The prickly pear stickers glistened in the dazzling heat of the punishing Texas sun.
Only the stickers poked above the ground. My brother, Jonny, and I had buried the cactus pads so only the spines were visible. A person walking along the path had to be looking down to see them.
“Do you think Jerry’ll come along?” I said.
“Yeah, I think he will,” said Jonny. “He had to come this way when he snuck up on us last week and planted some prickly pears between the house and the outhouse. He knew we would come out in the dark and step on ’em. My feet are still sore. How about yours?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Let’s go to the cave and watch from there. We can see what happens, and nobody can see us.”
We had dug a small cave in our backyard and covered it over with some old boards we had found lying around. Then we had put dirt on top and thrown some prickly pear pads on top to keep anybody from stepping on our roof.
It was a great cave! The scent of the fresh earth inside helped cover up the smell coming from our nearby outhouse.
We watched and waited. Finally we heard the sound of metal wheels on the parched earth. Then came the unmistakable voice of Old Man Green. “Get along there, mule!”
Jonny and I came out of the cave.
“Whoa, mule,” said Old Man Green from his wagon seat. He turned toward us.
“Well, if it ain’t Lee Smith and his little brother, Jonny. What you boys up to?”
“Well, we’re lying in wait for Jerry Tarwater,” I said. “He put some prickly pears on the ground at our place, and when we went to the outhouse at night, we stepped on them. So we’re waiting for him to come back. We got a surprise for him.”
“What you gonna do, Lee?” said Old Man Green. He looked across the field at the heat waves shimmering close to the ground.
I told him about the prickly pears we had buried in the path.
“Why, Lee, don’t you know that’s not right?”
“What do you mean it’s not right? I read in the Bible where it said ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ I figure that means you give ’em back just what they gave to you,” I replied. “By the way, what you been hauling in your wagon? It sure does stink.”
Old Man Green laughed. “Been hauling slop. I go in to Corpus Christi and pick up slop from the eatin’ places there and sell it to the farmers to feed to their hogs. That’s how I makes my living. And as for what’s right or wrong, I think if you would read further in the Bible you’d find that Jesus said we must forgive those who trespass against us.”
The wind began to pick up, blowing the stink from the wagon and our outhouse out across the fields.
I thought about what Old Man Green had said. As I looked up at him, the dust from the wind seemed to form a halo around his head.
“I guess you’re right,” I admitted. “And I just thought–what if somebody else ‘sides Jerry were to step on those spikes? That wouldn’t be right, would it?”
“C’mon, Jonny,” I said. “Let’s dig those things up. I reckon that’s what Jesus would want us to do.”
Illustrated by Ralph Butler