GREAT SERVICE AND HOME COOKING, HOT COFFEE. SHELL OIL SERVICE STATION.
The man continued painting over the sign until it was completely covered by the white paint. Neither spoke as he climbed down. Then they swiftly began stacking the equipment into the back of the truck and drove off down the dusty road, back to where they’d come from.
“The Bastard’s done it again!” Harlan slammed on his brakes. He stared at the painted over advertising. “This has to stop, Jo. I’m going to confront him.”
“How do you know it’s him? It could be anyone. Did you ask permission from the owner of this barn? Maybe it’s him.”
“This farm’s one that’s been deserted for years. No, I know who the culprit is and I’m going to face up to that Matt Stewart and tell him to back off.”
“I’ve heard he’s a bit of a hothead, Harland. You don’t want to get yourself shot.”
“I’ll take someone with me. A witness.”
Harland spoke to his manager, Robert Gibson, from Shell Oil. They’d become firm friends over the nine months since Harland had been in Corbin. The company was delighted with how things were progressing. At last they were receiving a return from the neglected business. Harland’s advertising methods impressed Robert, who was also a man who loved his food and would often partake of Harland’s culinary talents.
“So, what do you think, Robert, shall we go together and tell him to stop vandalising our advertising?”
“Yes, sure, I’ll go with you as a representative of Shell Oil. Maybe it’ll be enough to stop him.” Robert checked his diary. “How about Friday? We’ll have a chat with him, then we’ll have lunch. What’s cooking?”
Robert swung by to pick up Harland at 11.30 in the morning, and they proceeded to Matt Stewart’s place.
“You’ve brought a gun?” Harland gasped when spying the holster.
“Well, you never know, I hear the guy’s got a real temper.”
“I’m sure it’ll not come to that. I just want a quiet word. Man to man. You know?”
Robert agreed. “Better to be safe than sorry. Don’t worry.”
They pulled up, parking under the red, white and blue, Standard Oil sign. There was no sign of the owner and the pair sat for a while. The only sounds were the wind whistling in the trees and the ticking of the cooling motor.
A man walked out of the large shed, wiping his hands on an oily rag. He looked up and saw the two men sitting in their car. “Can I help you folks?” he called.
Harlan was the first to step out of the car. He walked over to Matt, reaching out to shake the man’s hand. “Hi, I’m Harland Sanders, this gentleman is Mr Gibson” he said, gesturing at Robert, who was struggling to get out of the car, owing to his girth. “We’re here to...”
“I know who you are. I don’t care why you’re here, just clear off. Both of you.”
Then Matt pulled a gun out of the pocket of his overalls and pointed at the pair. “Go on. Get off my property before I make you.”
There was a loud bang from behind Harlan, and Matt gripped his shoulder. His face filled with hatred, returning fire, aiming at the Shell manager, a bullet grazing his arm. Almost immediately Harland stepped forward, getting into the line of fire, a bullet going clean through his heart.
The mourners filled the little church to capacity, Josephine Sanders seated on the front pew, surrounded by her children and family.
After the funeral service, Jo stood in the cemetery accepting condolences from the many people Harland had touched over the years. She invited anyone who wished to do so, back to their home for refreshments.
Attending, there were old friends from the days when she and Harland had been first married and new friends from their time in Kentucky. It seemed everyone had an anecdote to tell about this larger-than-life character who was Harland Sanders.
“Oh, my, didn’t that man dream big?” Robert Gibson, his arm in a sling, a testament to that terrible day, was holding forth, “Why, Harland was telling me only a few days ago about his dream to open a chain of chicken restaurants. He’d even come up with the name of the franchise. It would be called, ‘Kentucky Fried Chicken’, and believe it or not, he planned on calling himself, Colonel Sanders. What a man!”