“What’s the commotion?” Agnes Whittaker called out. First, the party line went off. Then Tim, the neighbor boy, shot out of his front door, his face the color of baking soda. He hopped on his bike and pedaled furiously down the sidewalk. At the sound of her voice, he skidded to a halt a few feet shy of the porch.
“You know about the barn raising?” he gasped.
“Twenty miles away! And everybody’s there, except me cause I had a sore throat this morning. And—”
“And me, cause I’m ancient. Go on.”
“Only my sis Caroline and a bunch of other girls went down to Laurel’s instead. They were playing in the field when a truck drove by. A big ole man got out to chat with them, said he needed directions. But when he found out Mr. and Mrs. Thomas were gone, he tried to pull Gail into his truck!”
Agnes hoisted herself out of her rocking chair and gripped the porch rail. “Good Lord!” she shouted. “You run inside my house and grab the pink floral suitcase in the spare room.”
“I don’t have time for that,” Tim gripped his handlebars in distress. “I have to go help.”
“Five miles on your bicycle? You’re already out of breath! I’ll fire up the Chevy while you get the suitcase.”
“You’ll take me there?” The boy’s face brightened.
“Yes, and hurry up,” said Agnes. She reached inside the screen door, grabbed the Chevy’s keys, and thumped down the steps. Lord, her heart was racing! It’d been years since she’d had such excitement.
The Chevy turned over as smooth as butter. By then Tim had dragged the suitcase across the porch, his arms bowing out. Agnes rushed over to help him. They lugged it to the truck and lifted it into the bed.
“What have you got in there?” Tim panted for breath.
“A potato launcher, a broom handle, some wadding, and 27 bottles of hairspray,” said Agnes.The ammo! Her blood pressure plummeted. What if she’d forgotten? “Quick, go down to the root cellar and grab a big sack of potatoes.”
Tim sprinted back into her house, emerging 30 seconds later with a bulky sack in his arms. He raced over and hopped into the passenger seat. Agnes was ready for him. She gunned the engine. The Chevy squealed out of the driveway and shot down the street, leaving a trail of smoke hanging behind it. Man did that feel good! Tim let out a whoop.
They were on their way. She had to be serious now. She had to save those poor girls. She could imagine them playing in the field in their flowered dresses, cheery and innocent. Agnes clutched the steering wheel and ground her teeth together. If that man hurt any of them, she’d make him pay.
“What happened after he tried to get Gail into his truck?” Agnes asked over the roar of the engine.
Tim’s face went baking-soda white again. He’d forgotten what they were headed into. “Caroline hit him with a pitchfork until he let go, then they ran for the house and locked themselves in. They thought he might go away. But the next thing they knew, he drove up to the house and got out with a big ole knife in his hand. That’s when they called. I knew nobody from the barn raising would make it in time, so I figured I’d try to get there myself.”
“What were you going to do, challenge him to a fistfight?” asked Agnes.
Tim shrugged. “What’s your plan?”
Agnes swallowed. Her mouth had gone dry. “I need you to climb out the back window to load and prime the potato launcher. Once you’ve done that, wrap all the extra potatoes in wadding, so they’re ready to go.”
“Okay.” Tim slid the window open and wormed himself through, kicking Agnes in the head as he went. “Sorry,” he hollered. Agnes waved him on.
The Chevy ate up the dirt road, spewing gravel and dust. If he has sense, thought Agnes, he’ll see us coming and skip on out of there. She grimaced. It didn’t sound like the man had sense. How could he? Attacking a bunch of little girls! Agnes drummed her fingers on the steering wheel. Maybe she shouldn’t have brought Tim along. Who knew what would happen? What if that man killed them all? But Tim would have come anyway, all by himself on his bicycle. And what could she have done without him? She couldn’t drive and load and prime all at once. No, this was the only way. Lord, she just hoped it all worked out. Agnes snorted. She was almost enjoying herself. What did that say about her? She’d been sitting on her porch too long, that was all.
Tim popped his head back through the window. “It’s all ready.”
“Good work. We’re nearly there. Lay low in the bed and don’t show yourself until I say. But be ready to shoot. Can you do that?”
Tim didn’t answer right away. He looked past her through the windshield at the white clapboard house at the end of a long driveway. Sitting in the yard was a rusted Ford. Agnes squinted. She couldn’t see anyone. Were they too late?
“Yes Ma’am,” said Tim in a quiet voice. He backed through the window and ducked out of view.
Agnes’s throat felt thick. She swallowed. Her fingers cramped around the steering wheel. Now! She pressed herself against the seat and yanked left. The Chevy roared down the driveway and into the yard. It swung wide of the house, swerved around a clothesline and—
There he was on the back porch. Agnes slammed on the brakes. The Chevy slewed and skidded to a halt. The man whirled around, eyes wide. Then he saw her through the windshield. He slapped his knee and laughed.
Agnes stepped out of the Chevy and slammed the door behind her. She swept her eyes from the man’s manure-crusted boots to his leering face. Sure enough, he had a knife in his hand. Long and wicked sharp. Past him through the window, Agnes glimpsed five frightened faces. At least he hadn’t gotten inside yet. But Tim can’t shoot unless I get him away from the house.
“You have 15 seconds to get out of here if you want to leave in one piece,” said Agnes in an even voice.
“Oh yeah?” The man sneered. “What you gonna do, grandma? Shall I cut your face? Get rid of all those wrinkles for you?”
“Ten seconds,” said Agnes.
The man laughed again, a horrid oily sound. But he came down off the porch.
The man stood there grinning. His knife glinted in his hand. He didn’t turn towards his truck as Agnes had hoped. Instead, he took a slow, exaggerated step in her direction.
“Fire when ready,” said Agnes.
Tim sucked in a huge breath and lunged up beside her. Agnes heard the click of the igniter. It took three tries before it sparked in the combustion chamber.
The potato launcher kicked straight up in the air. Tim vanished into the truck bed. Agnes heard the thwack of his head on the suitcase. But he bounced right back up again. “Did I get him?”
“No,” said Agnes. “But you put a dent in his Ford.”
“Oh god,” said Tim, “now he’s angry.”
“Your mother wouldn’t approve of swearing,” said Agnes. “Reload.”
“I wasn’t swearing,” said Tim, jamming a potato down the shaft with the broomstick. “I was praying.”
“Liar,” grinned Agnes. “Prime the gun.”
Tim unscrewed the end cap and emptied hairspray into the combustion chamber. His fingers shook. He fumbled as he tried to screw the end cap back on.
“Steady,” said Agnes.
Tim finished, looked up, and yelped. He flung the launcher into Agnes’ hands. She buried the end against her shoulder, pivoted on her heels, and clicked the igniter. The man was close. Almost too close. If she’d had time to feel anything, she would have been terrified. The man’s arm moved. What was he doing? Something silver flashed through the air towards her head. The knife! He’d thrown it at her! She couldn’t move out of the way, there wasn’t time. Besides, she had to hold the launcher steady. She had to aim it at his chest. Why hadn’t the spud gun fired? Had it malfunctioned? Hadn’t Tim put in enough hairspray? She’d be stabbed in a second. Lord in heaven. She was as good as dead.
Agnes blinked and sat up. What was she doing on the ground? Faces hovered in front of her. She recognized some of them: Mr. Thomas, the sheriff, and Tim’s dad.
“Mrs. Whittaker, do you feel alright?”
What? Why shouldn’t she feel alright? What was going on here? That wasn’t her porch. Where was she? In somebody’s backyard. She’d driven here in the chevy, hadn’t she? Something caught her eye, a checkered blanket spread over a hump. The man! The man with the knife! She’d shot him with the potato launcher from a distance of one foot.
“Oh my god. Oh my lord in heaven.” Agnes covered her mouth. Tears ran down her cheeks, zig-zagging along her wrinkles.
“It’s okay,” said a voice by her elbow. “She’s just praying.”
“Tim,” said Agnes. She felt around for his hand.
“We were all praying,” said the sheriff. “And our prayers were answered. Everyone’s okay thanks to you two.”
“Not him,” whispered Agnes, looking at the checkered blanket. “I blew a hole in his chest.”
“The girls are okay,” said the sheriff, “and you, and Tim.”
Agnes found Tim’s hand and pressed it. “But the man threw his knife at me,” she said.
Tim beamed at her. “I pitched a potato at it, knocked it off course.”
“Good work,” said Agnes.
“Can we get you inside for a spell, Mrs. Whittaker?”
“Alright,” said Agnes, “but I’m looking forward to my rocking chair and a bit of quiet. What a commotion.”