Walto Haggerty was working his field. He strained away under the hot sun, trying to attach a plow to the rear of his tractor.
He paused momentarily to look questioningly at the sun and wipe his brow with an old handkerchief.
“Damn it all,” he muttered.
It was one of the hottest springs in state history. On this particular day, it had reached 96° by noontime.
During a season that was usually cool and rainy, it remained hot and dry, leaving the soil dusty and hard, hard to work for planting, and making it unlikely any crop could be successfully grown.
Walto finished dabbing at his face and neck and set back to work hitching the plow to the tractor. He was having a hard time, much more so than usual. This day wasn’t going well for him.
His sweaty, oily hands struggled to get the hitch attached until, finally, the bar attaching the plow to the tractor crashed down onto his foot.
Walto screamed and hopped on one foot for several minutes, cursing loudly, before finally limping toward his small while house.
The screen door screeched open on rusted hinges and slammed shut behind him as he hobbled into the kitchen.
His wife Doris turned from the stove to look at him as he collapsed into a chair.
“Something wrong, Walt?”
“Well, Doris… I’d have to say nearly every damned thing is wrong. That damned plow won’t hitch to the John Deere, I’ve done crushed my foot, and the soil’s drier than a bull’s teat.”
“Well, Walt, there ain’t much’n we can do ‘bout that. You just got to work with what you have.”
“Damn it all, Doris, I know that. You think I like killing my fool self out underneath that sun?”
“Well, I reckon you haven’t a choice, Walt.” Doris turned from the piecrust she was working at to glare at him before sliding the pan into the mouth of the oven.
“You’re some damn woman, Doris…”
Walto slowly got back to his feet and stretched his legs. “I’ll get back to it…”
“You’d best do that,” she said without watching him go.
Walto stood back out under the sun, working at hitching the plow to the tractor.
At long last, it snapped into place and Walto sighed with relief.
After more wiping and swabbing at his old, leathery skin with his handkerchief, he mounted the large green tractor.
As he turned the small key, the engine strained to turn over several times before rumbling to life.
Walto sighed, put the tractor into gear, and headed out into the field.
Walto had been working the hard soil for some time when he leaned back in his seat to wipe at the dust and sweat on his face, at just the right moment.
As he wiped across his face and neck, he happened to glance up into the sky. And, just as he glanced up, a few lonely clouds crossed the sun, blocking out the sun’s harsh rays for a moment.
The blind light from overhead was gone for only seconds before being replaced by a brighter light, coming from directly ahead of Walto.
In great numbers, at least 50 feet high across the sky, made of fire was:
4 19 22 26 34
Walto couldn’t believe his eyes. But it was impossible not to. There, in front of him, bigger than anything he had ever seen, were the numbers: 4, 19, 22, 26, and 34.
Walto’s mouth gaped, his eyes glazed, and the tractor ground to a halt.
And they still burned. They lit up the sky, burning into his retinas.
By the time that he began to think that it might be important to remember them, they were almost gone.
Walto stumbled through the screen door. Doris didn’t turn from the stove to look at him.
“It tain’t done yet, is it, Walt?” she said, chopping carrots.
“Hush up, woman,” he gasped.
Doris turned on him, bristling, clenching the kitchen knife in her hand. She frowned, looking as if she were going to say something until she saw the pale shock on Walto’s face.
“Walt? What in tarnation has gotten into you? You look as if you’ve done seen a ghost… And I can’t imagine as how ghosts would cotton to hauntin’ corn.”
“Doris, I— I believe I’ve done seen a miracle from God.”
Doris’ frown increased exponentially. “Good Lord, Walt, you ain’t been out in the sun that long, have you?”
“Woman, don’t patronize me.”
“Don’t let me find out you done been making that corn liquor again, Walt. You know what Sheriff Johnson said about last time…”
“God damn you, Doris, listen to me! I’ve seen a sign from God. Great fiery numbers in the sky!”
Doris stared on, frozen in a sneer.
“A-SIGN-FROM-GOD!” he annunciated.
Doris sighed slowly, sounding like an innertube deflating. “I’ve done married a fool.”
A dirty little girl with a tattered math book in her hand wandered into the kitchen.
“Pack up some clothes, baby. Your daddy’s gone stone crazy. We’re goin’ to your aunt Ruby’s house.”
“Woman, I won’t have you sass me in from of my own child. If I say I’ve damn well seen Willie Nelson ride over the hill on a horse, you ought to take my word as the Lord’s Truth.”
“Walt, Willie Nelson may ride a horse over that hill one day, but the Lord Almighty don’t put up burning numbers in the sky to keep you from gettin’ to the plowin’.”
“It’s true, momma. I’ve seen it, too.”
Doris looked petrified. “Hush up, Becky Mae, and go start packing like I done told you.”
“Woman, let the girl talk!”
“Don’t spread your craziness to my child, Walto Haggerty! The girl’s young and impressionable yet and I won’t have you fillin’ her head with mess.”
Walto’s face reddened with every second. “Doris, the Lord has offered me the winning numbers to the state lottery and I ain’t gonna have your rurn it for me. If you want to head on out the door, then go. But when you ain’t with me to spend the millions, don’t be cryin’.”
“Christ Almighty, Walt. That’s what you think the Lord would use a miracle for? You think the Lord saves up all his miracles to give you lotto numbers? Famine and plague run rampant, but God’s giving lotto numbers to Walto Haggerty? You sure you don’t have no more of that corn liquor?”
“Woman, I’ve seen the numbers with my own eyes! And those millions are mine. I can taste it. I know it in my bones.”
“What are the numbers, then, Walt?”
“Well, they’re 4… Um, 4…”
“Damn you, woman! In all your stubbornness, you done made me forget the numbers.”
“That’s one hell of an excuse, Walt.”
“Say what you want, you old cow, you cost me a million dollars!”
Walto finally looked down at Becky Mae’s dirty face. “What?”
She held up her math homework in her hand.
“I wrote the numbers down, daddy. I saw ‘em through the window while I was doing my homework.”
The tractor still sat in the field.
Walto sat in front of the TV. He had been to the bank over the days before and put as many mortgages on the farm as he could get. He had put every penny he could find or borrow into every legal or not-so-legal wager he could on those numbers, sure in his belief that the Lord was on his side. And now he waited for the lotto drawing on TV.
None of the other gambles on the numbers had paid off. That was as he expected, though. He knew that, all along, the lottery numbers were the ones that he would win, that the numbers of fire were referring to when they revealed themselves to him.
This is the one, he thought. It had to be. This would pay back all those debts taken out on the house, the liens, the items pawned, the money borrowed from friends and some shady characters.
He tapped his foot, impatiently. Even with all he’d seen, nervousness was getting a grip on him. What if he didn’t win? But God… The numbers were burning in the sky, as bright as the sun. How could he not?
But if he did lose, then he’d lose the farm…and everything else as well.
When the numbers finally did scroll across the screen, Walto’s eyes began to water. Then, his stomach began to churn. His temples began to throb. Sweat poured off his brow. And then the screaming began.
8 14 16 24 32
The next day, as Doris was packing up the last of her belongings and waiting for Ruby to arrive to pick her up, Becky Mae came home from school.
Becky Mae wandered to her now barren room, past the room where her father now cowered, sobbing quietly, and sipping generously from an unlabeled jug. She sat down in the floor next to her window and opened up her book satchel, taking out her math homework.
She’d have to tell her mother later, at a less emotional time, that she had missed all 5 problems on her quiz. But, in the meantime, it was her homework assignment to discover how she should have arrived at the correct answers, which the teacher had written down the paper’s margin next to her wrong answers and the red “X” marks.
4, 19, 22, 26, and 34.