As Dirk and I left the leaf-strewn path and rounded the corner of Dempsten’s General Store, we smelled the strong gasoline fumes that arose in shimmering waves from the opening of Mr. Larson’s bright gas tank and danced off in the autumn sunlight.
“Howdy, kids!” Mr. Dempsten called as he kept pumping the gas. “The electric poles out to your place yet?”
Dirk grinned happily but shook his head, while I shivered and opened the door. We stepped quickly inside.
“Morning, kids,” Mrs. Dempsten called cheerily. She stacked one last can on the shelf, then climbed down the ladder. “What can I do for you today?”
“We need five pounds of sugar and five pounds of cornmeal,” I replied. “Plus, Mother wants ten yards of unbleached muslin and one box of yellow dye.”
Mrs. Dempsten reached for the heavy bolt of material. “Getting ready to make new curtains, I expect,” she said. “And if she’s planning on making a quilt this winter, I have new cotton batting selling for thirty cents a bundle.”
“I’ll tell her,” I replied.
“I have yellow muslin, too,” Mrs. Dempsten continued as she measured the material along a yardstick fastened to the counter. “Only two cents more per yard.”
“I’d better get just what she asked for,” I replied.
Dirk pointed silently at the penny candy behind the glass. I nodded, then waited to see if there would be any change.
“Is that it, Lucy?” Mrs. Dempsten asked, wetting the tip of her pencil between her lips before writing on the paper.
Mrs. Dempsten added the column from top to bottom, then added it again from bottom to top. Finally she shoved the pencil back into her hair and quickly folded the muslin. “That’s two dollars even, Lucy,” she said with a smile.
I pulled the money from my pocket. Dirk gave me a dark look, then slumped with his back against the candy case.
“Have they gotten the electric poles out to your farm yet?” she asked as she tied a piece of twine around the bundle of muslin.
“No, but they’re near the old Beamer place!” Dirk announced excitedly. “I watch them work every day!”
“I suppose everyone in the valley will have electricity before long,” Mrs. Dempsten said.
“Father said we’ll have to pay for water next!” I added with a grin.
Mrs. Dempsten laughed. “Not as long as everyone has good wells! But we can’t hold back progress, can we?” She reached for a small paper sack and plopped a handful of penny candy into it. Then she twisted the top and handed it to Dirk. “Take this along with you, and don’t eat it all at once!”
Later Dirk and I sat in a clump of dried weeds by the fence, watching the men put another electric pole into the ground. “I hope the first good wind doesn’t blow them over,” Dirk said thoughtfully.
I stood and brushed off the seat of my slacks. “It’s getting cold. I’m going home. Are you coming?”
Dirk shook his head. “You go—I like to watch progress!”
The ground was frosty crisp, and the air chill with winter’s promise. Stray pumpkins dotted the field, and as I walked carefully over the corn stubble, I found one that was nearly perfect. I twisted it from its stem, then carried it to the root cellar. As I started toward the house, I heard the shed doors banging in the rising wind.
The orange sky was turning gray, and the air had stinging spears of snow in it. I looked across the field toward the road and shook my head. Dirk will probably sit and watch the men working until it’s dark, no matter how cold it gets, I thought. With a shivering hand, I pulled my collar up around my face and hurried toward the banging doors.
I grabbed the doors and pulled with all my might, but one flapped out of my hand and banged loudly. Finally they both stood edge to edge, and I fixed the latch. As I went around the corner, I glanced in through the shed window. A dark form huddled on the floor in a corner! At first I thought that it was a wild animal; then I looked closer and saw that it was a man.
He looked like he was sleeping—or maybe even dead! A shiver went through me, and my feet seemed glued to the spot, while my arms and legs turned to mush. I was afraid to stay there but even more afraid to move. Finally I turned the knob of the side door as quietly as I could and opened it. Instantly it was torn from my hand by the wind and banged noisily against the side of the shed. My heart leaped into my throat, and I stared fearfully at the man. But he didn’t move.
Terrified, I dashed toward the house, pounded onto the porch, and burst into the kitchen. “Father!” I blurted. “There’s a stranger in our shed!”
Father was on his feet instantly. He grabbed Dirk’s baseball bat from the corner and hurried outside, with me close behind.
“Paul!” Mother called frantically.
Father turned and said gently, “Don’t worry, Lucile. I’ll be very careful.” Then he patted my shoulder and smiled. “Stay well behind me, Lucy.”
The shed was even darker by then, and father blinked in the direction I pointed. “Howdy,” he called out. “May I ask what you’re doing here?”
When the man didn’t move or make a sound, Father frowned and crept closer until he almost stood over him. Gently he shook the man’s arm. The man groaned and rolled himself into a tighter ball. Father knelt and touched the man’s forehead. “He’s burning up with fever!” he declared, releasing his hold on the baseball bat. “Tell your mother that I’m bringing him inside, Lucy.”
I was almost afraid to leave my father alone with the stranger, but he bent and slid one arm under the man’s shoulders and the other under his legs. With a heave, he lifted him from the cold dirt floor. I ran ahead to the house.
Father put the man to bed in our spare room; then Mother wiped his beard-studded face and put cool cloths on his head. “Keep quiet, children,” she said gently. “He’s a very sick young man.”
“I’ll get the doctor,“ Father said with concern.
Later, after Doctor Borrison had come and gone, Dirk and I stood in the hall and looked through the door at the sleeping stranger.
“He looks like a tramp,” Dirk whispered. “Maybe a criminal, even!”
I shrugged. “He’s sick and down and out, that’s all.”
“With all the progress around here, he could get a job somewhere if he wanted to,” Dirk mumbled. “Father will probably have to pay the doctor bill now too. We’ll never save enough to get electricity.”
“Progress doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t help each other,” I reminded Dirk impatiently. “That’s all Mom and Dad are trying to do.”
Dirk frowned as Father came up the stairs. “Come away, children,” he said gently. “Let the poor man rest.”
“How long’s he going to be here?” Dirk grumped.
“As long as it takes him to get well, Dirk,” Father answered. “You wouldn’t want me to be hungry and sick and lying on someone’s cold shed floor somewhere, would you?”
Dirk looked up quickly. “No, Father!” he exclaimed contritely. “It’s just that I’ve been hoping that maybe soon we’d have enough money for electricity.”
Father nodded. “But electricity is a convenience, Dirk, and we can get it or do without it. People, on the other hand, are different, and if we don’t help each other, then progress doesn’t mean much, does it?”