The results are in for a short story I entered this summer in White County Creative Writers Contests at Searcy, Arkansas. I was awarded sixth place for a version of the story I received second place for in an earlier contest. This time the story could only be 1500 words. That meant I had to do some drastic cutting and at the same time keep the basic story in tact. I managed to do just that, but I like the longer version better so that is my post for today. This story takes place during the Depression in the 1930’s.
The Unexpected Visitor
The two room cabin Rachel Archer rented wasn’t air tight, but it beat sleeping out in the open with the migrants. Sitting at her kitchen table drinking a second cup of morning coffee, she watched the freight trains slow down at the road crossing. Four men jumped on the flat cars and six leaped off. It was an ever day occurrence these days. Homeless and jobless men headed west, looking for work. The men disembarking were on their way back home after finding out there weren’t any jobs to be had. At night, the red and gold glimmer of a dozen or so campfires glowed in the timber near the cabin. Most days, at least a couple poorly dressed, unbathed men, looking half starved, knocked at the back door, expecting her to give them a handout.
Rachel picked the three folded sheets of tablet paper up off the table and reread them. Last week, the letter came from a fellow teacher, Mary Winters. Rachel hadn’t seen her for over a year when they spent a term teaching at the same school seventy-five miles away. She was delighted Mary was coming for a visit. In fact, her friend be arriving any minute.
Looking around the cabin, Rachel anxiously wondered what Mary would think of this place she called home. No matter what condition it was in or how cramped she was for room, Rachel considered herself lucky to have a place to live. The alternative was staying at a student’s home. This way she had privacy, and the door locked so she felt safe at night.
If only she could stop the nightly noises that kept her awake. Lately, the irritating gnawing under the kitchen floor had given her nights of disturbed sleep. What she heard had to be a rat. No mouse would be big enough to make that much racket. Suddenly a horrible thought came to her. What if that rat made his way through the wooden floor while her company was visiting? How embarrassing that would be.
Mid morning, Mary Winters knocked on the cabin door. Rachel greeted her with a hug. "Come in. It is so good to see you."
"I couldn’t wait to get here. I’ve missed our talks this last year," Mary said, returning Rachel’s hug.
"Me, too. Sit down at the table. I’ve kept the coffee pot on so we could have a cup when you got here. I expect you are about wore out from the trip."
"Not really, but the roads make for rough riding with all the pot holes and ruts. I thought that poor truck I hitched a ride on was going to fall apart before the farmer got me here," Mary said, laughing. As she sat down, she looked around the combined kitchen-living room.
"Not the biggest of home, but big enough for me. Beats bunking with one of the students," Rachel assured her. "I wouldn’t have a bit of privacy, and another family’s home life is so hard to get used to for me and them."
"I know that feeling. I spent the last term with a family of six kids. That might not be so bad, but the father made me nervous. I didn’t like the way he watched me all the time."
"Did he think you might steal something?"
"I don’t think that was his problem. I just made sure to never be alone with him," Mary admitted, ducking her head bashfully.
"You must get out of there. You are applying for a different school for this fall, aren’t you?" Rachel asked, appalled at what her friend had been going through.
"Already got a different school close by as a matter of fact so we can visit more often," said Mary, grinning.
A train, traveling east, blew its whistle as it approached the crossing. Mary watched out the window with a frown. The freight train slowed down. Men jumped from the box cars and ran into the trees. "Did you have a good year here at the school?" Mary kept a troubled look as her eyes stayed glued to what was happening out the window.
"Yes, I had a nice size bunch of kids. Sometimes I wish I lived somewhere that didn’t get as much snow in the winter. I hate being snowed in for days on end," Rachel admitted.
"I know that feeling," Mary said in a distracted voice. Another train, headed west, slowed down at the crossing. Men ran along side and jumped on while almost as many men leaped off. Mary shook her head in dismay.
"Is something wrong?" Rachel asked.
"How are you so brave to live this close to the railroad tracks? Hobos keep jumping on and off the trains at the crossing."
"The hobos don’t bother me," Rachel assured her. "They do knock on the door once in awhile to ask for food. If I have extra, I give what I can."
"Doesn’t sound like a good idea to me. You shouldn’t encourage that sort of thing. Those men look desperate to me and that makes them dangerous," warned Mary.
"Perhaps, you’re just edgy because of what you’ve been through this last year. Those men are just down on their luck. How about some lunch? This afternoon, I want to take you over to the school and show you around. I have a car. When you’re ready to leave in a few days, I’ll take you back to town to catch a bus," Rachel offered.
After dark, Mary jumped at every little noise outside. Rachel laughed at how spooked her friend was. "Relax. There’s always stray dogs and cats prowling in the night, looking for scraps."
By bedtime, Mary still wasn’t convinced the cabin was a safe place to sleep. A series of sharp yips startled her. The racket came from the hillside in front of the cabin.
"That is coyotes on the run. They’ll be into some farmer’s chickens before morning, I expect," Rachel told her.
The yips came again. "Those animals sound like they’re right outside the cabin," Mary said, shuttering.
Angry voices, some talking loud and others yelling, drifted from the timber to the women through the thin cabin walls. "Sounds like the migrants are into a fight again," said Rachel with a sigh.
"Again," screeched Mary. "You mean this happens often?"
"Once in awhile. Some of the migrants are a rough lot," Rachel admitted, looking at her sideways.
In the bedroom, Mary put on her nightgown and crawled under the covers on the cot Rachel fixed for her. She tossed and turned, having trouble going to sleep in the pitch black room. In a trembling voice, she said, "Rachel, how do you know the difference between a dog prowling outside your door and a hobo?"
Rachel’s voice held humor as she said, "Simple. The dog can’t turn the door knob."
"Honestly, Rachel, you’re awful. That isn’t one bit funny," Mary said, pulling her covers up to her chin. "Do you have a gun?"
"Land’s sakes, no. Just go to sleep, Mary. You’ll be safe enough in here with me," Rachel assured her.
Mary listened intently at first in case hobos lurked outside. Finally, she slept fitfully, dreaming the cabin was surrounded by hobos. They peeked in the windows and rattled the door knob.
Right on cue as soon as the lights went out and the women stopped talking, the rat gnawed with gusto. Rachel held her breath, hoping that Mary didn’t hear the racket. Rumbling snores from across the room convinced her the noise wouldn’t bother Mary. Rachel fell asleep wishing she could figure out a way to persuade that nasty creature to move out from under her home. The sooner the better. She longed for a peaceful night’s sleep.
The next morning, Rachel, while filling the coffee pot at the sink, looked down. There was what she had dreaded for days. In front of the sink was the feared hole, with fresh wood shavings heaped around the edges. Slowly, she opened the sink door. Cowering in a shadowy corner behind a stack of iron skillets, the beady eyed, black rat stared at her.
Horrified, Rachel screamed. She forgot about her sleeping company as she yelled, "Oh my, he’s gotten in." She slammed the sink door.
Startled awake, Mary sprang off the cot. She pulled a butcher knife out from under her pillow. The picture of an unkempt, menacing hobo ran through her mind. At that very minute, he was stalking Rachel in the kitchen.
"Where’s he at?" Mary’s loud voice trembled. Her bare feet thudded on the floor as she raced to the doorway. Afraid for her life, she flattened herself against the bedroom wall to listen.
"Under the sink," Rachel replied in a disgusted voice.
Welding the knife with its blade up in the air, Mary peeked around the door. Bewildered, she looked around the room. Rachel, stood with her hands on her hips, glaring at the sink cabinet door. "How – how did he get in there?" She stuttered.
Looking over her shoulder, Rachel spotted Mary’s weapon. "That my knife?"
"If you had a gun, I wouldn’t need this for protection. I slept with it under my pillow," Mary replied sheepishly.
Rachel grabbed the broom, leaning in the corner. She opened the sink door and prodded back and forth with the handle. "Get out of there," she yelled.
Mary clamped her hand over her mouth and shrank back into the bedroom. She waited for the hobo to unbend from his contortious position and spring out of the cupboard. When he attacked Rachel, she’d have to be brave enough to stab him with the knife, but she didn’t know where she’d find the courage.
Suddenly, the rat darted out of the cabinet and ran in circles around Rachel’s feet. Doing a jumping dance, the frantic woman slapped the floor wildly with her broom. Mary peeked into the kitchen. She ducked back out of sight just in time to keep from getting hit when the broom came up over Rachel’s head. The rat headed for under the table. Rachel slapped the business end of the broom down at him, but missed. He hunkered by a far table leg, hoping that Rachel wouldn’t spot him.
Rachel rammed the broom handle at him, yelling, "Out from under the table, you creepy thing."
"He’s under that small table?" Mary cried in disbelief from the bedroom.
"He was," Rachel screeched. "He’s on the move again now."
A fast black blur, the rat, hunkered low and scurried across the floor, up the cupboard and under the wooden bread box lid.
Rachel cried, "Oh, no! He went in the bread box with my bread." Mary, clutching the knife, eased out into the kitchen. "Let him have the bread. You can buy more." Completely befuddled, she looked at the small box and whispered, "How could he fit in there?"
As Rachel turned her back on the bread box to answer, she felt a scratchy, fuzzy upward movement inside her left slack leg. She clutched her thigh and watched the lump continue to move up her slacks past her knee. "Oh, Mary, he’s in my slacks. What will I do?"
Thinking Rachel had lost her mind, Mary said, "Dear, he couldn’t be in there. Don’t you think you should sit down?"
"I can’t do that. I have to get shut of him," Rachel said, giving Mary a disgusted look. She yanked the back door open and ran out into the yard.
Mary followed her. Helplessly, she watched Rachel frantically jump up and down like she was skipping rope.
As the movement continued in Rachel’s slacks leg, she darted around the yard holding her leg tightly and screaming very loud. After she grew weary from the exertion, she looked down at her slack leg and begged, "Please leave. Please leave."
"Poor Rachel. I knew living out here on this prairie had to get to you. I just didn’t realize you were this bad. Please stop bouncing around," Mary commanded, grabbing Rachel by the shoulder. "You must calm down. I promise you there isn’t a hobo in your slacks."
That statement brought Rachel to an instant stop. Panting, she gave Mary a incredulous glare. "There isn’t a hobo in my pants. What are you talking about?"
Mary answered in a small voice. "I thought you thought you had a hobo going up your leg. What do you have in your pants?"
"Believe it or not. What’s in my pants is much worse. It’s a rat."
Mary turned loose of Rachel and staggered backed a few feet. "Really?"
"Really. I knew he was under the cabin floor, but I hoped he wouldn’t gnaw through while you was here." Rachel couldn’t feel movement in her hands anymore. She loosened her grip on the lump. It didn’t move. She shook her leg and cringed as she felt the tickling, furry lump slide down her shin. The motionless rat appeared and lay her shoe. Rachel gave a fast kick, sending the rat toward Mary.
Pale faced, Mary squealed and dodged sideways.
"Thank goodness, he’s dead," Rachel sighed, panting.
"He is, but I’m not sure I’m going to live through all this excitement," Mary said and giggled. "Tell me the rest of today is going to be calmer, please."
"Can’t never tell what will happen next around here," Rachel affirmed, laughing.