with the sheriff gone, the farmer’s daughter resumed her knitting.
the farmer resumed his staring into the fire.
time passed. there were no clocks in the room, or in the house, and neither the farmer nor the daughter carried any kind of timepiece on their persons.
another knock was heard at the door. not as loud or demanding as the sheriff’s, but clear enough.
again, neither the farmer nor the daughter said aloud, who can that be? but the farmer hauled himself out of his chair and approached the door.
the daughter was a bit surprised that the farmer did not retrieve his shotgun before opening the door, but she did not remark on it.
but imagine her surprise, when on opening the door, the farmer did not angrily demand of the intruder what his business was or how he dared to impose his presence on such a foul night, but welcomed him instead with a hearty - come on in, stranger! as blasts of snow and wind, which had doubled in ferocity since the sheriff’s visit, invaded the room and almost extinguished the fire.
a terrible night! continued the farmer, after closing the door. fortunately for you, we are welcoming folk in these parts. he took the stranger by the arm and led him to the fire.
daughter, he said, why don’t get this poor fellow some dry clothes, while he warms himself at the fire?
dry clothes? but where am i to get them?
oh, frank, the hired man, left some behind when he mysteriously disappeared last summer. they will be in the closet with the rakes, behind the paint cans.
as the daughter got up from her chair in the corner, she got her first good look at the stranger, and did not at like what she saw. he looked a perfect villain, with a stubbly beard and the long arms of a gorilla. his wet clothes were ripped and torn and as he was not wearing a hat, long strands of wet hair hung into his eyes, which were dark and staring.
as the daughter climbed the stairs, she heard the farmer saying, once we get you into some warm clothes, we will decide where you are to sleep. and the farmer laughed as the daughter had never heard him laugh before.
the daughter reached the second floor, but instead of looking for the hired man’s clothes she ran to a window at the end of the corridor between her bedroom and the farmer’s.
yanking open the window, she climbed out onto a branch of the old apple tree, and shimmied down the tree and ran into the stormy night.
she ran to the highway, which she could hardly see through the driving snow.
she ran and ran. finally she saw a pair of headlights.
she ran out in front of them. help me! she cried. help me!
at this point in the young woman’s narrative, she paused. just as mort was about to ask her why she had stopped, he too saw lights ahead - not the lights of another vehicle, but of a roadblock.
he slowly drew to a stop, and a pair of uniformed men, whom he assumed to be state troopers , approached, one of them carrying a high powered flashlight.
when the trooper shone the flashlight into the car, mort glanced over at the young woman, who had remained huddled against the door during the whole time of her recital of her story.
and he beheld a gray wrinkled face with one tooth, and long strands of gray hair covering its eyes.
can i help you, officer? mort managed to turn and ask. is anything wrong?
i will say there is something wrong, mister. you are under arrest.
arrest - arrest for what?
for grave robbing, mister. and transporting a corpse across state lines!
mort put his car in gear and headed down the highway toward porterville, with the young woman from the general store in the passenger seat beside him. she had a hood pulled up over her head, and he had still not gotten a good look at her.
the road, as he expected, was deserted, whether because of the coming storm, or because that was just the way it was.
so do you live in porterville? mort asked the young woman. what is a nice looking girl like you doing out here at the crossroads in the dead of night, anyway?
i did not say i lived in porterville, i said i wanted a lift on the way to porterville.
i have been down this road before, and there is not a lot between porterville and here.
there is a farm.
it must be the only one.
so, if there is a farm, there must be a farmer.
most people would think so.
you must be the farmer’s daughter.
that’s a brilliant deduction, mister.
so, are you the farmer’s daughter? and do you have a name?
let me answer you by telling you a story.
a sudden gust of wind shook the car a little bit - the first sign of the supposedly approaching storm.
once upon a time, the girl began, there was a farm, and there was a farmer who lived on it, and he had some cows and pigs, and an old yellow dog and some cats, and a daughter. but no sheep. he was not partial to sheep and had nothing good to say about them.
now this farmer was not a friendly sort, nor was he a bible reading man, and he had no sense of humor. no sense of humor whatsoever.
the farmer was very aware of the fact that folks found humor in the fact that he had a daughter, and he was determined that no one would ever have a laugh at his expense over the fact that he had one.
and you were that daughter, mort interrupted.
let me tell the story, please.
one stormy and snowy night, the farmer was sitting in his old rocking chair staring into the blazing fireplace, and the daughter was sitting away from the fire, in a corner, working at her endless knitting, when suddenly there was a loud bangingoin the door.
who can that be? both the farmer and the daughter wondered, but neither said so out loud, because they were both persons of few words.
maybe it’s the sheriff, the farmer muttered, as he got up and went to the door.
it was indeed the sheriff, sheriff tom brown. what can i do for you tonight, sheriff? the farmer enquired, only opening the door as much as he had to, to keep the wind and snow from blowing inside.
i just dropped by to let you folks know that a desperate killer, brownie black, has escaped from the state pen and is on the loose. just a word to the wise.
thank you kindly, sheriff, the farmer replied, but i do not think he will get very far in this storm. and if he does, i have my trusty old shotgun ready, and i will not let him in.
i am glad to hear that, sheriff tom brown replied. i guess then i will be getting along, as i have other folks out here in the countryside to spread the news to.
and with that the farmer closed the door and returned to the fire, which he stirred up a bit before returning to his chair.
a little cold air had been let in, but the room quickly returned to its previous level of warmth.
looks like a big storm coming on, mister. i would not try to get through to porterville tonight if i was you.
mort miller smiled, i thank you for your advice, my friend, but i have to make this sale tomorrow.
suit yourself. i know these parts, and if you don’t want to take my advice…. the man behind the counter of the general store shrugged. it s only four hours to porterville. if you stay here overnight and get an early start in the morning, you should get to porterville no later than ten o’clock. you can’t make your sale then?
no, not if my rival gets there at seven or eight o’clock, and has already made his sale and gone when i get there.
oh, so that is the way of it, eh? and is this rival of yours coming down this same road? he will face the same storm as you.
no, he is coming from the south, from his company’s headquarters in wilson city.
from wilson city. eh? the man behind the counter thoughtfully scratched his head. well, then, he might get a ways before running into the storm, might miss it altogether.
so you see my situation, mort said.
the man behind the counter shook his head. well, it’s up to you, my friend. i guess it depends on how bad you want to make this sale of yours.
i don’t want to make the sale, mort answered. i need to make the sale. his voice was light, but there was a steely glint in his eye.
well, i wish you luck.
thank you. mort picked the package wrapped in brown paper up off the counter and turned and left the store.
it was dark outside the store. there were no other stores or houses in sight, snd the country road was not lit up in any way.
but there were two people sitting on the store’s porch. no one had been there when mort had entered the store.
a skinny man wearing faded blue coveralls and a straw hat.
and a small young woman, maybe a child. she and the man sat apart and did not seem to be together. the young woman was in the shadows of the porch, and mort could not get a good look at her.
friendliness was a major part of mort’s stock in trade, i am headed to porterville, he announced, either of you folks looking for a lift?
thankee kindly, mister the man in the blue coveralls said, but i don’t care to brave the storm headed this way, and i would advise you to do likewise, though i do not mean to tell you your bidness.
but you just did, didn’t you, came a young girl’s perky voice from the shadows of the porch, and besides, if the storm is coming, you are just sitting out here in the open ready to get blown away like a baby lamb.
if it is all the same to you. miss, i have a proper hole in the ground i aim to crawl into as soon as i can get my old bones moving.
girlish laughter came from the shadows. now i don’t suppose you want to invite me to share that hole in the ground, do you?
well, in that case i will take up this kind gentleman’s offer of a ride on the road to porterville, as it just so happens to be on my way. is the offer still good , mister?
is it ever, thought mort, entranced by the silvery tones of the maiden’s voice. it surely is, miss, he replied. he took his car keys out of his pocket and waved them in her direction, come along, if you are coming.
the man in the blue coveralls looked up at mort with sad bleary eyes.
i am a friendly person. like most people these days, i make my living at home, in my apartment, and being a friendly person, i like to get out at night and talk to people. i mean, i see people on zoom and whatever, and talk to customers and potential customers all day and much of the night, but to an old fashioned person like me it is not quite the same.
so, like i say, i like to get out sometimes and talk to people. i do not really have any so-called days off, so i stay away from bars or places with alcohol, because i need my brain to be sharp - at least as sharp as it can be, ha ha - at all times in case i am called upon by my employer.
mostly i go to this little donut shop - actually it is a pretty big donut shop, open twenty four hours a day, and brightly lit up, and except maybe between two and five in the morning, crowded.
busy as it is, there is no crowd of “regulars” who are always there, and the people who work behind the counters, it seems like they change every week or every day. and a lot of them do not seem to speak much english except for what they have to to get by in taking orders for coffee or donuts or breakfast sandwiches so as i am an ignorant american who speaks only english, i would not be getting into any serious conversations with them even if they had any inclination to talk to me, which they do not seem to have anyway.
be all that as it may, i do sometimes manage to talk to people. the other night i was in there pretty late, sitting at one of the little tables by myself, and i saw this fellow at the next little table, and he looked sort of sad and lonely, so i asked him how it was going with him, and he obliged me by telling me.
i do not say it was the saddest story i ever heard, but i thought it was a pretty sad one. but judge for yourself, here it is.
i thought i had it pretty good (he began) and that i was getting places and that everybody liked me.
and then i started getting the feeling that some people were out to get me.
and it turned out to be true, they were.
but i fought back with all the strength at my command. i said never say die, and i did not give in.
for a while i thought i had them beaten back, but as the days went by i realized they were massing their forces against me more than ever and were determined to destroy me, and leave me without a shred of my pride or dignity.
but i still did not quit. quitters never win and winners never quit, that is what i told myself.
i picked myself up off the mat and got back in the center of the ring.
i gave it everything i had, and then some.
but they kept on coming. they showed me no mercy. if i wanted mercy , look for it in dictionary under “m”, that is what they told me.
all my so called friends and allies ignored me or actively turned against me.
i never realized what rats and hypocrites and psychopaths and sadists and backstabbers people were, and how much they loved to kick you when you were down.
i swear to you that i gave it everything i had and more. i fought and fought and fought.
but in the end they swept over me like a tidal wave over a little island in the middle of the ocean as far as the eye could see.
and now i have nothing and am nothing.
so ended the sad looking man’s story. i tried to offer him some words of encouragement and tell him that it was always darkest before dawn and all that, but i could not get him to look me in the eye or say anything more.
i finished my coffee and chocolate glazed donut with coconut sprinkles, and got up and left.
i walked back to my apartment through the dark streets.