The Varmint County Chronicles
You Can Get Anything You Want at the Flea Market, Including Jail Time
"Boomer" Winfrey
Varmint County Correspondent

As the fearless investigative reporter for the Varmint County War Whoop & Exterminator, I often get news stories from an inside perspective, usually by sitting in on a few hands of Texas Hold 'Em with the county's political insiders at Doc Filstrup's weekly poker game.

I don't often get the chance to cover socalled breaking news on the spot, however. We usually receive word about car wrecks, robberies in progress or house fires when somebody hears about it on the grapevine and calls our office. We get there in time to watch the fire department extinguish the last embers, or watch Smiley's Wrecker Service drive off with the crumpled car. We tried installing a police scanner in the newsroom so we could get a heads-up on such stories, but Editor & Publisher Virginia Hamm quickly booted it into the trash bin.

"I don't care if that thing tells you the exact time the Apocalypse is coming, I can't stand the derned racket. Get it out of here," my boss declared after a couple of days of listening to the scanner squawk and squeak.

So, I was thrilled a couple of weeks ago to get a tip about a big upcoming bust at Cookie's Flea Market & Tool Swap out near the interstate. Archie Aslinger got the word from Ike Pinetar, down at Mud Lake Marina, who got the word from his cousin Pokey, who is an enthusiastic coon hunter, who got it from Hanley Hotchkiss, one of the local game wardens.

"They're gonna bust Toby Haig and Wheatie Hockmyer down at the flea market on Saturday," Archie told me over coffee at Mama Capizzi's diner.

"Who's gonna bust them for what?" I asked, already guessing the answer.

"The state game and fish people are going to get them for trafficking in exotic animals and wildlife. Ought'a be quite a show," Archie chuckled.

So on Saturday morning, I made it a point to head down to the flea market early, along with our photographer/sports editor Beano McQue, and just drift among the tables and stalls, all the time keeping a watch on the big tent labeled "Everything Outdoors," where Toby and Wheatie sell sporting goods, including everything from AK-47s to live bait.

Leroy "Cookie" Comer got the idea for his flea market several years ago, after his filling station and mini mart caught fire and burned to the ground. Cookie mysteriously had removed most of his inventory to a storage shed while he "renovated" the old building, so while he was waiting for the insurance check, he decided to peddle cigarettes, lottery tickets, potato chips, sodas and beer from a series of tables set up in his former parking lot, with extension cords running the coolers from his nearby house.

Wasn't long before Granny Huggins asked him if she could set up a table and sell her homemade raspberry jam and sourwood honey. Cookie saw that as an opportunity to attract more folks to his open-air mini mart, so he agreed.

Next came Ophelia Gumble, who wanted to sell her homemade quilts, lace doilies and pillow cases. After Ophelia set up, it was just a matter of days before Hiram Mudd approached Cookie about setting up a table to peddle seed and garden tools.

By this time, Cookie knew he was onto a good thing and decided he didn't really need to re-build his mini mart and gas station. He simply began to charge a weekly fee to set up and sell goods at his outdoor flea market.

The first time that it rained and half of the vendors stayed home, he realized he needed a large tent area to keep customers and vendors dry. Then when summer slipped into Autumn and the days began to grow chilly, Cookie realized that what he really needed was an enclosed, heated space so he could keep things going year-round.

By the time I got around to visiting the flea market on that fateful Saturday, Cookie had covered the two acres once occupied by his filling station and parking lot, along with the two acres once occupied by his backyard and garden, along with the neighboring ten acre vacant lot that he bought from Colonel Hugh Ray Jass and about an acre of ground that technically belonged to the state as highway rightof-way but was now being used for overflow parking.

One could walk among the booths and see just about anything that you might think of purchasing, from homemade crafts and baked goods to used tools to second-hand CDs, DVDs, old video tapes and even ancient 8track tapes and tape players, not to mention a Velvet Elvis or two. You could also buy used cars, farm tractors, bass boats, get a haircut, a shampoo, a tattoo or a nose ring, depending on one's taste.

Herman Sample sold old magazines and books. Herman's mom started subscribing to National Geographic back in 1937. "One thing about them Geographic magazines," Herman sighed, "Folks never toss them away, They save 'em and save 'em until they begin to pile up on the coffee table, then they buy a bookcase to put 'em in. When that's full, they box 'em up and start filling the attic."

When Granny Sample died a couple of years back, Herman found that her attic contained two copies of every issue of National Geographic magazine for the past 72 years, along with map supplements and hardbound special publications.

"I figured the only thing to do was try to sell 'em down here at the flea market. A lot of people don't read all that well, but them Geographics is full of pictures, so I guessed folks might buy 'em for that," Herman explained.

He guessed right. Pretty soon he also discovered that Coca-Cola collectors among the interstate travelers, eagerly paid a premium for some of the magazines with Coke ads on the back covers and Herman was suddenly in the book and magazine business.

"My prize offerings include these copies of Harpers Weekly printed during the Civil War. One of them had an article that mentioned Colonel Tobias Jass, Judge Hugh Ray's greatgrandfather and a Union officer. The Judge paid me five hunnert dollars for it. My most valuable prize is this here issue number one of Playboy, autographed by Hugh Heffner himself. I had two and sold one for eight hunnert bucks," Herman bragged.

Among the countless vendors' tables, fast food stalls and wandering fiddle players, one stall stood out. A huge black tent sheltered the offerings of Toby Haig and Wheatie Hockmeyer, who sold guns, ammunition, fishing tackle, outdoor clothing, ski poles, canoes, four wheelers, snow carts and everything in between that related to the great outdoors.

In one corner of the tent was an enclosed space from whence the occasional baying of a hound would resonate. Toby and Wheatie also sold registered Blue Tick Hound Dogs and other varieties of coon hounds, bear hounds, fox hounds, Beagles and any other variety of hunting dog they could lay their hands on.

This is the area that interested the game and fish officers who gathered, in plain clothes, in various corners of the tent that Saturday morning while one of their men from the Burrville office approached Wheatie.

"I'm a'lookin' fer a good pair of coon dawgs," game warden Carter McCracken told Wheatie, spitting the words around a large chaw of Red Man.

"We have jest about any kind you want. Come over to the hound pool and I'll show ya' what we've got in stock," Wheatie replied.

After a short tour of the cages, Officer McCracken selected a pair of young Blue Ticks at $600 for the pair. "I need to train these dawgs pretty quick, a'fore they get too big," McCracken said. You don't know where I might find a live coon or two, do you?"

"As a matter of fact, why don't you come over here to the zoo," Wheatie said, pointing to an area behind a large canvass curtain. In one cage, pacing restlessly from one corner to another, were a half dozen raccoons in various stages of growth.

"I can give you one of the full grown ones fer only fifty bucks, seein' as how you're buying the hounds from me. Or I'll let you have a pair of the young ones fer only thirty bucks apiece."

"I'll take the two young ones for sixty. Here's your money."

"You can back your truck up to the back entrance here and through that flap where nobody can see us. I'll help you load your animals," Wheatie added.

"Thanks, and oh, by the way, would you mind putting your hands behind your back while I slap these handcuffs on you?" Carter McCracken replied. "You're under arrest for possession and sale of wildlife."

When McCracken and the stricken Wheatie Hockmeyer emerged from the "zoo," other officers moved in and arrested Toby Haig at the cash register while Beano McQue snapped off a couple of quick photos for the War Whoop & Exterminator's front page.

"While you boys from the press are here, we might as well take you back and see what else these fellows have been peddling from their back room," McCracken announced.

Next to the raccoon cage was another cage containing a half dozen possums. A rabbit cage came next, and then a cage containing two full-grown coyotes, hungrily eying the rabbits.

"What the devil is this?" one game warden asked, lifting the cover from a glass enclosure containing no fewer than a dozen timber rattlesnakes and another with several poisonous copperheads.

"Here's a note on this cage 'Save six for Reverend Gurney,'" Carter McCracken pointed out. "I think we might want to keep this tent open for awhile."

So a couple of wildlife officers proceeded to keep "Everything Outdoors" open for business for the rest of the day. Officer McCracken told customers that he was Toby Haig's cousin and was filling in while Toby and Wheatie made a special delivery of fox hounds to the Burrville Country Club. Nobody thought to question this story, despite the fact that Burrville has no country club.

In the process, they managed to arrest three hunters from Capuchin County for attempting to purchase raccoons, teenager Cody Potts for attempting to sell a pair of possums and a gray fox he trapped up on Flatiron Peak and a couple of fellows from the next state who brought in a "special delivery order."

A young state park ranger recklessly pulled back the canvas tarp covering the "special delivery" cage, to have his face nearly removed by the claws of a mountain lion trapped out in Colorado. The ranger fell back, turned over the cage and the puma was out running among the stalls at Cookie's Flea Market & Tool Swap. Fortunately for all involved, the puma tried to snatch a prize fighting cock tied to a post at Aunt Matildy Pinetar's booth.

Aunt Matildy promptly conked the large cat on the head with a large skillet full of fried hawg cracklin's, stunning it. A second blow laid the poor feline out cold until the game wardens could transfer the unconscious cat into another cage.

Finally, late in the day, the Reverend Tobias Gurney from the Church of Jesus Christ for His Holy Name's Sake, Cumberland Assembly, dropped by to pick up the six rattlesnakes he had ordered for Sunday services. The reverend was promptly arrested for attempting to purchase exotic wildlife, along with a second charge for possession of poisonous snakes, resulting from the dozen copperheads and three cottonmouth moccasins that he already had in his truck.

"So, you reckon Toby and Wheatie will get any time for selling wild animals?" I asked nobody in particular at Doc Filstrup's poker table the following Wednesday night.

"I can't respond to that question, " Judge Hobert "Hard Time" Harwell replied. "The case is due to be tried in my court."

"Depends on the jury," Colonel Hugh observed. "Most Varmint County folks don't see the harm in using coons to train coon hounds. They may let them off on the lesser charge of possession of wildlife since Officer McCracken arrested Wheatie before he actually took possession of the raccoons."

"What about the cougar? Isn't it a pretty serious crime to trap a live mountain lion?"

"That's a fact, but those two fellows who brought it in will face those charges, back in Colorado. Toby claims they never ordered a mountain lion and would have turned it down, and there's no evidence to the contrary," Judge Harwell cut in.

"So we're what? Talking just a fine here?" I asked.

"Most likely. I think the wildlife officers are more interested in seeing those two out of the wild animal business than in putting anyone behind bars."

"So how heavy a fine would they face?"

"It could be significant. Sheriff Potts needs a couple of four-wheelers to search for marijuana fields and the rescue squad would love to have a couple of snowmobiles for Winter emergencies. I notice "Everything Outdoors" just happens to have a couple of good secondhand four wheelers and a couple of snowmobiles in stock," the Judge grinned.

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