Neiley led the cattle to the pasture, then closed the gate. After watching a moment while they chomped the dew-covered grass, she climbed onto the top rail of the fence. The smell of autumn was already in the air, and she looked toward the horizon. Soon she and her little brother, Tom, would don their emporium-bought clothes and head down the lane to school.
It was a long, long walk to the little schoolhouse, but Neiley looked forward to learning more about other peoples and places. She wiggled her bare toes luxuriously. This year will be better than last year, she daydreamed. Tom was never anxious to shove his suntanned feet into store-bought shoes, but he had seemed pleased to be able to print his own name.
“Neiley!” Tom shouted.
She turned her head and watched as he raced across the grass.
“I brought it,” he said breathlessly.
“Come on,” Neiley said as she jumped down from the rail and took the small sack from his hand. “We’ll count it in the barn.”
They sat side by side on the straw and counted their money, much of which they had earned during the long summer. Unfolding the birthday dollars Grandma had sent from Boston, they placed them faceup on Tom’s spread-out bandanna. Then they began counting the small pile of coins. Some were earned from gathering pinecones on the hill and selling them to the traveling peddler. Tom had asked who would buy pinecones, but the cones had sold along with the feathers they had found and collected.
Some of the coins were still marked with the blacking Tom had used on cattlemen’s dress boots. Neiley thought of the many hand-stitched aprons she had sewn and sold to the peddler in secret. She wondered how many of them were being worn this fine autumn morning in faraway homes.
When the counting was done, Neiley collapsed into the straw and whooped, “Tomorrow, Tom! Tomorrow, we buy a mule!”
The chores the children did were no different from those they did any other day, yet that day they seemed to take longer to complete. As Neiley gathered eggs, she glanced toward the house, where Tom and Mother were carrying buckets of water. Neiley smiled and thought of the many ways a mule would help. Not only could she and Tom ride it to school when the weather was bad, but a mule would also help with the work around the farm. It would make plowing easier, and maybe they could even build some kind of cart or wagon for it to pull. Then the walk to town to sell goods and crops would not be a walk—it would be a ride! She smiled and drew a long blade of grass through her lips. “Yes, Mother will be pleased,” she murmured.
The following morning Neiley and Tom were up before first light. They ate quickly, for they were anxious to be off.
“Now, Neiley,” her mother cautioned, as she wrapped the hand-sewn items with paper and string, “you know the value of our work. Don’t take more than is fair or less than is right.”
Neiley nodded. “Do you have Mrs. McDougal’s quilt there, too?” Neiley asked.
“It’s the moon pattern,” her mother replied with a nod. “And the settled price is three dollars.” Turning to Tom, she handed him another bundle. “This is the jam. Be careful you don’t drop it. And mind your sister.”
With a hug and a kiss from their mother, the two children started down the lane toward the rising sun. At the fork in the road they looked back and waved. Then, laden with goods and their sack of summer money, and with their hopes high, they continued on their way. When they reached town, people were already milling around the corrals and the bidding booths.
“Come on,” Neiley urged Tom. “We’ll sell the goods first. Then we can come back and look at the mules.”
Going from house to house, Neiley and Tom were invited inside while the hand-sewn items were inspected and the jam help up to the light. When they got to Mrs. McDougal’s, she was so pleased with the quilt that she gave Neiley an extra fifty-cent piece.
“Mother said the agreed price was three dollars,” Neiley protested, handing the coin back.
“Your mother doesn’t know the worth of her own work,” Mrs. McDougal insisted as she pressed the extra coin into Neiley’s palm. “You give this to her with my compliments for a beautiful job.”
Neiley looked from the coin to Mrs. McDougal. “Thank you, ma’am!” she said.
Outside, Tom jumped up and down happily. “We could put the fifty cents with our summer money, Neiley. Then we’d get a good mule for sure.”
“Tom!” Neiley frowned, her hands on her hips. “Shame on you for such a thought! That’s Mother’s quilt money. It would be stealing!”
“But,” Tom explained as Neiley hurried along, “Mother would understand. We want the mule for the good of everyone.”
“We’ll get a mule with our own summer money, or we won’t get one at all!” Neiley insisted.
Soon all the goods were sold, and Tom and Neiley headed toward the bidding booths. They sat on a bale of hay and waited.
Finally Tom poked Neiley’s arm. “There are the mules, Neiley!” he said in an excited whisper.
Neiley took their summer money from her pocket. Time and time again they raised their hands and bid, but each time the mule was bought by a higher bidder.
“Our summer money just isn’t enough,” Neiley said quietly. “We’ll have to save for another summer.”
Tom was disappointed as Neiley took his hand and led him away through the crowd. When he kept pulling back, Neiley only raised her chin higher and tugged on his hand harder. When the crowd was finally behind them, Neiley released Tom’s hand and wiped her eyes.
“Couldn’t we use just a little of Mother’s money?” Tom pleaded.
Neiley’s eyes flashed. “No!”
Someone touched Neiley’s shoulder. She turned. A tall man with gentle eyes was looking at her.
“Finished bidding?” he asked with a twinkling smile.
“We bid all we had, but it wasn’t enough,” Neiley replied.
“You have enough for my mule,” he said kindly.
“But if you watched us bidding, you must know how much money we have. It’s not really very much.”
“Money isn’t the important thing. I want to find a good home for an old friend.” The man smiled again. “Besides, anyone who is willing to give all he has for something certainly deserves to get it.”
Tom’s eyes widened. “Neiley? Did you hear him?”
As they rode the mule toward home, Neiley’s heart sang, and the stranger’s words rang in her ears: “Anyone who is willing to give all he has for something certainly deserves to get it.” Never before—even on the highest pine bluff—had Neiley felt so close to heaven as on the back of that mule.
Neiley wrapped her arms tighter about her little brother’s waist and clicked her tongue. “Get up, mule,” she said happily. “We’re taking you home.”