Man of the House


Jason lay by the hearth, doing his homework in the firelight. But he couldn’t concentrate. The image of Mr. Rayburn’s ranch kept coming back to him, and with it the sight of the beautiful little pony the rancher had for sale. Only eighteen dollars, that’s all it would cost! he thought. But it might as well be five hundred. Jason’s father had gone to fight in the Civil War, and had left his ten-year-old son as the man of the house.

More than anything he had ever wanted before, Jason wanted a pony. But how will I ever get eighteen dollars of my own? he asked himself. All the other boys rode to school on horses. But Jason had to be up before dawn to milk the cow, feed the chickens, and then walk the long distance to school. When he wasn’t at school, Jason was busy at home, helping his mother on their farm.

Jason’s mother listened sympathetically when he told her about Mr. Rayburn’s pony. But when the boy finished, she just looked at him with a sad kind of smile. “Oh, Jason,” she said, “the pony sounds wonderful. But I’m afraid we don’t have any money to spare. We’re having a hard time now and with a new baby coming …”

“I’d forgotten for a minute about the baby. I hope it’s a girl. I’d like to have a little sister,” said Jason with a smile. “And maybe if I work extra hard, there will be enough money for a cradle.”

His mother hugged him close. “With you here to help, we’ll do just fine, Jason,” she said.

Later that night Jason climbed the ladder up to the loft where he slept. But before sleep came he couldn’t help thinking about the pony.

The next morning on his way to school, Jason saw a notice in the window of the general store:

Boys needed afternoons or evenings at the planing mill—10¢ an hour.

Ten cents an hour is a lot of money, Jason thought. I hope I can get that job after school.

The hours seemed to drag by until school was over. When the bell rang, Jason raced to the mill, but his heart sank when he saw the long line of waiting boys. At last it was his turn to apply for a job.

“How old are you, boy?” asked the man.

“Ten years old, sir. But I’ll be eleven in March. And I’m a hard worker,” replied Jason.

“I don’t think you’re old enough for a job here, son. Why don’t you try us next year?”

Jason did not move. “Please, sir, now that my father is at war, I’m the only man in the house. And I’ll work hard.”

“Well, if your dad’s off fighting, I guess we can find a job for you,” the man said.

Jason could hardly wait to tell his mother about his new job. “I know you’ll make me proud of you,” she said. “And since you’re working on your own time between school and chores, son, you may keep the money you earn.”

Jason jumped up with delight and hugged her. His chores weren’t so hard that night. In his mind he could just see himself up on the back of that little pony. It won’t matter if I don’t have a saddle. I’ll still be able to ride like the other boys, and they won’t call me a sodbuster anymore, he thought.

Jason liked his work at the mill. But it became hard to study without falling asleep and even harder to get up in the mornings. As the weeks passed, Jason’s little pile of money grew. Each payday brought him closer to his goal. However, it was nearly time for the baby to be born and Jason knew that he would soon have to quit working at the mill because his mother would need more help at home. Every night when he went to bed he wondered how long he would be able to work.

The next payday Jason counted his savings. He had $19.10, and in his mind he could see the little pony in their barn. He was so busy thinking about the pony that he almost bumped into a buggy parked in their yard. He looked up and his heart leaped. It was Dr. Frank’s. The baby must have been born! He raced toward the house. Then his face fell. The cradle! Mother still didn’t have a cradle for the baby. But it really wasn’t his fault. Mother had said he could keep the money he earned. Still, he felt a twinge of selfishness. He opened the door slowly and peeked in. His grandmother was in the kitchen.

“Grandma, is it a boy or a girl?” he asked.

Grandmother smiled and put a finger to her lips, “Shh, your mother is asleep. Come and see your baby sister.”

Jason approached timidly. He had not been this close to a newborn baby before. She lay curled up in the laundry basket, wrapped in layers of blankets. “Oh, Grandma, she’s so tiny,” he whispered.

“Your mother has named her Jenny. She looks a little like you did when you were a baby,” said Grandma.

Jason bent down to look at the tiny fingers. They moved when he touched them and curled themselves around his larger finger. He frowned. He was the man of the house, and this little baby was partly his responsibility. How could he think of buying a pony when Jenny had no cradle?

“Grandma, I’m not very hungry. I have something important to do. Please tell Mother I’ll be back soon.”

Jason ran outside and didn’t stop till he came to the general store. Mr. Wright, the proprietor, also did woodworking as a hobby.

“Mr. Wright! My mother had a baby girl. How much would you charge to make me a cradle for her—one that rocks?”

“Well, since you’re a working man,” the storekeeper said with a twinkle in his eye, “I’ll make a real nice one for you for nine dollars. I can have it ready by Friday.”

“That’d be fine,” said Jason. As he turned to leave, he spied some baby clothes inside a showcase. “How much is that pretty little gown?” he asked. “I want to get that for Jenny too.”

All the way home Jason whistled a jaunty tune. He was sure that the real man of the house couldn’t be any happier about the new baby than her big brother was.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Larry Winborg