Poor Man’s Soup
by Kathy Dillenbeck

“Oh, Mom, not Poor Man’s Soup again. I’m starving.” Peter clutched his stomach and plunked into a kitchen chair.

“Yeah, Mom!” chorused his brother and sister, who trailed after their big brother as usual. Martha sighed and searched for words to explain why Poor Man’s Soup, that culinary delight of the penniless, was appearing on her table so often. Crackers didn’t cost much and the butter came from her sister’s farm. When these were added to hot water and seasoned with salt and pepper, hunger was temporarily appeased.

As she opened her mouth to tell them about what everyone was calling the Great Depression, a knock at the back door interrupted her. Her brothers Ben and Andy, wearing big grins, came in with a burlap bag.

“What are you up to?” she asked, stepping back as Ben offered her the sack. Martha refused to touch anything from her prankster brother until she knew exactly what it contained.

“Open it and see,” Andy said as he snatched the suspicious package from Ben and handed it to Martha.

Certain that Andy would not participate in one of Ben’s tricks, Martha opened the heavy sack. She felt like a kid opening presents at Christmas, when she discovered several packages of what was obviously meat, wrapped in white butcher’s paper.

“Where did you get this meat?” She hugged Andy. “You don’t know how much this will help.”

“We’ve been harvesting a little of nature’s bounty.”

Through eyes bright with unshed tears, Martha saw Andy break into a big smile. When she threw her arms around Ben, he stiffened, but returned her hug. Martha straightened her shoulders, wiped her eyes, and asked, “Dinner, anyone?”


The next morning, she walked with a light heart and a new attitude to the diner where she waitressed. She felt like dancing as she clocked in. Her spirits remained high even though her customers were speculating on what might have happened to her next door neighbor’s daughter, Priscilla. Her brothers had restored her hope and she was sure the two-year-old would be okay. She couldn’t imagine who would hurt a child as precious as Priscilla.

As the lunch crowd began to thin, Martha almost dropped the dishes she carried when she overheard a deputy talking to the sheriff.

“We picked up those Johnson brothers for shooting deer out of season. They’ll be spending time in jail.”

“How did you catch them?” The sheriff looked up from the hot beef sandwich he had just finished and waited for his deputy to answer.

“We found their friend Lyle with some of the venison and he turned them in so he wouldn’t have to do time.” The deputy shook his head. “With friends like Lyle, those Johnson boys don’t need any enemies.”

“Yeah, it’s just too bad we had to waste time on that instead of finding that Bailey girl,” said the sheriff as he rose to leave.

“You know, Sheriff Nichols, those boys only had a little of that venison at their house.”

“We’ll catch everyone who got any of that deer meat,” the sheriff said as he walked back to the table from the cashier’s station.

After dropping a tip on the table, the sheriff said, “See you later, Martha.”

Martha mumbled something she hoped made sense, then ran to the restroom to calm down. Those Johnson boys were her brothers. As she wiped her face with a damp paper towel, she wondered what she was going to do. What would her children do if their mother were locked up? Did the sheriff know she had some of that venison, too? Was that why he had said he’d see her later?

After what seemed like days, Martha finished her shift. She raced home. She rushed through the front door and ran into the kitchen. She grabbed the meat from the icebox. Certain the sheriff would pull into her driveway at any moment, she flew out the back door. Hurrying across the yard, she ran into the outhouse and threw the venison into the pit. She was terrified when it floated.

She ran to the clothesline and grabbed the clothes-pole. Martha chuckled as she thought about stirring that ‘soup’ with her giant wooden spoon. What would she call it? Talk about Poor Man’s Soup!

Mr. Bailey caught a flash of white in the yard next door. His eyes widened when he saw Martha standing in the door of the two-holer, jamming that unwieldy pole up and down. When she went back into the house, he released the breath he held.

Half an hour later, two sheriff cars pulled up in front of Martha’s house. Martha, who had seen them drive up, wiped her eyes, released a big sigh and met them at the door. After a few minutes of animated conversation, she led them out back to the outhouse.

She held the door open while Sheriff Nichols checked the pit. As he stepped back, he nodded to his deputies. “Gary, you retrieve the evidence. Hank and John, you take the culprit into custody.”

Moments later, Martha heard Mr. Bailey cry out as he being led away in handcuffs.

“Please, it was an accident. I didn’t mean to kill her. She just made me so mad.”

“Now, Martha, about that venison…” Sheriff Nichols said.