I had often seen the battered old green truck sitting in the field under the big, scraggly elm trees that surrounded a broken-down cabin. Nobody lived on the ranch now, but I liked to explore the area, looking for old relics.
The day Sam went down there with me was one of those hot, lazy summer days when you’re restless for something to do. Sam had brought his BB gun. My dad would never let me have one. He said that they were only good for mischief.
When Sam and I came to the ranch lane, we turned in and wandered over to the pond, which was muddy around the edges and covered with algae.
“What this pond needs is some ducks,” I said. “They’d clean it up.”
“Right,” Sam agreed, raising his gun to his shoulders and aiming at nothing, “and I could clip them off with my trusty gun.”
We walked over to the truck and sat on the running board in the shade. We pulled up blades of field grass and chewed on the ends and looked out across the field.
“Who owns this truck?” Sam asked. “Your dad?”
“No,” I said, “one of my uncles.”
“Does it run?”
“I don’t think so.”
Sam stood up and walked around the truck, examining it. “It’s pretty old and beat up. I guess he’s just junked it down here.”
“I’m not sure about that,” I said as I looked at the truck. The tires still had air in them, and nothing looked broken, just old.
“Let’s take a few shots at it,” Sam said enthusiastically.
“Why?” I asked.
“Just for fun,” replied Sam. “The truck’s no good. It won’t hurt anything. Come on, move out of the way.”
I followed him out a little way into the field, where he raised his gun and shot a hole through the truck’s windshield. The sun glistened on the hole and the small sparkling cracks spreading out from it.
“Now, see how close you can come to my hole,” Sam said, handing me the gun. I hesitated, then raised the gun and shot. I made another hole, not very close to his. We took turns for a while until the windshield was full of holes. Sam shot a couple of times at the headlight. It was fun, in a way, to hear the craack! when one of us hit the mark, but a very uneasy feeling was creeping over me. “Let’s go now,” I said finally.
“We’re just getting a good start on this thing,” Sam said. “We can shoot it as full of holes as a sieve.” He laughed and raised his gun again.
“Look,” I said, getting a little angry. “It’s my family’s property, and I say we’re leaving.”
Sam lowered his gun, looked at me a minute, and shrugged his shoulders. “Whatever you say.”
The next day our family left for our vacation to Yellowstone Park. We had a great time on our trip, looking at geysers and boiling mud pots and beautiful scenery. The day after we got home, my dad asked me to go down to the ranch with him to clear out the irrigation ditch. We climbed into the old blue pickup and headed for the ranch. After turning off the dirt road, we bumped across the field in the direction of the old truck.
Suddenly Dad put on the brakes and leaned forward. “What in thunder happened to that!” he exclaimed, nodding toward the truck. He slowly drove over to it, and we both got out. I was as surprised as Dad was. The hood was open, and wires were hanging out on both sides. The carburetor was in pieces and scattered on the ground. Looking inside, we saw that the radio was gone and that the instrument panel on the dashboard had been smashed in. The seats had been slashed. My dad turned and looked at me quizzically, but surprise showed clearly on my face too.
“This must have happened while we were gone,” he said. “I drove down around this way before we left and didn’t notice any damage to the truck.”
I heaved a big sigh of relief. He didn’t suspect me at all. I wasn’t guilty, anyway, I told myself. I certainly hadn’t done all this damage. I thought that my dad might ask me if I had any idea who had done it, but he didn’t.
That night at dinner Dad told Mom about the truck. “This is going to make a hardship on Uncle Cy,” he said.
I looked up quickly, my roast beef dry in my mouth. “Did the truck run, Dad?” I asked. “I’ve never seen Uncle Cy driving it.”
“Sure it did. He drives his car to get around, but he uses—used—the truck for hauling hay and garbage, things like that.”
“It looked so old and worn out.”
My dad looked at me sharply. “It was old,” he said, “but it served his needs. He sure can’t afford to buy a new one. He only has his retirement, nothing extra.”
Suddenly even Mom’s gooseberry pie didn’t look very good. I picked at my dinner a little more.
“Sometimes, Son,” my father said, startling me, “something isn’t very valuable in itself, but it has value for the person who owns it.” He looked at me so closely that I wondered if he knew, after all.
I excused myself and went out into the backyard and sat under the spreading branches of the willow tree. Uncle Cy had always been good to me. He was my grandpa’s brother, and he lived by himself in a tiny house with a coal stove and a big sheepdog. Mom took dinners to him sometimes. I still had a little horse that he had whittled for me.
I kept telling myself that I hadn’t really ruined Uncle Cy’s truck. The windshield and the headlight could have been replaced. Still, I felt responsible and guilty. Finally I came up with a plan.
On Saturday I went up to see Uncle Cy as soon as it stopped raining.
“Michael!” he said, slapping me on the back. “Glad to see you. Sit down a minute. I need an excuse to rest.” He motioned to a weathered gray bench under an old apple tree, and we sat down. “The rain was refreshing,” he said, wiping his forehead with a blue bandanna, “but it’s still hot.”
It was hot, all right, but I felt a chilly feeling in my stomach as I mumbled, “I was sorry to hear about your truck.”
Uncle Cy stuffed his bandanna into his pocket thoughtfully. “I was too. I don’t know how I’ll get hay to my horses this winter. I like to pasture them down at the ranch, where there’s water.”
“Well,” I said, shifting my weight carefully on the splintered boards of the bench, “maybe I could help you with that. I thought that maybe I could haul the bales in our wheelbarrow.”
Uncle Cy looked at me, and his old blue eyes were shining. “Michael,” he said, patting my leg, “that’s mighty thoughtful of you. Maybe we can work that out if I can get my hay hauled down there and into one of the sheds.”
“Dad will do that with his truck, I’m sure.” I didn’t look right at him. “I thought I could help with the garbage, too—maybe help you dig a hole to put cans and stuff in. We could burn the rest.” I was talking fast, and my palms were wet.
“That would be wonderful, Michael, but I couldn’t pay you very much.”
“Oh,” I said, looking up quickly into his ruddy face, “I don’t want to be paid. I just want to help.”
He looked steadily at me, and I looked at the grass and dandelions. “You’re a fine boy, Michael. Your dad can be real proud of you.”
I glanced up at Uncle Cy and saw tears shining in his eyes. I smiled at him, then took off up the lane.
As I neared home, my mind felt easier. I would help Uncle Cy with his work, and no one would ever need to know about my part in damaging his truck. But as I remembered his face and how pleased he was with me, something uncomfortable stirred in the back of my mind.
The next week school started. I went up to Uncle Cy’s two nights after school, and we dug the hole. I helped him smash cans and dump them into the hole. I burned garbage and cleaned up around his yard. When I’d finished, Uncle Cy put an arm around my shoulders. “I always thought that you were a good boy, Michael,” he said, “but I didn’t know how good until now.”
On Saturday we hauled Uncle Cy’s hay down to the ranch. The three of us loaded it, and Dad and I took it down. After we stacked the bales in an old shed, we sat down on the end of the truck bed and took a drink of cool water from Dad’s canteen.
“Uncle Cy’s really touched by all the help you’ve been giving him,” Dad said, “and I want you to know that I’m proud of you.”
I said nothing. The battered truck sat nearby in the sunlight accusingly, its wires hanging out like some wounded thing.
“Anything you want to tell me, Son?” Dad said quietly.
Suddenly, in a big relieving rush, I blurted it all out. “I don’t know who finished it off for sure,” I concluded. “Probably Sam and maybe someone else.”
Dad didn’t say anything for a while. He looked out over the fields.
“I guess you’re pretty disappointed in me,” I finally ventured.
“Well,” he said, “at least I’m glad that you told me. I kind of wondered if you knew something about it. What’re you going to do now?” he said.
I swallowed hard. “I thought that I was doing something about it, helping Uncle Cy out and all.”
“Yeah, that’s something, all right. But I wondered if you were going to tell him too.”
“Oh, Dad, do I have to?”
“No, you don’t have to. You didn’t have to tell me.”
“He thinks I’m such a great kid. If I tell him, he’ll know that I’m just a vandal.”
Dad laughed a little. “Maybe his opinion won’t be that bad. What you think of yourself is the most important, and I have a hunch that you’ll like yourself better if you tell him. Another thing, Sam needs a chance to make amends too. Maybe the two of you can haul those bales this winter.”
Dad was right. I felt as though a big weight had been lifted off my chest after I talked to Uncle Cy later that afternoon. Blackbirds called from the pond, and a meadowlark sang from the power lines as Dad and I climbed into the truck and drove home.