Sarah’s Decision


All morning the low black clouds hovered over the valley, and the air was hot and still. Up in the hayloft Sarah pitched the sweet-smelling hay over the oak beam and down to the barn floor, where her sister, Amy, scattered it around for fresh bedding when the cows came in for their evening milking. Sarah was twelve, and she and Amy, who was two years younger, did most of the barn chores. They also helped their father with the cows’ care and milking.

Each time Sarah pitched a forkful of hay she’d call, “Look out below!” Then she’d catch a glimpse of Amy’s freckled face grinning up at her.

And Amy would always shout back, “If I had a penny for every time I’ve heard you say that, I’d be rich by now!”

Sarah laughed and brushed at a trickle of sweat that ran down her cheek, then stopped to scoop up her long blond hair and tie it back with a piece of baling twine. She felt uneasy as she glanced out the open loft door and saw lightning flash on the distant horizon in the direction of the city where her parents had gone that morning to shop.

She leaned out the door, her gray eyes searching for her father’s familiar green truck. A dark mass of low-moving clouds was gathering over the valley, and a new sound filled the air. Sarah looked out at the heavy rain that had begun to fall. The once-quiet river had become a gushing torrent of muddy water. She busied herself by stacking the smaller bales of hay to save her father any extra work. As she stacked, she could hear the thunder overhead and the rain pounding on the tin roof. She pushed the last bale into place and sat down to wipe her sweaty face.

A sudden cry from Amy sent her scurrying down the ladder. There was a look of alarm on her sister’s face as she pointed at the river. The churning water was rapidly overrunning the riverbank. Sarah’s heart pounded with fear as she remembered another time when a flash flood had swamped the entire valley.

Sarah tried to be calm as she turned to Amy and said, “We’d better hurry to the house. Mom and Dad should be coming back soon.”

The sudden sharp ring of the telephone startled the girls a few minutes later. Sarah ran to answer it. Against the crackling sound of static, a faint voice asked, “Sarah, are you and Amy all right?”

Sarah clutched the receiver tightly and replied, “Dad! Where are you? We’re having a terrible storm!”

The calm, controlled voice of their father gave the frightened girl some assurance as he replied, “Sarah, we can’t make it home tonight. Everyone in town is moving to higher ground, and all the roads are underwater. In another hour it will hit the valley. You should have enough time to get over the bridge to open the lower pasture gate and herd the cows up to the barn. But hurry!” Another burst of static followed, and she barely heard the last fading words before the line went dead, “Sarah, don’t go near Sam. He’ll be wild and dangerous with fright. …”

For a moment Sarah stood still with fear as she uttered one word, “Sam!” She had forgotten about her father’s prize bull and how much she feared the huge animal. Only that morning her father had led Sam down to the edge of the river and had chained him to an iron stake.

Amy tugged at Sarah’s arm and looked at her sister’s frightened face. “What’s wrong, Sarah?”

The older girl tried to keep her voice from trembling. “Amy, we have to work fast. Mom and Dad can’t make it home tonight. The roads are underwater. We have to bring the cows up from the lower pasture before the bridge is washed away. I’ll run down to open the gate and herd them across. You stay ahead to lead them into the barn.”

Sarah had barely finished her instructions before Amy was running toward the barn to unlatch the big sliding doors. Sarah braced herself against the sharp wind and cutting rain as she ran across the bridge and opened the gate where the restless cows were jammed together. The animals pushed excitedly over the stone bridge as floating debris began to wash over the top. Sarah shooed and waved her arms wildly as the last drenched animal crossed over. She caught a glimpse of Amy running ahead, her little figure dwarfed by the frightened herd that followed her into the barn.

The breathless girls sank down onto a bale of hay, water rolling down their faces and their wet clothes clinging to them. The barn was filled with the sounds of the animals’ heavy breathing and the crunching of hay beneath their hooves as they began to settle down.

Amy brushed the hair off her forehead and said, “We made it! We got them all back safely.”

Sarah stood up and walked to the open door, shaking her head sadly. “No, Amy, not all of them.” She saw Sam’s huge black form struggling against the wild current of the river. And he was unable to free himself from the chain that kept him staked to the ground.

Amy walked over to her sister, and for a long moment she watched the river rising up to the frightened animal’s chest. As though reading Sarah’s thoughts, she protested, “You know Dad said not to go near him.”

The girls watched Sam finally stop struggling, bowing his great head as though he had resigned himself to his fate. Amy’s eyes filled with tears. “Poor Sam!” she whispered.

Desperate thoughts and her father’s warning combined in Sarah’s mind. Suddenly a glimmer of hope lit up her eyes. She cried out, “Look Amy! A big log has washed up against the bridge, and it goes clear over next to Sam! I could crawl along the top of it and open the lock on Sam’s chain. I know I can do it!”

Sarah turned toward Amy, took her gently by the shoulders, and looked into her tear-streaked face. “I have to try to free him, Amy, or at least give him a chance to save himself!”

Amy’s trembling lips uttered one word, “Yes.”

Sarah reached for the key that hung on a chain over Sam’s pen, put it around her neck, and ran out into the howling storm. “Open his pen, Amy!” she shouted. “Then go up to the loft and stay there till I get back!”

Sarah raced down the path toward the log and started to shinny across it, clinging desperately with both hands and feet. As the water pounded against her, Sarah was barely able to stay on the log. Slowly she inched across it until she reached Sam. The animal seemed numb with fear as she tried to turn the key in the lock. Each time she reached out, the fierce current almost swept her away. But at last, with a final tug, the lock sprung open and the chain dropped into the water.

Above the roar of the river she shouted, “Swim, Sam! Swim!”

Slowly the waterlogged animal turned his shaggy head and looked at the girl through half-closed eyes.

Sarah was making her way back across the bobbing log when suddenly something whammed into it and whirled it around until one end lodged on the shore not far from the gravel path. Sarah was pitched ashore, where she lay stunned. Then slowly she raised her head and looked around for Sam.

He was still standing in the same place, not realizing that he was free. “Sam! Come on, boy!” she shouted, scrambling to her feet. “Swim!”

Slowly the dazed animal turned his head and realized the restraining chain was gone. With a ponderous movement he swung his heavy body around and began making his way across the river. Floating debris slammed into his sides, and the waves lashed at him. But at each onslaught, he reared his powerful neck to meet the river’s torrent. Sam’s massive strength kept him plowing straight toward Sarah who was still gasping for breath.

She trembled anew at the sight of the huge animal rising up out of the water, his wild black eyes fixed on her. And when a loud clap of thunder struck close by, he let out a bellow that swelled his sides and shook the ground.

The frightened girl was surprised at her own calm voice as she called, “Steady, boy! We’ll make it now.”

The bull, unbelievably docile now, lowered his head and kept a steady pace beside her as she made a beeline for the barn. Quickly she swung the pen gate shut and pushed the bolt safely into place. Then she sank down weakly on the dry hay, every muscle and bone in her body aching. From the loft she heard Amy whisper, “Is it safe to come down, now?”

Sarah looked up at her sister and managed a smile. “Yes, Amy. We made it. We saved Sam.”

They watched the bull toss the hay around, picking out the tender stems. When he raised his head, a pile of hay was perched on top with some of it sticking out of his ears. He looked so comical that both girls burst out laughing.

With the busy sound of the munching animals settling around them, the girls slipped out of the barn and trudged up to the house.

Sarah lit the kerosene lamp, and a cheery glow filled the room. Silently, the girls struggled out of their wet clothes and wrapped themselves in warm robes. Curled up in the comforting armchairs, they were soon sound asleep.

Bright sunlight streamed through the window, and the sound of a blaring horn brought Sarah to her feet as Amy rubbed her sleepy eyes. The girls rushed to the window to see their father’s truck splashing across the bridge over the ebbing river. The storm had ended.

Their worried parents called out, “Sarah! Amy!”

Both girls rushed into their parents’ open arms. Sarah then noticed her father’s anxious look in the direction of where Sam had been tethered.

With a suppressed smile, she said, “Come out to the barn, Dad. We want to show you something.”

Amy danced ahead. “Yes, we have a surprise for you.”

When they slid the barn door open, their father stood speechless at the sight that greeted him. Sam was contentedly pacing back and forth in his pen. And the impatient cows, waiting to be milked, seemed relieved that their owner was here to look after them.

The look on her father’s face filled Sarah’s heart with an unequaled joy. “We’ll tell you the whole story,” she promised. “But we’re too hungry right now.”

Father put his arms around both of his daughters. And as they walked back to the house, he said, with a twinkle in his eye, “I’ll bet your mom is making a special breakfast for two hungry and very brave girls right now. I’ll race you to the kitchen!”

[illustrations] Illustrated by Richard Hull