This novelette is a recollection of one memorable day in the childhood of Seth, the narrator, then nine years old. It is told as a first-person narrative, more than thirty-five years later. The title refers to the weather phenomenon of a period of cool temperatures in June. The story takes place in middle Tennessee.
On this unseasonably cold day Seth’s mother forbids him to go outside barefoot, but he disobeys her, wanting to “rub [his] feet over the wet shivery grass and make the perfect mark of [his] foot in the smooth, creamy, red mud.” But before he can get out the door, Seth notices something unusual: “Out of the window on the north side of the fireplace I could see the man… still far off, come along by the path of the woods.” The boy watches the man follow a path where the family’s fence meet the woods. From a distance he can tell that the man is a stranger and that he is approaching the house. After Seth’s mother calls off the dogs the man is near enough for closer inspection, and the boy sees that he is carrying a paper parcel in one hand and a switch-blade knife in the other. According to the narrator’s assessment of the stranger, “Everything was wrong about what he wore.” His worn khaki pants and dark wool coat and hat, his tie stuffed in a pocket and his city shoes mark him as both strange and menacing. Despite premonitions of danger, however, the boy is fascinated and drawn to the man who has come looking for a handout or work.
Seth watches the man work, disdainfully picking up the dead chicks and pitching them into a basket, “with a nasty, snapping motion.” Then the boy watches while the tramp washed his dirty but uncalloused hands before eating. Finally the man makes the boy feel so uncomfortable that he leaves, suddenly remembering that “the creek was in flood over the bridge, and that people were down there watching it.”
When he arrives at the bridge the first person he sees is his father, “sitting on his mare over the heads of the other men who were standing around admiring the flood.” Seth’s father scoops him “up to the pommel of his McClellan saddle” so he can see better. Seth and the men watch as the swollen creek carries debris along its course, and they are fascinated by the sight of a dead cow. Uncomprehending, Seth listens as the men discuss whose cow it likely was and whether a man could get hungry enough to eat a drowned cow.
Although his father takes him to the gate of their farm, Seth does not go home immediately. Instead he decides to stop off at a sharecropper family’s cabin, where his playmate Jebb lives with his parents Dellie and Old Jebb. He expects to be welcomed by the usual cheer at the cabin, but instead encounters Dellie sick in bed and Old Jebb forecasting that the cold weather is a sign of the end of the world as we’ve known it, evidence that the earth is tired of “sinful folks.” The most disturbing incident in the cabin, however, is that Dellie suddenly reaches out from her sick bed and slaps her son across the face. Although Seth tells Old Jebb about the man at the house with a knife, the news barely penetrates the gloom of the cabin and the preoccupation of the family.
The story reaches a climax when the stranger comes head to head with the father. Seth’s father tells the tramp that he won’t be hiring him for another day’s work and pays him a half dollar for a half day’s work (the going rate). Then the man curses the farm, mocks Seth’s father, and spits on the ground just “six inches from the toe of [the] father’s right boot.” Seth’s father stares the man down and he retreats. Seth, however, still cannot resist the man’s horrible appeal and follows him “the way a kid would, about seven or eight feet behind.” Seth asks where he came from and the man rebuffs him, but the young boy keeps following. Finally, the tramp threatens: “Stop following me. You don’t stop following me and I cut yore throat, you little son-of-a-bitch.”
The story ends with the older Seth explaining that both his parents are now dead, Jebb is in the penitentiary, Dellie’s dead, but Old Jebb is still alive and well over a hundred years of age. The narrator also confesses that although the tramp had threatened to kill him for following him, that he “did follow him, all the years.”
Ira Mark Milne (Editor), Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 8, Robert Penn Warren, Published by Thomson Gale, 2000.