I watched Ma’s eyes moving up and down the rough board walls partly covered with pasted-up newspapers. Five times now I had watched her read our lean-to walls, and it brought an ache to my heart.
If Ma had a book to read, I thought, maybe it wouldn’t seem so bad to be down in bed day after day. I tried to think of likely places to find her a book. “I heard once that Mr. Piney keeps books, Ma. I think I’ll go borrow one tomorrow.”
Ma looked at me, and I caught a flicker of interest in her tired eyes. “You’d ride ten miles just to get me a book, Jase?”
I grinned at her, glad that I’d thought of it.
Ma gave a deep sigh. “It would be nice to read a book,” she said.
When Ma had hurt her back, Old Doc Thomas had told her that staying down flat was the only choice that she had for a while. I fixed the meals, did the chores, and kept the garden plot weeded so that Pa could work in the mines long enough to get money to pay Doc for his visits. And I tried to keep Ma happy while Pa was gone.
The next morning, after fixing Ma a bowl of mush and putting some lunch on the chair by her bed, I climbed onto Hoofer and rode bareback toward the Pineys’ ranch. Their house was over the hills and across a sizable creek from our place. I figured that I could reach the Pineys’ place by noon and be back by chore time. But I hadn’t counted on a storm coming up, and it made me uneasy when it started to rain before I even got over the first hill.
I knew that the creek swelled sometimes when it rained in the hills, and I hoped that it wouldn’t happen now. When I reached the creek, it was shallow and running clear. I splashed Hoofer across with a joyful shout, and we went pounding on to the Pineys’ ranch.
I hadn’t figured on wasting any time at the Pineys’ place, but Mr. Piney insisted that I stay long enough to dry myself out. Then Mrs. Piney set a platter of warm biscuits and honey in front of me. After I had stuffed the third biscuit into my mouth, I told them about Ma and about me thinking that she needed a book to read.
Mr. Piney went to his bookshelf, and I watched his fingers sliding over the smooth covers of each book. He loved those books, I could tell. My heart sank. Maybe he loved them so much that he wouldn’t want to loan me one.
“Do you know about Shakespeare, Jase?” he asked me.
I swallowed the last of the biscuit that I was eating. “No, sir, but I reckon Ma does.”
His fingers stopped on a book with a dark red cover. He took it down from the shelf and opened it. He smoothed the pages just like I sometimes smoothed Hoofer’s velvety neck. “I wouldn’t want it to get soiled or damaged,” he said softly.
I held my breath.
“I’m going to trust you, Jase.” He wrapped the book in a cloth and handed it to me. I felt as if I was being handed a treasure of jewels or gold. And my heart sang just knowing that I would be carrying such a treasure to Ma.
It had stopped raining, and the sun was coming out, so I started home. I rode along, envisioning how Ma’s eyes would sparkle when I gave her the book.
When I reached the creek, it was overflowing its banks! The only way to cross it would be to swim Hoofer. But how can I protect the book? I wondered.
I held Hoofer back and watched the swirling water. Maybe I could hold the book high above my head with one hand and hang onto Hoofer’s mane with the other. Or maybe I could tuck it up high under my galluses and against my chest. …
I closed my eyes against the sight of the water and prayed to know what to do. I wanted to get the book safely home to Ma, I told the Lord. I wasn’t worried about Hoofer. He was a strong horse, and he had swum the creek before. It was the book that worried me, I told Him.
Then it was like my own voice inside me, reminding me of Mr. Piney’s trust in me. It was telling me that I didn’t have any right to take a chance of getting his treasured book wet. Tears began stinging my eyes when I knew what I had to do. I turned Hoofer back toward the Pineys’ ranch.
Mr. Piney didn’t ask any questions when I handed him the cloth-wrapped package. I was glad, because my throat was too tight to do any explaining.
“It will be here whenever you come back for it,” was all that he said.
With my throat aching something terrible, I loped Hoofer back to the creek. I only slowed up at the creek bank for a moment; then we plunged into the swollen water. I clung to his mane and tried to lift my legs away from the water. It reached his belly quickly, and I felt its tug against my legs.
Hoofer was splashing up onto the far bank when one big splash caught me full on, drenching me. The water hit my face, and I gasped and sputtered. Then a wave of pure thankfulness spread over me. I was surely glad that I had seen fit to return the treasured book.
It was near dark when I rode into our yard. I saw that Ma hadn’t even lit the oil lamp beside her bed. I went in, feeling choked with what I had to tell her. I saw the movement of her arms in the corner where she lay on her bed, and I wet my lips. “I didn’t bring you a book, Ma,” I said.
“To have you home safe, Jase, is worth more than any book,” she told me.
I touched a match to the lampwick, and shadows fled the lean-to room. Lamplight flickered on the newspapered walls. “Did you ever read Shakespeare, Ma?” I asked.
She gave a sigh of remembering. “A long time ago.”
In a few days the creek would again run shallow, and when it did, I’d ride back to Mr. Piney’s ranch for that treasured book.