Jeff Wright swung the empty fruit basket and smiled at his buddy Pete Adams. “That’s the last of the apples,” Jeff declared, “and we still have two streets to do on our route. Shall we call it a day or go back to the Scout hall for a refill?”
“Not all the way back there, please!” Pete groaned. “We’re on the edge of town now, and I’ve just about had it.”
“We’ve done OK so far,” Jeff remarked, “but I hate to miss the chance of selling a few more apples before we report back. If we want that camp built next summer, we’ll need all the money we can get.”
Squaring his shoulders, Pete agreed. “OK, let’s go get a refill. When we’re at camp next summer, we’ll think it was worth it.”
“Let’s take the shortcut through the McAuley farm,” Jeff suggested.
To the left of the barren field they were crossing was an orchard with tangled grass and weeds springing up among the trees.
“Do you see what I see?” Pete asked. “Look at all those trees thick with apples just begging to be picked!”
“Probably all wormy, too,” Jeff replied. “It’s not likely that Mr. McAuley has sprayed them.”
“Why doesn’t he look after the orchard?” Pete asked.
“Oh, people in town say that he’s just lost interest in the farm. It’s too much work for him on his own, and he probably couldn’t afford help even if he could find pickers. He’s as independent as all get-out, though. Folks used to offer to help him, but I guess they got fed up after he became so hard to get along with.”
“Seems like an awful waste of good apples,” Pete observed as they reached the lane leading to the road. “Especially right now. We could have filled our baskets!”
“Not with rotten apples, thank you!” Jeff said wryly. “It was a good farm years ago, but after his son was killed in a tractor rollover, the old man became a recluse.”
“Speaking of the old man,” Pete said, pointing toward a woodpile behind the barn, “is that him?”
“Yeah.” Jeff stood still, watching the gaunt figure chopping into a log as if every stroke of the ax was too much for his strength. “He looks terrible, Pete. Let’s go see if we can help him.”
As the boys approached, Mr. McAuley stopped chopping and mopped his face with a bandanna.
“Mr. McAuley, can we do that?” Jeff offered. He introduced himself and Pete and explained why they happened to be in the area.
As they took over the wood chopping, after only a mild protest from Mr. McAuley, they told him more about the Scout camp project. But when the farmer invited them to fill their baskets with his apples, Pete blurted, “But aren’t they—”
“Wormy?” Mr. McAuley finished the question. “No.” Seeing Pete’s embarrassment and Jeff’s questioning look, he added, “Tom Sims sent his sprayers over when they did his orchard, so the fruit should be good.”
“Are you going to have the crop picked, then?” Jeff asked.
“I meant to,” Mr. McAuley replied. “But I’ve had the flu, and it’s about knocked me flat.” He piled small branches into the wheelbarrow while the boys chopped seasoned apple limbs into stove-size pieces.
After the firewood had been stacked, Mr. McAuley led the boys into the big farm kitchen where they got a good fire going in the black potbellied stove. Soon they were drinking steaming mugs of hot cider.
Jeff watched the color creep back into the old man’s face, but all the boy said was, “I’ve been thinking about all those apples going to waste. I noticed that you have plenty of apple hampers in the barn, Mr. McAuley. If Pete and I talked our troop into coming out after school and weekends for a while, we’d get most of them picked for you.”
“Oh, I couldn’t let you do that, Jeff! I couldn’t afford to pay them, and—”
Both boys brushed that aside. “I’ll ask my dad to see about a trucker to take the apples to the storage sheds,” Jeff continued. “It’d be a neat project, right, Pete?”
His friend nodded eagerly.
The old man rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “You know, boys, I’d almost given up since my son was killed. Nothing seemed to matter after that, what with his mother gone so long and just me left.”
“But, sir, you can’t quit on life,” Jeff said kindly. “My dad always says that you can’t stay still. You have to go forward or backward. There’s no in-between.”
“Well, this old man is going forward again, thanks to you two. I’ll let you help me with this fall’s crop, if the other lads agree. Then I’ll get the farm in shape in the spring again.”
“Good!” the boys said in unison.
“Go pick a basket each of the best apples, and finish your route,” Mr. McAuley told them.
Their baskets filled, Jeff and Pete went back to the house to thank the old man and tell him that they’d be back later with their troop buddies.
As they started down the lane, Mr. McAuley shouted. “Jeff! Pete! I’ve just had a great idea!”
They waited, puzzled at the old man’s excitement.
“You’ve helped me to see things more clearly today, boys, made me see that I have to start over. Now, I can do something for you in return! There are four or five acres of scrub land behind the orchard, with a little creek running through it.” He grinned. “It’d make a perfect campsite for a troop of Boy Scouts! It’ll need a good cleanup before summer, but—”
Whoops and yells cut him off as the boys raced off to finish one project and get started on another!