Dawn turned the sky a rosy red above the Idaho mountains as Toby helped Pa load the last of the wheat into the wagon. There was still room for Ma’s crocks of butter and the small basket of eggs packed in straw. Pa shook his head as he limped around the side of the wagon and pulled the canvas tarp down tightly over the load.
“I was counting on our winter wheat to make the mortgage payment,” Pa told Toby. “But since that storm ruined most of the crop, I hope that the cow will bring enough to keep the bank happy.” Pa tied down the tarp and added, “I know that you wanted to come along, Toby, but somebody has to stay home and tend the stock. Maybe your ma can trade her butter and eggs for a few supplies and enough material to make you a new shirt.”
Toby swallowed hard, and vigorously scratched Shep’s ears to hide his disappointment. The dog wagged his tail and followed Toby and Pa as they walked back to the cabin for breakfast.
When the meal was over, Pa led the brindled cow from the barn and tied her to the back of the wagon. Ma stopped and stroked the cow.
“Now that her calf is weaned, I’ve been hoping to sell her milk and butter to the miners.” Ma sighed and climbed aboard the wagon. “Mr. Pauley says that they’ve been asking for fresh milk and eggs and butter.”
“We’ll be home around nightfall,” Pa said to Toby, picking up the reins. “You take good care of things while we’re gone.”
“And see to it that my hens are safe,” Ma cautioned. “We need what few eggs they lay to get us through till the crops are harvested.”
Toby hung his head and dug his toe into the dirt, remembering that the fix they were in with the hens was partly his fault. It was his job each evening to close the little door that the chickens used to go into and out of the coop. But one night last month there had been a terrible thunderstorm, and he’d been too scared to go out and close the door. That night a fox had gotten into the coop and killed half the flock. Worst of all, it had carried off Biddie, Ma’s only setting hen, before Pa could run him off. Now there were only four hens and a rooster left.
“Don’t worry, Ma. I’ll take good care of the chickens,” Toby promised as he waved good-bye to them. Slowly the wagon disappeared around the bend at the edge of the clearing.
Toby went to the barn to feed the calf and pigs; then he fed the chickens. It was past noon before he finished the list of other chores that Ma and Pa had left for him. He made himself a sandwich and sat out on the porch in the sun while he ate. Shep sat down beside him, hoping for a piece of crust.
“We have time to go fishing before evening chores,” Toby told Shep. “We’ll surprise Ma and catch her a nice mess of trout for supper.” He tossed Shep the last bite of his sandwich and got his fishing pole from the barn.
With Shep at his heels, Toby was halfway across the clearing before he remembered the chickens. He stopped and looked back. The hens were pecking contentedly around the barnyard. “I guess no old fox is going to bother them while we’re gone,” he told the dog. Shep wagged his tail and plodded along beside Toby as they went down the path to the fishing hole.
Toby settled himself on the bank of the creek and dropped his line into the water. “I bet we catch a big one,” he said. But Shep just turned and wandered off through the bushes along the creek.
Toby pushed his hat back and leaned back on his elbows to look up at the blue, cloudless sky. He watched a black speck grow bigger and take shape. The bird glided gracefully through the air on motionless wings. An eagle, Toby thought idly. He watched and admired the bird as it made wide, lazy circles overhead. Suddenly Toby sat straight up. “That’s not an eagle,” he said aloud. “That’s a chicken hawk after Ma’s hens!” Toby dropped the fishing pole and took off running. He didn’t even wait to call Shep. He pounded up the path from the creek. The chickens were squawking fearfully by the time he burst into the clearing.
The hawk swooped down, just missing a red hen. Still too far away to scare away the hawk, Toby prayed, “Please, Heavenly Father, help me to get there in time.” Still running, he scooped up a handful of stones. “Get out of here, you old hawk!” he yelled, peppering the air with stones. The hawk gave a startled cry and excitedly flapped its wings. It screamed its anger as it swooped down one last time, then flew away.
By the time Toby reached the barnyard, all the hens had disappeared. Only the bedraggled rooster was hiding in the chicken coop. Toby sat down on the chopping block and held his head in his hands. “Now I’ve lost all the hens. What will we do without eggs?”
Just then a speckled hen stepped cautiously from the bushes. She took several jerky steps, then ran for the chicken coop. Toby rushed to close the little door behind her.
The rest of the hens must be out there, too, he thought. Maybe I can find them all before Ma comes home. He ran to the barn for a burlap sack to drop over the chickens in case they were still too excited to be caught with his hands.
By sundown Toby had found all but the red hen. He circled deeper into the woods, hoping to drive her into the clearing. It had grown almost dark under the trees. If the hen were still there, she would be roosting by now. Toby peered into the lower branches of the trees and under the bushes, watching for her dark shape. He saw nothing at first, then just ahead in a patch of tall grass, he saw several birds.
They must be quail or grouse, Toby thought as he crept closer. If I can catch them for Ma, it will make up a little for losing the hen. Toby took off his hat and sneaked up on the birds. As he slipped his hat over the first bird, he was startled to see that it was a hen with eight half-grown chicks. Slipping the hen from his hat into the burlap sack, he reached for one of her chicks.
It was fully dark when Ma and Pa came home. Toby grabbed his lantern and rushed from the cabin to meet them. “You brought the cow back!” he cried. “I thought that you were going to sell her.”
Ma smiled and climbed down from the wagon before Pa drove the team into the barn. “Pa got a hauling job up at the mine. It’s only two days a week, but it will pay enough to make the mortgage payment. Did you close the chicken coop?”
“Yes, Ma, but you’d better come have a look at the hens.” On the way to the chicken coop he told her about the hawk. Inside he held his lantern high and moved toward the roost.
“My goodness!” Ma cried. “Where did all these chickens come from?”
Toby grinned. “It’s Biddie’s brood, Ma. See—there’s Biddie too. I found them roosting in the woods while I was searching for the red hen. The young ones will soon be laying size, Ma. You can sell eggs to the miners after all. I’m just sorry that I never found the red hen.”
“That’s all right Toby. You did the best that you could, and I’m very proud of you.”
Toby and Ma both turned when they heard scratching noises at the coop door. Toby cautiously opened the door, then stood back as the lost red hen jerk-stepped into the coop.
Ma put her arms around Toby and hugged him tightly. “Heavenly Father certainly has been watching over us this day. With His help we’re going to make it just fine.”