Beard’s Grocery sat perched atop a small peninsula, accessible from Hollow Creek Road only by a rickety wood and steel bridge just wide enough for a single car to traverse at any one time. The back of the store opened onto acreage that had, once upon a time, been a dairy farm owned by Jerry Beard’s father Jessie. An overturned tractor had taken the elder Beard’s life when Jerry was still a tot. Over the years, his mother Kathy had sold off all the cattle and leased the farm’s unsaturated acres to local tenant farmers to put food on the table and keep the store Jessie and Kathy had opened as a second business in 1936 operational.
Hollow Creek bordered the three remaining sides of the tiny piece of land on which the store sat. A white-washed board fence ran the length of the creek borders, except for the spot where the bridge connected the store’s property to the road. The Beards had considered the geography and its fencing as a beneficial property feature in earlier times. It provided some natural defenses against intruders and a source of distillable fresh water if they needed it. As farm life became too much work for too little profit and the merchant life showed more promise, the creek and the fence with the single-car access bridge seemed more like barriers. For Kathy, anyway.
Jessie had long ago mounted a small five-inch rain gauge on top of the fence post nearest the eastern wall of the store. It was one of several he’d configured around the farm’s perimeter to determine which areas were receiving the most benefit from nature’s watering can.
On the afternoon of March 21, 1955, just as Eli Wynn and Nazarene preacher Mark MacDonald were arriving at Beard’s on their errands, the first drops of what the National Weather Service in Hollow River would later call a hundred-year flood collected in the gauge’s basin. A bit more than an hour later, that gauge overflowed, and Hollow Creek swelled to dramatic effect, well on its way to flood stage. The bubbling crystal clear creek water over which Eli had trod became a bed of sickly beige, opaque rapids topped with hundreds of tiny cresting waves. The flow bottlenecked under the bridge. The water, too fast and furious to remain contained, began to stretch its fingers in spidery rivulets over its banks. The sun descended rapidly on the horizon as if trying to ignore the impending disaster below.
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