The angle iron clanged on the farmhouse porch as an old woman rattled a steel bar around the inside of the triangle. “Even Elias should be able to hear that,” she said.
He did. The old man in the timeworn poncho turned away from the chicken coop toward the house. “Too early for supper,” he said, peering through the haze of falling snow. Raising a bushy eyebrow, he absentmindedly picked up his hammer and started across the snow-muddied yard. Fixing the gate would have to wait until he saw what all the clamor was about. “Nothing worse than stopping a job when it’s half done!” he grumbled to a hen that scooted out of his path and under a motorcar.
He stopped at the porch and spoke to his wife. “What’s so important that I have to stop in the middle of my work? And what’s Ethel Kramer doing here?” he asked, gesturing to the Model A parked next to their house.
Grandma planted her hands on her hips. “You’ll have answers to both those questions if you’ll get yourself inside, Elias Palmer Thorton.”
Inside, he gasped at the sight of his granddaughter lying on the sofa, bruised and scraped from head to foot. “What happened to you?”
“Nellie,” she answered with a grunt of pain, turning to see him better as he brushed snowflakes from his often-patched, two-sizes-too-small poncho. “Mrs. Kramer saw me on the road and brought me home.”
Grandpa nodded a thank-you to the stout, red-haired woman. “Much obliged, Ethel.” He pulled up a chair and sat down. “What did this Nellie do to get you so banged up?”
Twelve-year-old Melody’s eyes filled with tears. “I was walking home from school. She ran up behind me and took my umbrella. She said that since she was bigger than I was, she should have it. Then she laughed and pushed me hard. I tripped over something in the weeds and fell down the little hill by Sutter’s Bridge.” Her eyes narrowed with anger. “Ever since I came to live with you and Grandma, Nellie’s been making life hard for me.”
Grandpa nodded. “And what are you planning to do about it?”
“What can I do about it, Grandpa? I’d defend myself, but Nellie’s a lot bigger and meaner than me. She’d bust me up into little pieces if I tried to fight back. I hate her, Grandpa! I wish she’d never been born!”
Grandpa and Grandma exchanged concerned looks. “Hate is an ugly thing, Melody,” Grandpa said. “It can scar and bruise us inside a lot worse than any hurts we receive on the outside. Your grandma can cleanse and bandage those cuts and scrapes, and in a few days you’ll be good as new. But hateful feelings toward others are another thing. If we don’t doctor them, they grow and fester like a sore. And in the end they consume us, along with our chance of ever being truly happy.”
Melody looked confused. And angry. “So I should say, ‘That feels good, Nellie. Do it again!’?”
“Quite the contrary, Pumpkin,” the old man chuckled, patting her hand. “If it happens again, I’ll get on the phone on that wall over there and raise enough dust to plant a field of corn. But I don’t think it needs to happen again. It’s quite possible that Nellie is feeling bad about what she did.”
“Is that why she laughed so hard when I tumbled down the hill? Because she felt bad?”
Grandpa’s eyes bored deep into his granddaughter’s. “Someone who treats others the way Nellie treats you can’t be happy. My guess is that she’s a very unhappy person. And when people hurt inside, they often take it out on others. Maybe Nellie’s striking out blindly at an easy target because her pain is too big to face. And misery loves company, even if the only way to get it is by being unkind.”
“Maybe this, maybe that,” Melody protested. “All I know is that I’m being turned into a human punching bag, and I don’t like it.”
“Nor do I,” Grandpa said. “So I want you to do something about it.”
Melody looked dumbfounded. “I’m doing all I can, Grandpa. I try to stay away from her and not pay any attention to her. In fact, I pretend that she doesn’t even exist. But she keeps showing up to remind me that she’s real—as real as the bad names she calls me, and—”
Grandpa placed a wrinkled finger gently across her lips. “I want to tell you about an experience I had when I was about your age. Then I want you to apply what I learned, and if it doesn’t make a difference, then your grandpa will.”
Melody sighed and nodded slowly.
“There was a boy named Ike,” Grandpa began. “He took delight in pushing people around. He wasn’t much bigger than me, but he had a meanness that made him scary. If he had put notches in the hitching post in front of the mercantile store for every kid he beat up, he would have needed a second post for want of room!
“I didn’t know at the time that he was being mistreated at home. All I knew was that he had it in for me. Like you, I tried to stay clear of him. But the harder I tried, the more he singled me out.”
Grandpa reached into his overalls and pulled out a pocket watch. “Your great-grandpa gave this to me,” he said, “and I treasured it. Then one day Ike stole it from me at school. He told me about it that afternoon when he saw me in the mercantile buying a candy stick—which he also took and ate right in front of me.”
Melody’s eyes were big. “How did you get the watch back, Grandpa?”
“Ike said that he had left it in the hills, just inside an abandoned mine called Yellow Spur. He said that he was curious to see if I wanted it badly enough to go up there after it. What he didn’t tell me was that at night the place crawled with scorpions.”
Melody grew tense as Grandpa continued. “I didn’t want to tell your great-grandpa about the missing watch—he had prized it so. Besides, I often hiked in the hills. But never after dark. Anyway, to make a long story short, I found the watch just inside the mine. It was right at my feet—along with a dozen scorpions! I didn’t know yet that Ike was hiding on a rock just outside and above the cave. I guess he was going to wait for me to get stung by one of those scorpions, and then take the watch back.”
“What happened, Grandpa?”
“I heard a yell, and the next thing I knew, Ike came tumbling off the rock and landed at my feet. He had been stung by a scorpion himself. And before I could help him up, he was stung by another one.”
“You tried to help him? Weren’t you afraid of getting stung too?”
“I was indeed, Pumpkin, but I remembered what my father said about our deeds being recorded in heaven. Besides, I felt sorry for him. So I helped him down the hill to our place, and my folks doctored him up. He was pretty sick from those bites, but he was back on his feet by morning.”
Grandpa leaned forward, his eyes shining. “The next day after school it rained, and I was getting soaked clear through. To my surprise, I felt something warm being dropped over my head.” Grandpa touched the poncho he was wearing. “It was this poncho, Melody. And to my total disbelief, it was Ike who was placing it on me. He gave me his poncho, the one he always wore as if it was his most treasured possession. He didn’t say anything. He just stared at me awhile and then went on his way. I never saw him again. His family moved somewhere after that. But I’ll never forget the look he gave me. And to this day I don’t know if the wetness on his face was all rainwater.”
There was a long silence. Finally Grandpa stood with a grunt. “Well, I’d better get back out there and fix that gate before the hens are everywhere but in the coop.”
A few days later, he was in the barn repairing a plow when he saw Melody crossing the yard with a bigger girl, who seemed shy, even a bit uneasy, although the two were talking and laughing. As they passed the barn, Melody spied him through the partially open doors. She picked up a rabbit, handed it to the girl to pet, and told her that she’d be right back.
“Grandpa!” she said in a low, excited voice as she hurried inside, “that’s Nellie! She walked home from school with me. I’m going to show her the dress Grandma is helping me sew. Can she stay for supper, Grandpa? We can drive her home in the truck, and—”
“That’s the Nellie?” Grandpa interrupted. “What happened?”
“All she had in her lunch yesterday was half a piece of bread and a stick of candy. So I sat by her on the steps and shared my lunch with her. I gave her some of the blackberry strudel Grandma made, half my jar of goat milk, and—”
“She let you sit by her?” Grandpa interrupted again.
“I guess she was so surprised that she didn’t know what to say, so I just did. While we were eating, her voice got all funny, and she looked away. I think she was trying to wipe away a tear. When I asked her if she was all right, she said, ‘Haven’t you ever gotten something in your eye?’ Then today after school she asked if she could walk home with me. And here she is.”
Melody hugged her grandfather so hard that he dropped the wrench he was holding. “Thanks, Grandpa,” she said, pulling away and half hiding her face with a hand.
“What’s the matter, Pumpkin?”
Melody brushed a finger quickly across her cheek. “Haven’t you ever gotten something in your eye, Grandpa?” With that, she turned and hurried back to Nellie.
Grandpa watched the two girls stroll toward the farmhouse. “Well, how about that,” he said, taking out his handkerchief. “I have something in my eye too.”