“Carmen! Justin!” my friend Sanford whispered hoarsely as he climbed over our back fence.
“I saw him again—down at the park!” He caught his breath. “Maybe he’s still there.”
I could feel my heart thumping. “Let’s go watch him,” I said, picking up a branch.
Sanford pulled his flipper from his back pocket. “I’ve got this.”
“Weapons?” Carmen questioned. “Why do we need weapons? We’re just going to watch him, not fight him.”
“What if he comes after us?” Sanford asked, standing up and siding with me.
“Then we’ll run,” Carmen answered.
We sneaked out of the yard, down the street, and over to the park. Then, crawling behind some bushes and up a little hill, we stopped near the top and peeked over it at the park. There was hardly anybody there because it was still pretty early in the morning, but in the far corner, just leaving the park, was the mysterious stranger carrying a burlap bag over his shoulder.
“That’s him!” Sanford gasped.
“I wonder what he has in that bag,” I muttered. “It looks pretty big.”
“Do you think that he could fit one of us inside that bag?” Carmen whispered.
All three of us shuddered at the idea.
“He always seems to be looking for something,” Sanford observed.
“Maybe he’s looking for treasure,” I suggested.
“Maybe he’s a robber who hid his money someplace and can’t remember where,” Carmen put in.
“Let’s follow him,” I said in a shaky whisper. “Maybe we’ll find out that the police are after him. If we turn him in to the police, we might get a reward.”
“You’re right, Justin,” Sanford whispered, “we’d better follow him.”
The three of us hurried across the park and down the street. We didn’t want to get too close, so we stayed way back and hid behind trees, bushes, or parked cars.
He snooped everywhere. And he’d stop and pick things up and drop them into his bag.
“I wonder what he’s doing,” Carmen said after we had been following him for a few minutes.
“He sure likes to peek into garbage cans,” Sanford pointed out.
“Maybe he’s looking for messages,” I said.
“Messages?” Carmen asked.
“Yeah,” I went on. “Maybe he works for a gang of robbers, and they leave him messages so that he’ll know what to steal.”
We were still following the mysterious stranger when he went behind Bishop Paulsen’s grocery store and slipped inside.
“He’s going to rob the bishop!” Sanford gasped.
“We have to warn him!” Carmen cried.
But we just stood there. A few minutes later the mysterious stranger stepped out of Bishop Paulsen’s store, carrying an empty bag!
“What should we do?” Sanford gulped as the stranger walked away. “Should we go for the police?”
While I was still thinking about it, Carmen started toward the store. Sanford and I looked at each other, shrugged, and followed her.
We tiptoed up to the back door and pushed it open. Bishop Paulsen was in his storeroom, washing his hands in a little sink.
“Are you all right?” we all blurted out.
Bishop Paulsen whipped around when we shouted. “Why, hello, kids.” He grinned. “You startled me.” He grabbed a paper towel and dried his hands. “What can I do for you?”
For a moment all three of us just stood and stared. Then Sanford rasped, “Didn’t you get robbed?”
“Did the mysterious stranger do anything to you?” Carmen asked.
“What mysterious stranger?”
“Didn’t you see him?” I asked. “He was in here just a minute ago. Maybe he took something that you don’t even know about. You’d better check your candy and soda pop.”
“Sit down,” the bishop said, pointing to some empty crates stacked in a corner. We all sat down. “Now what’s this about a mysterious stranger?” he asked.
“We’ve been following a mysterious stranger,” I explained. “We’ve seen him other times too. He always carries a big burlap bag, and he’s always snooping around places. So we figured that maybe he was a robber or something. And just a few minutes ago he came into your store and … and …”
“Oh, you mean Brother Lund.” The bishop laughed.
“Brother … Lund?” the three of us gasped.
“Once or twice a week he brings me a bag or two of aluminum cans. I sell them to a recycling outfit.”
“He’s just gathering cans?” Carmen asked.
The bishop nodded and smiled. “He’s a good man. In fact, he was my Scoutmaster when I was a boy.”
“So why does he gather cans?” Carmen asked.
“Well, he’s been retired for quite a few years and lives on a small pension, so sometimes he fixes people’s washers and dryers and things—and gathers cans to sell. That way he earns a few extra dollars.”
Disappointed, the three of us dragged out into the parking lot. As we sat on the curb in front of the store, Sanford muttered, “I liked it lots better when Brother Lund was a mysterious stranger. It’s no fun now.”
“Yeah,” I agreed. “Now we can’t wonder why he’s sneaking around and who he’s going to rob.”
“I wonder what it’s like to have to pick up cans,” Carmen mused.
“Huh?” Sanford grunted.
“We’ve picked up cans before,” she said, “but just to get money for candy. How would it feel if we had to do it because we didn’t have enough money to live on?”
“Do you think he’s really poor?” I wanted to know.
“I wonder if he needs help,” Carmen said.
“If he does,” Sandford declared, “somebody else will have to help him. We’re just kids.”
“We can help him,” Carmen said, “even if we are kids.”
“How?” Sanford and I asked together.
“Brother Lund is pretty old. We could gather cans and sneak up to his place and leave them on his lawn and not tell who did it.”
“Hey—then we can be the mysterious strangers!” I grinned.
Sanford jumped up excitedly. “I know where there are lots of cans. Let’s go get our wagons and some trash bags from home.”
We were off and running. We went down to the ballpark, over to the picnic grounds, and just about everywhere else in town where people threw their cans. By afternoon Sanford had two trash bags full of cans in his wagon, and Carmen and I had two in ours.
“We must have about a million cans here,” Sanford boasted as we pulled our wagons down the street toward Brother Lund’s house.
“There aren’t a million cans here,” Carmen muttered. “A million cans would fill ten wagons.”
“Then we have half a million cans,” Sanford came back.
Carmen shrugged. “Well, maybe a half million. Are we going to leave a note?” she asked. “I brought paper and a pencil.”
“What would we write?” I asked.
“Let’s write, ‘To Brother Lund from the mysterious strangers.’”
Sanford and I grinned and nodded our heads. We sneaked the four bags onto Brother Lund’s lawn, with the note sticking up from the top of one of them, then scampered off.
Two days later we looked for cans again. This time we only found enough to fill two and a half bags. Then on Saturday, after a game at the ballpark, we searched under the bleachers and found lots of cans. That day we filled five bags!
Just as we lifted the bags over Brother Lund’s front fence, someone called out, “So you’re the mysterious strangers.”
We all jumped and were about to dash down the street, when Brother Lund stood up not ten feet from us. He’d been down pulling weeds in his flower bed, and we hadn’t seen him. “I’ve been wondering who you were,” he said, smiling.
We just stood by the wagons and stared as Brother Lund came closer. “I’m surely glad that you came,” he said. “I have two big cantaloupes in my garden that I haven’t picked yet because I don’t have anybody to eat them with. Do you like cantaloupes, mysterious strangers?”
Sanford was inside that gate with Brother Lund before Carmen and I could even blink.
Brother Lund was right. Those cantaloupes were huge. But we managed to eat both of them, and while we ate, Brother Lund told us stories. When we told him how we’d thought that he was a mysterious stranger, he had a good laugh.
“I used to think that it was exciting that you were the mysterious stranger,” Sanford told him, “but I like you better this way.”
“Can we still be your mysterious strangers, even though you know who we are?” I asked, hoping that we could visit Brother Lund again. “We can still gather cans for you.”
Brother Lund thought for a minute, then said, “If I let you gather cans for me, will you do a favor for me?” We all nodded our heads. “I have a big garden and a few fruit trees and grapevines. I grow some good things, but I hate to eat them alone. Would you be willing to come down and eat them with me?” Our eyes got big, and we all licked our lips. “My watermelons will be ripe in a week or so. And the apples are turning red. And the—”
“We’ll be here,” we all shouted. “We’ll be your mysterious strangers all the time.”
And we were.