Gray dawn had come. Pacha, a mountain boy of Peru, went out from his thatched hut to the place where the llamas rested at night. His whistle was low, his voice gentle. “Come, llamas!”
The six long-necked, woolly animals rose slowly to their feet while Pacha explained the new day. “When the sun comes,” he told them, “we will go with Papá down the mountain—to the market fair in the valley.”
The llamas made no sound, but Pacha felt sure that they understood. As they marched in stately file from the stone-enclosed corral, he stroked the thick fur of each one, calling it by name. “Ocli … Astro … Yana …” They were brown llamas with patches of yellowish white—all but Nubi, the smallest and youngest. Nubi was pure black.
Pacha loved them all. They were his friends, his companions. But he couldn’t help wishing that one of them was his very own. He wished it more than anything else.
A boy living farther up the mountain owned a llama. It had been given to him the day he brought his father’s string of llamas safely around a dangerous mountain landslide.
Ever since, Pacha had tried hard to think of something he might do—a deed so big and important that he would deserve a llama of his own. “I would choose you,” he whispered into the velvety ear of Nubi, the last to leave the corral. And Nubi’s small head gently nudged Pacha’s shoulder.
Outside the corral, the llamas formed a circle with their heads turned inward, waiting patiently for the loads to be tied to their backs. First Pacha and his father folded into a bunch the long coarse hair that grew on each animal’s back. This made a soft padding for their loads, which today would be lighter. Instead of the usual dried corn and hard mountain potatoes, the woven carrying bags were filled with llama fleece.
“It is good wool. We can trade it for many things we need,” said Papá as he tied the last bag in place. Only Nubi carried no load. She was still too young.
The man and the boy now turned their faces toward the eastern sky, waiting for the sun. Ay, but the wind was strong and cold! Shivering under his red and blue poncho, Pacha pulled the earflaps of his tasseled cap closer.
At last a rosy glow came up from behind the farthest snow peak. “It is time,” said Papá.
Pacha’s whistle was low, his voice gentle. “Come, llamas.”
Ocli had been chosen leader because he could pick the best way. The golden bell around his neck tinkled. Although the trail zigzagging down the mountain was rocky and very steep, the padded hoofs of the llamas never stumbled. Pacha stayed close behind Nubi, the last in line. Papá followed.
As they descended into the valley, the air grew warmer. Wildflowers bloomed purple and yellow and crimson. Then they saw the red roofs of the town in the valley, and soon they were making their way along a narrow, turning street. Their sandals slap-slapped on the worn cobblestones, and the hoofs of the llamas swish-swished.
An automobile, its horn blaring, crowded them. But the llamas strode on in perfect order, their heads high. Even Nubi stepped with pride and dignity all the way to the market fair in the center of town.
Pacha sniffed. “Mmmm!” How good the fresh pan (bread) smelled! “Mmmm!” How delicious it tasted when his father, smiling at Pacha’s eagerness, sold some wool, then bought a loaf.
Their next stop was a fruit stall where they bought big, yellow-orange papayas. Farther on, they added sugar cane and rock salt to their purchases. Also a shepherd’s knife for shearing the llamas, and a round clay cooking pot.
Now they had only enough time to get the clothing they needed: white trousers and new caps—a red one for Pacha, a white one for his father.
“We will take the rest of the wool to our friend Don Jacinto,” said Papá, “then buy our clothes at the indoor market.” He led the way down another street to a building with arches and pillars before it.
After taking as many bundles of wool as he could carry, Papá carried them into the store, saying, “Stay with the llamas, my son.”
The llamas quietly folded their legs beneath them and lay down to rest. Pacha was about to do the same, when a boy in town clothes hurried up. “Haven’t you heard?” he cried. “Foot races! They start over there!” He pointed to a nearby fountain. The first race was for boys their size, he quickly explained, and it would start pronto. As he ran off in the direction of the fountain, he called back, “The winner gets a prize! A fine prize!”
Pacha’s thoughts were awhirl! He had never run a race, but he knew that his legs were strong from climbing mountains. To win a race and a fine prize would be something big and important for him to do. At last his chance had come!
Pacha’s heart thumped with excitement. He started running to catch up with the boy.
Then suddenly he stopped. The llamas! They wouldn’t understand being left alone. Something might happen to them. He couldn’t run this race, after all. A lump too big to swallow came into his throat. He started to run again, this time back to the llamas.
All six animals stared at him with dark, sad eyes that were full of questions. Pacha spoke soothingly. “Of course I wouldn’t leave you, llamas.”
He stooped and put his arms around black Nubi. He hugged and patted each woolly animal. Even when he heard the loud boom that signaled the boys’ race, he stayed with them. The llamas, comforted, softly hummed.
A man’s deep voice spoke. “Ah, Pacha, why are you not running with the others?” It was Don Jacinto. He had come with Papá from the indoor market.
Before Pacha could explain, his father spoke. “Pacha was left in charge of the llamas. He could not leave them, not even to run a race.”
To Pacha’s amazement, Papá seemed very pleased that his son wasn’t trying to win a race. All at once his heart felt light again.
Don Jacinto had turned to look at the wool still tied to the llamas’ backs. His eyes fell on Nubi. “A fine black one!” he exclaimed. “When you have fleece from this llama, I will pay extra.”
Pacha’s father was silent for a long moment. Then he said, “The black one now belongs to Pacha. Her fleece will be his.”
At first, Pacha couldn’t believe what his ears had heard. Nubi his? A llama of his own?
Papá turned to Pacha. “Our llamas serve us well. In return, we must take care of them, my son. Now that I’m sure you understand this, I give you Nubi.”
It took Pacha a while to find his voice. “Gracias (thank you), Papá. Oh, gracias!” he exclaimed. He looked up at Don Jacinto and said, “When Nubi is sheared, I will bring the black fleece to you.”
It was time to start the homeward march. The sun, warm now, would set quickly. The stinging chill of the wind would return. The travelers needed to reach their mountain home before the trail darkened. Pacha’s whistle was low, his voice gentle. “Come, llamas!”
Ocli’s golden bell tinkled. The carrying bags, repacked with new possessions, swayed lightly on the animals’ backs.
Pacha, staying close to Nubi, thought over the happenings of the day. It had been a wonderful market fair, and he had learned something he would always remember: Small deeds can be as important as big ones.