You don't hear so much about the Fool-Killer these days, but when Johnny Pye was a boy there was a good deal of talk about him. Some said he was one kind of person, and some said another, but most people agreed that he came around fairly regular. Or, it seemed so to Johnny Pye. But then, Johnny was an adopted child, which is, maybe, why he took it so hard.
The miller and his wife had offered to raise him, after his own folks died, and that was a good deed on their part. But, as soon as he lost his baby teeth and started acting the way most boys act, they started to come down on him like thunder, which wasn't so good. They were good people, according to their lights, but their lights were terrible strict ones, and they believed that the harder you were on a youngster, the better and brighter he got. Well, that may work with some children, but it sure didn't with Johnny Pye.
He was sharp enough and willing enough-as sharp and wining as most boys in Martinsville. But, somehow or other, he never seemed to be able to do the right things or say the right words-at least when he was home. Treat a boy like a fool and he'll act like a fool, I say, but there's some folks need convincing. The miner and his wife thought the way to smarten Johnny was to treat him like a fool, and finally they got so he pretty much believed it himself.
And that was hard on him, for he had a boy's imagination, and maybe a little more than most. He could stand the beatings and he did. But what he couldn't stand was the way things went at the mill. I don't suppose the miller intended to do it. But, as long as Johnny Pye could remember, whenever the miller heard of the death of somebody he didn't like, he'd say, "Well, the Fool-Killer's come for so-and-so," and sort of smack his lips, It was, as you might say, a family joke, but the miller was a big man with a big red face, and it made a strong impression on Johnny Pye. Till, finally, he got a picture of the Fool-Killer, himself. He was a big man, too, in a checked shirt and corduroy trousers, and he went walking the ways of the world, with a hickory club that had a lump of lead in the end of it. I don't know how Johnny Pye got that picture so clear, but, to him, it was just as plain as the face of any human being in Martinsville. And, nowand then, just to test it, he'd ask a grown-up person, kind of timidly, if that was the way the Fool-Killer looked. And, of course, they'd generally laugh and tell him it was. Then Johnny would wake up at night, in his room over the mill, and listen for the Fool-Killer's step on the road and wonder when he was coming. But he was brave enough not to tell anybody that.
Finally, though, things got a little more than he could bear. He'd done some boy's trick or other-let the stones grind a little fine, maybe, when the miller wanted the meal ground coarse-just carelessness, you know. But he'd gotten two whippings for it, one from the miller and one from his wife, and at the end of it, the miller had said, "Well, Johnny Pye, the Fool-Killer ought to be along for you most any day now. For I never did see a boy that was such a fool." Johnny looked to the miller's wife to see if she believed it too, but she just shook her head and looked serious. So he went to bed that night, but he couldn't sleep, for every time a bough rustled or the mill wheel creaked, it seemed to him it must be the Fool-Killer. And, early next morning, before anybody was up, he packed such duds as he had in a bandanna handkerchief and ran away.
He didn't really expect to get away from the Fool-Killer very long-as far as he knew, the Fool-Killer got you wherever you went. But he thought he'd give him a run for his money, at least. And when he got on the road, it was a bright spring morning, and the first peace and quiet he'd had in some time. So his spirits rose, and he chucked a stone at a bullfrog as he went along, just to show he was Johnny Pye and still doing business. …