by Gary Hoffman
Gracie’s Gift from the East was first published in Dying in a Winter Wonderland, an anthology to raise money for Toys for Tots and published by Wolfmont Publishing.
The car carrying the three men rolled to a stop. The woman who had been kicking the bumper of an old pick-up truck and calling it several bad names stopped and looked at them. “Can I help you?” she asked calmly.
“With all that steam coming from your engine, thought we might be able to help you,” the driver said.
“I think this darned contraption was sent by the devil to torment me,” she said. “It’ll run fine for a month or
two and then go haywire. You can see what it’s doin’ to me today.”
“Well, ma’am, I know things like that are maddening, but maybe we can help. You live close around here?”
She cocked up an eyebrow and looked at the men. “Close enough. Don’t think I’ve ever seen you fellers around here before.”
“We’re looking for a man named Jimmy Sims,” the man in the backseat said. “We just didn’t have any idea he lived so far out in the country.” The driver glanced at him in the rear view mirror.
“Jimmy Sims,” the woman said, mulling the name over in her mind. “You fellers must be lost. Don’t think I’ve ever heard of him. Lived around these parts all my life. Name just doesn’t ring any bells.”
The driver spoke. “Well, since we’re here and you’re having trouble, how about we drive you home and find something to put water in?” The man in the passenger’s seat tapped the driver’s leg with the back of his hand. He pushed it away.
The woman paused for a few seconds. “I suppose. I’ve been in town for groceries, and they’re in the seat.”
“No problem,” the driver said.
The woman turned her back to get her bags from the passenger’s side of the pick-up. “Are you crazy?” the man in the back seat whispered hoarsely.
“She’s a harmless old lady,” the driver said. “Kind of reminds me of my granny. And besides, it’s Christmas Eve. Wouldn’t want to leave her out here now.”
“Christmas, Shismas, I’m not sure about this,” the passenger’s seat guy said.
The driver got out, opened the trunk, and helped the woman load her bags. There were just a few. She got in the back seat. “Where to?” the driver asked.
“Go down here about a mile and the roads forks. Take the left side for another mile. I’m the only house down there.”
“I’m Johnny,” the driver said. “And this guy next to me is Sam. David is in the back with you.”
“Folks call me Gracie.”
The last mile was downhill into a valley. They passed a grove of pecan trees and the road ended at the back of the house. It was a typical farm house with porches around the entire building. It needed painting, but other than that, it was neat and the yard looked well kept even though there were still patches of snow here and there. A clear creek ran along the north side of the area. Old white oak trees surrounded the house.
“Let me help you with those bags,” Johnny said.
“Thanks, I appreciate that.”
Johnny set the bags on a table by the back door that looked like it had thousands of things put on it over the years. “I’d sure like to pay you fellers for your help,” Gracie said, “but money is a bit tight right now.”
“Don’t you worry about that,” Johnny said. “We’re just glad we came along when we did. Right guys?” he said and looked at the other two men who were still in the car. All he received in return was some mumbles.
“Tell you what I could do,” Gracie said. “I’ve got plenty of makin’s inside for some biscuits and gravy. How about if I whip you boys up a batch?”
David stepped from the back seat. “Boy, that does sound good. I haven’t had a home cooked meal in ages.”
“Well, it’s settled then,” she said. “Come on in, and I’ll get some coffee started.”
She laughed. “Oh, it’s still hooked up, but I seldom use it. I mainly just keep it there to remind me of how things used to be. And I never could get Willy to take it out.”
“My husband, God rest his soul. He passed away four years come next week. I guess I was lucky. I had him for fifty seven years.”
“You were married for fifty seven years?” Sam asked.
“Yep. Been tryin’ to run this place on my own since then.”
“Can’t you sell it?” Johnny asked.
“Not tryin’ to be nasty, ma’am, but I’d think that would be pretty hard for a woman of your age to do,” David said.
She laughed. “Just getting’ out of bed in the morning is hard for a woman of my age, too.” She shook a rolling pin at him. “And don’t go askin’ how old. That’s not a polite thing to do to a woman at any age.”
David chuckled. “Yes, ma’am. Understood.” She started rolling out her dough and cutting the biscuits out with an old tin can.
“One thing I was wondering about,” Johnny asked, “was why you drove all the way into town for a little dab of groceries when there is a small store just out on the highway.”
Gracie quit leaning over the table and wiped her hands on an apron that was much too frilly for the blue jeans and man’s western shirt she was wearing. She used the back of her hand to push a strand of hair off her forehead. “My mother always taught me that if you can’t say anything good about someone, don’t say anything at all. It didn’t take with me. The guy who runs that store is named Roy Wilcox. He’s a crook. Plain and simple. If anything illegal or just immoral is going on around here, he’s probably got his mitts in it.” She shoved the sheet of biscuits in the oven and took a tub of bacon grease from the fridge. She scooped out a chunk of it and dropped it in a cast iron skillet heating on the stove.
“Like what?” Sam asked.
“Oh, he’s gotten more than one family in trouble by giving them credit. After they owe him a bundle, he nicely asks that they put something up as collateral just in case they can’t pay him. It’s usually a car or pick-up. He gets the title. Then if they miss one payment by a few hours, he goes after their vehicle. They agree to begin with because they know they can pay when a crop comes in or they sell some livestock. Most everyone around here knows a farmer’s life is controlled by crops and livestock prices. He just doesn’t give a hoot.”
“Well, that’s not illegal, is it?” David asked.
“No, but he’s also into things no one can prove. Someone might have a bunch of pigs ready to take to market, and they get stolen the night before. Then, surprises of surprises, Roy has a load of hogs to sell at the livestock auction the next day. Everybody knows he doesn’t raise pigs. Oh, he has a few to make it look good, but that’s it. Pigs are kind of hard to tell one from the other. Even if they have ear tags, they can be changed.”
“I can see why you’d want to stay away from him,” Sam said.
Gracie was busy making gravy. “And it’s not just him. All these big companies around don’t care about the little guy.”
Johnny noticed a tear running down her cheek. “Someone twistin’ your arm, Gracie?”
She kept stirring the gravy. “Hand me some milk from the fridge, would you please?” The milk was added, and the smells in the kitchen were getting better by the minute. She turned the heat off under the skillet and got some plates from the cabinet. Within a minute, everyone was shoveling in some great tasting food. Gracie stood by the sink, sipping her coffee.
Johnny finished his second plate and then took half a biscuit to wipe off what gravy was left. He smeared the other half with home-churned butter and fresh honey. That went down in two bites. “You never did answer my question,” he said to Gracie, while still chewing the last bite of biscuit. “Who’s putting the heat on you?”
“I didn’t ask you boys in here to hear my problems,” she said.
“Maybe we can help.”
“I doubt it. Involves that old evil thing called money.”
She set her cup on the sink. “Anyone need another helping?”
“Not me,” David said patting his stomach. “I’m full as an old dog tick right now.”
“Look,” Johnny said. “You’re a nice lady. Why not let us try and help you?”
“Well, that’s two things I haven’t been called in a long time,” she said. “Nice and a lady.”
“First, the electric company. I’ve got two days to come up with eleven hundred dollars or they cut me off. I’ve been trying to pay them some, but for them, it’s not enough. I guess they’re gonna wait two days so they don’t do it on Christmas Day and have to pay someone overtime. Big hearted souls. Then there’s the propane company. They won’t fill my tank right now because I haven’t paid off all of last winter’s bill yet. I still owe them about three hundred. I had all this worked out and someone stole the cattle I was going to sell. Guess who I think did it?”
“Good ole Roy Wilcox?” Sam said.
“Again, can’t prove it. He didn’t sell them around here, but I heared tell he sold some up in Monroe County right after mine disappeared. Too late by then.” She took a handkerchief from her apron pocket and blew her nose. “If I lose electric, I won’t be able to water any of what little stock I’ve got left. I’ve got wood stoves, but I can’t get out and cut enough wood for the winter, and I sure can’t afford to buy any. I’m on my last little dab right now.”
Johnny pushed his chair back and stood. “Sam, David, I think I need a smoke.
Let’s go out on the back porch.”
“You don’t have to do that,” Gracie said. “Willy used to smoke in here all the time.”
“That’s okay, ma’am. We’ll go outside.”
As soon as all three men were on the back porch, Sam looked at Johnny and snarled. “She can’t be associated with any of that money. You’re tryin’ to help her and she’ll go to jail.”
“Don’t think so,” Johnny said. “I’ve got an idea.”
“Look,” David said. “All we came back here for was to find a place to hide the money. We didn’t plan on getting’ mixed up with some crazy old woman.”
“Just go with me on this,” Johnny said.
After finishing their cigarettes, all the men returned to the kitchen. They all pitched in with the dishes. They were done and the kitchen cleaned shortly. They rounded up jugs, got them filled, and found a couple galleons of antifreeze. They loaded Gracie and the things they needed to get her on the road and took her back to where her truck was parked.
When they got there, Gracie started for the trunk. “Now, before we unload this stuff, there’s something you’ve got to agree to do,” Johnny said. “Don’t agree, and we take everything and leave you here.”
She stopped and wrinkled her brow at him. “What?”
Twenty minutes later, Gracie had her truck running and was headed back toward the main highway with five thousand dollars in her purse. She stopped at Wilcox’s store and turned it all into money orders. Two of the money orders were for exact amounts she owed the electric company and the propane company. The rest she was supposed to get in any amounts, but keep it for herself.
Roy Wilcox thought it was very strange that this woman could come up with this much money at one time, especially when it was all in new bills, many of them with consecutive serial numbers. He kept a list behind his counter that was issued by the county sheriff for things he was to be on the look out for. He found some of the bills listed as coming from an armored car robbery in St. Louis just a couple of days ago. There was a reward listed for arrest and conviction of the person or persons involved. He was mentally spending the reward as he called the sheriff. The sheriff told him to hang on to the bills, and they would be right out after them.
The front door of his store opened as he was hanging up the phone. “Can I help you, gentlemen?”
Johnny drew a pistol from under his jacket. “Yeah, all the money you’re holding in your hand. Duke, open the cash register and empty that, too.”
“Just don’t shoot me,” Roy begged.
“I won’t, but not because you don’t deserve it. I want you to go through what’s coming up in your life for the next couple of days.”
When the sheriff got to Wilcox’s, Johnny, Sam, and David were heading north into Iowa after having stashed the rest of the robbery money under Gracie’s back porch. Gracie was at her second stop and paying off the propane company. Her third stop was going to be at the bank. Her only worry was getting there before they closed early on Christmas Eve. She made it.
“So where’s the money, Roy?” Sheriff Gillespie asked.
“Right after I called you, some guys came in and robbed me. They took the money.”
“So who gave you the money?”
“And she bought?”
“So you don’t have the money so we can get her prints off it?”
“No, I told you. Some guys robbed me.”
“Well, Roy, I’m sorry, but there’s nothing we can do.” The sheriff smiled. He was well aware of many of Roy’s other activities.
“Get those money orders back from Gracie Morgan,” Roy shouted.
“And you can prove she used that specific money to buy those specific money orders.”
Roy hung his head. “No.”
“Don’t know for sure, Roy, but you just might be out five grand.” The sheriff started for the door. “Come to think of it, probably a little over ten thousand. If you were really robbed of five thousand, you’re still going to owe the money order people their five thousand– that is if you really sold the money orders. Have a nice day and Merry Christmas.”
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