Weeks of obsessive tending and gentle turning ensured a blue ribbon for his biggest pumpkin next weekend. His chest puffed with impending pride as he fantasized about the envious stares of the other town folk, including that attractive, stuck-up woman next door, who always looked through him, not at him.
An easterly wind was starting as he watched the sky darken. The wind felt cool against his skin compared to the moist warm weather that soaked him in sweat earlier as he hoed around his pumpkin. As bright, painted leaves rained on his crop, he heard an infant's cry and turned his head toward the top of the hill. Under the old maple, his stuck-up neighbor was shielding a bundle from the wind, fumbling with her blouse. Probably trying to breast-feed the baby, he thought. He felt a little sorry for her; a single mother with an infant. He tried to be a good neighbor, but her stuck up attitude kept him at a distance. Maybe she did not trust men any more. He paid her no mind. He was single too and had his own problems.
He wondered what she was doing at the top of the hill, but then recalled seeing her walking the narrow path to her girlfriend’s house about half a mile beyond his own house. His hat was torn from his head as the wind grew stronger. He looked at the distant clouds moving at a great speed toward him. The horizon was a solid wall of clouds that gave a greenish tint to the sky. He had seen enough to recognize the signs – tornado!
Looking back at the maple tree, he could see the mother had knelt by the base to shelter her baby. Realizing that a tornado could tear the old tree apart in seconds, he shouted to warn her, but his voice was drowned out in the strong wind. He ran to the top of the hill as fast as he could. When he reached her, he shouted, “You can’t stay here. Too dangerous!” Half pulling, half jerking, he got her up with the baby.
“Where?” she yelled. The noise was as loud as the 7:20 freight train that passed through town every night without stopping.
He looked back at his house; too far! He looked at her house; even farther! He yelled back at her, “Come with me.” He cradled the baby in one arm, and then led her by the other. If they could make to his pumpkin patch, and lie down behind his prize pumpkin, they just might have enough protection. Placing the baby as close to the pumpkin as possible, he had the mother shield it with her body as he covered her body with his.
The wind grew stronger and louder then it grew quiet again. Peering over the top of the pumpkin, he saw the tornado rise into the clouds and pass overhead without doing any damage. They had been spared along with their houses. He looked over at his crop fields to see how much damage was done to the corn and saw a wall of hail the size of golf balls cutting through the corn as clean as a sickle, destroying everything in its path.
The hail would reach them in seconds. He realized that they would be injured in their exposed position. Without a word, he pulled the woman to her feet and placed the baby in her arms. He was frantic. Picking up his hoe, he swung at his prize pumpkin. After two or three tries, the shell split open. He dropped the hoe and used his hands to scoop out the insides. The woman realized what he was doing and began helping. When the pumpkin was half-empty she placed the baby inside the pumpkin. He helped her get inside as much as possible with the baby, covering them with the pumpkin rinds. Her legs were exposed, so he laid down on them, and spread his hands over her thighs to cover as much of her as possible.
Hail began to pelt them just as he was finishing. At first, a few struck him, but they hurt like hell. Then they came down by the hundreds. He tried not to yell as they hit him across his back, legs, and head. He knew he was going to be black and blue in the morning. After a couple of minutes, it was over. Mother and baby crawled out of the pumpkin covered in juice and seeds. He hurt in so many places that he did not know which spots to rub first.
She looked at the ice from the hail in his hair and clothes and brushed it out. He began to pick off pumpkin seeds from the baby’s face and from her hair. She smiled and they both began to laugh. She wiped her face with her sleeve, and then his face, kissing his cheek after she wiped it. “You saved us,” she said. “Thank you.”
They both looked down at the shattered pumpkin.
“Was that your pumpkin that you were going to enter into the fair?”
“Yeah! Well, I can grow another one next year. But it could have been worst. We could have been killed. A prize pumpkin is no big loss.”
“Well, you are very brave. It was quick thinking on your part. You are my hero. Are you hurt?”
“I don’t know. Are heroes supposed to feel like a punching bag?”
“I guess so. Sometimes. As you said, it could have been worst. I’ll tell you what; I need to take the baby home and clean her up. Why don’t you save some of this pumpkin, and come over to the house later? I will make some pumpkin pies. I may have a salve for those bruises too.”
“Okay,” he answered. This may be the start of a new good neighbor policy, he thought.