The shadows grew longer and finally disappeared as the sun sank behind the hazy mountains far to the west.
The small western town, built on the edge of the desert near the delta of a small river, boasted one of the better rodeo grounds in the area. The grandstand, stock corrals, small concession building, and large greasewood brush on two sides made the grounds an ideal place for us four boys to play. On this sunny afternoon, my friends and I had come to the rodeo grounds and let our fantasies run wild. We had fought and won many battles with cattle rustlers and other outlaws. We had ridden the hardest-bucking horses and bulldogged the meanest steers.
Now the four of us were sitting quietly on the top steps of the grandstand, and Ray suggested, “It’ll soon be dark, so we’d better be getting home.”
“Yeah, my brothers will be looking for me,” I said, brushing wisps of hair out of my eyes.
“I’m still too tired to walk home. Let’s rest a few minutes more,” Bobby mumbled coaxingly.
“Do you guys like honey?” Jack asked. He was gazing across the rodeo grounds into Mr. Sampson’s alfalfa field, where there were a dozen white beehives, barely visible now in the near darkness.
“I do,” I said, “with peanut butter and bread.”
Ray and Bobby agreed.
“Honey is good fresh out of the comb,” Jack said then. “Have you guys ever eaten honey fresh out of the comb?” None of us had. “Well, let’s go see if Mr. Sampson left any honey in the hives and get us each a comb.”
“Wouldn’t that be stealing?” asked Ray.
“Mr. Sampson probably already has all the honey out of the hives that he needs, so I don’t think he’d care if we took some,” answered Jack.
We were hungry as well as tired, so it didn’t take much argument to convince us that honeycomb would probably taste really good. We crossed the rodeo grounds, climbed over the board fence, and took a honeycomb apiece from a different hive.
As we sat back on the top seats of the grandstand, my conscience began to tell me there was something not exactly right with what I was doing. I should have been home before dark, and I had taken something that belonged to someone else. That first bite of honey didn’t taste as good as I had expected it to.
Just then we heard the crunch of footsteps in the gravel below us.
“Quick, put your combs on the footboard,” Jack whispered.
The footsteps came slowly up the grandstand toward us. The large figure of a man loomed out of the darkness. “Evening, boys.” It was Mr. Sampson. Everybody in our community respected him and liked him, and we weren’t very happy at this point.
Jack shifted uneasily, trying to wipe the honey off his fingers onto the seat beside him.
“Good evening, Mr. Sampson.” Ray was the only one able to speak.
“Out kind of late, aren’t you?” he asked.
“Yes sir. We were just going home,” Ray answered.
After a slight pause, Mr. Sampson asked, “Do you boys know anything about bees?”
This question made us squirm. Finally Ray answered, “I don’t think we know very much.”
“I didn’t think that you did. Let me tell you a little bit about them. In each beehive there are three kinds of bees—the queen, the drones, and the workers. Each has a separate job to do, and each does its job well. The queen bee lays the eggs that hatch into young bees. The drones are male bees that fertilize the eggs laid by the queen.
Mr. Sampson hesitated a few seconds to let what he had told us sink in. “Now I’ll tell you about the workers. As soon as it warms up in the spring and the plants and trees start blossoming, worker bees leave the hive and begin gathering nectar from the flowers. They fly from blossom to blossom until their pouches are full, then fly back to the hive and deposit the nectar in the comb. I extract the honey from the combs as they are filled throughout the summer. But in early fall when it gets cold and the blossoms are gone, the bees can no longer work, so I leave the combs full of honey for them to live on during the cold months. If someone took the combs away from the hives, the bees would starve to death and there would be no more bees or honey.”
Mr. Sampson stood up. “Well, boys, I guess that’s enough about bees for now. I’d better be getting on home.” He started down the grandstand, then stopped and turned back toward us. “You boys had better go on home too. But first I think there’s a little chore that you might want to do. Good night, boys.”
“Good night, Mr. Sampson,” we chorused.
For a minute we just sat there, stunned. Mr. Sampson knew that we had taken the honeycombs, yet there had been no anger, no scolding, no threats.
We knew what “little chore” we had to do. We retrieved our combs from the footboard and returned them to the hives.