Mrs. Benson is a recurring character in stories published in the Relief Society Magazine (some perhaps earlier than this one, which is the earliest I happen to have found so far). Definitely an unusual heroine for the Magazine — the title tells it all — and one I think you’ll enjoy!
From the Relief Society Magazine, April 1936 –
Mrs. Benson Takes a Hand
In Which She Routs a Racketeer
By Ivy Williams Stone
Mrs. Benson wakened at seven o’clock with a sense of guilt. Breakfast, lunches to pack, dishes, dinner; then, fully conscious, she sank back upon her pillows with a wry smile. Except for herself, the house was empty. The youngest Benson had married a month before, her husband, commonly called “Judge,” had gone for a long-anticipated exploring trip on the Salmon River. There was no need for Mrs. Benson to rise early. No one needed breakfast, nor lunch, nor dinner in the evening. She was unnecessary. The life of the little town could continue to flow smoothly without her. And this knowledge was not pleasant.
“At least,” she said to the canary as she ate a solitary breakfast in the too quiet kitchen, “I can pack my grandfather’s collection of firearms, and send it to the state museum. I’ve been going to do that for a long time. It will save me from boredom, or ennui, as the French say it.”
In the rear of the Benson house lot there stood an old ‘dobe plastered building. Its squat, square shape was not improved by the two small deeply recessed windows, whose tiny panes of glass were covered by iron bars. The padlocked, weather-beaten door finished the picture of an old pioneer jail, from which no criminal had ever escaped. In the early days this jail had been a necessity; gradually it became a curiosity, then an heirloom, now it was a valued town landmark. Grandfather Pace had been a very efficient and very thorough pioneer sheriff; he had equipped his jail with the comforts of a stove and a bed. he had boasted that many a confession had been prompted by a night’s good rest on a real feather bed, reinforced by a tick of clean straw! A bronze tablet now marked the building, telling of Grandfather’s exploits, and the state museum was clamoring for the collection of firearms which Grandfather pace had gathered, mostly from his personal experiences.
There was the muzzle loading, long barrel rifle he had brought from the backwoods of Kentucky; the slide gun repeating rifle, with the two nicks on the stock which had saved early settlers from a raid of murderous Indians; a single shot, smooth bore blunderbuss or horse pistol which Grandfather had laughingly described as the gun “that roared like a cannon and kicked like a mule”; there were numerous powder horns and bullet boxes; a bayoneted relic of the Civil War; a single barreled, shotgun, and a double barreled muzzle loading shot gun that had kicked Grandmother backwards, the only time she had ever essayed to shoot a firearm; a cylinder revolver which had seemed the last word in gun manufacture which Grandfather had invented himself. And finally, a tiny “vest pocket,” pearl handled pistol that seemed strangely out of place with its warlike neighbors. Mrs. Benson remembered that pearl handled pistol very well. Grandmother had always laughed over that firearm. Once when Grandfather had gone to town she had hoped he would bring her a present of a hanging lamp, but he purchased that tiny pistol instead! It was called “a suitable weapon for a refined lady”; she had never used it, but always carried it in her voluminous pocket to please Grandfather.
The packing of these relics of a by-gone age proved fascinating, and while she ate a hasty lunch Mrs. Benson felt tempted to ignore the insistent ring of the telephone.
“That you, Mrs. Benson?” a tear-choked voice almost cried into the receiver. “Well, this is Lettie Mack. And I’m in trouble. I bought a knitting machine, and the man made it go beautifully, but I can’t seem to get the hang of fitting the wool on the hooks, and the yarn is all snarled up. Yes, I paid him cash for it, sixty dollars, and I am afraid –”
“Where did you get the sixty dollars, Lettie?” Mrs. Benson was all business, alert and keen.
“Well,” the voice became less coherent, “I took the tax money and the money for Henry’s second semester of tuition. He won’t need it until January, and I figured I could make enough by selling my finished socks by that time to more than pay him back. And I can’t –”
“I’ll be over.” The receiver clicked, and immediately Mrs. Benson knew that she was again necessary.
“I knew it,” she muttered to the good little old car that speeded along under her urgent foot. “I knew Lettie couldn’t be trusted. Here I got her all set up as a beautician, making good money, too, and along comes some high powered salesman and fleeces her of all the money she has in the world. I’ll bet she even told him she had sixty dollars, right there in the house, before he set the price on his machine.”
Mrs. Benson’s anticipated fears were fully realized. Lettie Mack, crippled since babyhood, had built up a paying clientele of regular patrons with her beautician work. Her marcels never turned white hair yellow, and she was so careful not to burn fine hair. The Bensons had sent her to beauty school, and she and her orphan brother Henry were living nicely. Henry was even in school. Now, a suave, smooth-tongued salesman had departed to places unknown with Lettie’s treasured sixty dollars, and left in its stead an intricate, hand-power knitting machine, with pages of puzzling instructions, ten balls of wool, and a beautifully engraved contract, signed by the agent, in which the Company agreed to purchase all the perfectly made socks which the purchaser could produce.
“But I can’t make a good one,” sobbed Lettie, as Mrs. Benson scanned the contract, and knit her brows over the intricate hooks, levers and needles that were all a part of the machine.
“And you never can, either.” Small comfort came in Mrs. Benson’s voice. “Nobody can make a perfect sock on this machine. That’s the catch. And nobody can prosecute the swindlers for they agree to purchase all you can make. Such people are as bad as the old sharpsters who used to sell gold bricks. You bought a useless machine, Lettie, and the county could sell your little home for taxes, and your brother Henry can stay out of school for the rest of his life, and it will never disturb the sleep of those scalawags. Which way did that slick tongued salesman go?”
“He asked me for a list of other likely purchasers, not too close, and I told him about your brother who runs the store at the other end of the valley. I told him to ask at that store for names. He was so polite and well mannered and said he didn’t mind my crippled foot at all.”
“That,” mused Mrs. Benson, “is the one bright, intelligent thing you have done, Lettie. I’ll ‘phone my brother.”
Mrs. Benson was puzzled how to capture and punish a racketeer of this type. He had done no tangible, unlawful act. She knew full well how her grandfather would have acted. There would have been no hesitancy of indecision. The undesirable visitor would have been taken to the state line on a rail, with a touch of tar and a few goose feathers for good measure. It was thinking of her grandfather that gave Mrs. Benson her great inspiration. A woman of fifty-five, clear brained, healthy, able to drive a car, with the blood of pioneering forebears in her veins must outwit a pale faced city-bred imposter!
Mrs. Benson packed the offending machine in its original box and took it home with her. She telephoned her brother.
“Tell him,” she emphasized, “that your sister is contemplating converting an unused building in the rear of her home into a knitting factory, to offer employment to the young women of the town. Tell him to come tomorrow afternoon. Certainly, Russell, I am contemplating such a factory. But it is not definite as yet.”
Seven o’clock the following morning found Mrs. Benson hard at work. Encouraged by a good wage, two women were busily helping her renovate the old jail building. the stove was thoroughly cleaned, blackened, and a supply of fuel filled the wood box. Even the rusty old reservoir had been scoured and filled with water. The table and two chairs were scrubbed, the undulating mirror lost its coat of fly specks and grime, the windows were polished, and the old bed was once more fluffed up and covered with clean linen. The floor was washed with a broom and scrubbed with lye. The odor of disinfectants sent all tiny insects elsewhere for safety. The firearms were packed in a substantial wooden box – all save the tiny pearl handled pistol which had never been discharged. A can of flour and a bread mixer were set on the warming oven. Mrs. Benson’s last act was to put a new padlock through the clamp and hook on the outside of the old door. to the curious questions of her two helpers, she only smiled indulgently.
“I’m making plans,” she answered vaguely, “and it’s best not to tell them ‘till you’re sure.”
That afternoon she extended a cheerful welcome to the young man who arrived with six knitting machines in the rear of his car. Certainly his polished manners were disarming. In spite of her resentment, even Mrs. Benson felt herself weakening before the onslaught of his courteous manner. But the memory of the swindled Lettie and the matted yarn on the hooks of the reboxed machine steeled her sympathies against his tactics.
“Your telephone call was most opportune,” gushed her visitor. ‘I was about to leave the valley. This is a marvelous idea of yours, Mrs. Benson! think of the hope you can inspire in the hearts of these young women! By their own efforts, sponsored by your kindness, they can become self-supporting, self-respecting, beautifully clothed! To them, the depression will be non-existent!”
“Come out to the little shop which I had rather thought might be used for the factory,” invited Mrs. Benson, patting a little lump in the right hand pocket of her voluminous apron. “Perhaps you might suggest some improvements. I will want to reach maximum production and to make the most perfect socks.”
“What a charming, unique, atmospheric building!” exclaimed the young man. “It is positively enchanting. Another window here, a flood light from the ceiling, two tables where the bed stands, another to replace the washstand, a gas heater in the place of the stove, glass in the door, and the room will be a modern factory! Dear Mrs. Benson, you can use more than six machines. Several more. Let me write up your order for twelve, at least.” With quick deft movements, he produced more of the engraved contracts and a fountain pen, which he proffered to Mrs. Benson with a deep bow. He stooped to spread the papers on the table and when he rose up, he was looking squarely into the tiny muzzle of a small pearl handled pistol.
“Walk over to the far wall,” commanded Mrs. Benson. her voice sounded strange even to herself. she felt the blood rushing to her head, but her hand was steady. “Put – put up your hands,” she ordered, “and lean against the wall. This is truly loaded.” Mrs. Benson backed to the door, never taking her eyes from the astonished, blanched face of the nonplused, suave salesman. With an agility that belied her years she backed out of the door, pulled it shut behind her and snapped the new padlock. Then she sank weakly down on the deep recessed doorsill.
“Let me out! Let me out! This is an outrage!” The debonnaire prisoner pounded futilely upon the heavy door. Mrs. Benson walked around to a window and tapped sharply with the butt of the pearl handled pistol, motioning for the prisoner to raise the sash.
“Can you make bread?” demanded Mrs. Benson with apparent levity.
“Certainly not,” snapped the prisoner, minus all his politeness, “and I would thank you to let me out immediately! My time is valuable.”
“I’ll let you out when you have made me a perfect batch of bread,” countered Mrs. Benson. “You’ll find paper, matches, kindling, and coal in that box behind the stove. You’ll find flour, salt, sugar, yeast and a good bread mixer on top of the stove. Detailed instructions on how to make bread are pasted on top of that pretty sheet of paper you gave Lettie Mack, telling her how to operate a knitting machine. It’s in the warming oven. I’ll buy every loaf of perfect bread you can make. No imperfections, however. Just as your company won’t accept socks with dropped stitches nor broken threads, I won’t accept bread that is soggy, burned, or underbaked.”
“No modern man is expected to understand culinary arts,” countered the nan on the inside of the solid old bars. “I couldn’t perform such a feat in a thousand years.”
“And Lettie Mack couldn’t learn to make a perfect pair of socks on your stupid machine in a thousand years, either,” retaliated the lady on the outside of those old substantial bars. “It’s too complicated. The wool won’t travel through all those hooks and gadgets. The yarn snarls and breaks, and you know no hand operated machine could possibly compete with power operated ones.”
“She signed a legible contract. I gave it to her to read. She didn’t have to sign, and if she is persistent and mechanically minded she can learn to operate it. I OPERATE IT.”
“And I make bread,” answered Mrs. Benson simply. “Been doing it for 27 years.”
“If you don’t let me out, I’ll have you sued for concealing firearms, and arrested for unlawfully retaining a person against his will, and for inducing me here on false pretenses.”
“The sheriff is my youngest brother, and the judge is my husband,” smiled Mrs. Benson. “And you’ll learn to make pretty good bread before Dad comes home from his river trip. I will compromise. That is, I’ll let you go on your way unmolested provided you pass sixty dollars through these bars to me. then I’ll put your machine in your car with the six you already got there, and let you go. Provided the money doesn’t look counterfeit,” she added as an afterthought.
“It was a legitimate sale,” stormed the prisoner, all suavity gone from his voice.
“You should make your fire first,” counseled Mrs. Benson, “so as to have lukewarm water for the bread. Cold water kills the yeast.”
The woman who had borne and reared six children, whose grandfather had never failed in his duty as protector of the peace of the community, looked unflinchingly into the eyes of the metropolitan youth who had felt the gullible people of the west were his legitimate prey. Slowly his hand moved upward to his inner coat pocket; slowly he extracted a wallet and pushed six ten dollar bills through the bars of the window. Mrs. Benson, never loosening her grip on the pearl mounted revolver, inspected the bills carefully; held each one to the light to locate the tiny silken threads that mark the genuine currency of our land.
“Looks all right,” she admitted grudgingly. ‘I’ll put your machine back in your car. You bought it back, you know. Then I’ll start my own car, and I’ll follow you to the state line; it’s only thirty miles, and I’ll enjoy the ride. It won’t be healthy for you to try to sell any more machines int his state.”
That night Lettie Mack slept the peaceful sleep of a forgiven child. The six ten dollar bills were safely tucked in a small glass jar, which reposed inside a two quart jar, with the intervening space filled with small, innocent looking brown beans. Mrs. Benson, weary but elated, wrote to the state museum that she was retaining one small pearl handled pistol, as it had personal memories. As she stuck the stamp on her letter with a vigorous thrust, she muttered,
“The words boredom and ennui should be stricken from the dictionary. There are no such words in my vocabulary!”