The warm December sun was about to set as Papá, ten-year-old Juan, and Juan’s burro, Paco, made their way down the winding Mexican road toward the hacienda. Juan was riding Paco, and Papá walked alongside.
As they came to a turn in the road, the burro stumbled a little but soon regained his footing. “Whoa,” said Papá, looking at Paco in surprise. “Our little friend has not lost his footing since he was a small colt.”
Juan brought Paco to a stop, and Papá stepped in front of them and looked into Paco’s big brown eyes. He looked at Paco’s nose and mouth. He stepped back and tugged at his shiny black mustache with his thumb and first finger. Then he looked up at Juan and gave him a funny little smile. Juan had seen his father make this funny little smile before—it meant that something was wrong!
“I do not wish to alarm you, my son—I know how much you love Paco. But I’m afraid that he is very ill.” Papá looked again at the burro, then back at Juan. “Climb down from his back. He does not need to carry a load when he is sick.”
Juan’s heart beat fast as he slid gently to the ground. Paco was not just another burro. Paco was a friend. Juan had raised him from a tiny, newborn colt, and they were inseparable. “How sick is he, Papá? Will he be all right?”
“We must lead him home slowly,” was all that Papá said.
Juan looked at Paco’s face. His nose was very dry, his eyes were very wet, and he drooled a little at the mouth. His head swayed back and forth a little, and he grunted softly. “It is true,” Juan said quietly to himself. “Paco is very ill.”
As soon as they reached the hacienda stable, Juan led Paco to his stall. The burro lay on his side on the straw with a little thud.
“Can we call the veterinarian from Santa Cruz?” Juan asked. Even before he asked, he knew what Papá’s answer would have to be.
“I wish we could, but we cannot afford to pay his fee.”
Papá and Juan entered the kitchen of the hacienda. Mamá was preparing Juan’s favorite food, tostadas. She was heating the corn tortillas while the refried beans simmered on the stove. The green tomato salsa was already on the table.
Juan did not feel hungry. He ate only one tostada instead of his usual four or five, then went to his room. He got into bed and closed his eyes but could not sleep. He was worried about poor Paco lying on the straw in the stable.
After a time, Mamá came to the door. Seeing Juan awake, she came in and sat on the edge of his bed. She stroked his hair as she had when he was little.
In past years, Juan had participated in the local Posada procession. Each night for nine nights, the children of the village and the hacienda reenacted the story of Mary and Joseph’s looking for a place to stay in Bethlehem and being turned away because the inns were all full. This year Juan and his eight-year-old sister, Rosita, had been assigned by the Posada officials to play the parts of Joseph and Mary, with Rosita riding Paco.
But then the missionaries had come to the hacienda and taught God’s plan to Juan’s family. Papá, Mamá, Juan, his twelve-year-old brother, José, and Rosita had listened carefully to Elder Mendoza and Elder Smith and had become baptized members of the Church. And though Juan was very happy to be a Latter-day Saint, he couldn’t help being a little sad when the officials said he could no longer be in the Posada. A Christmas party was planned at the LDS meetinghouse, and Juan and Rosita were invited to play the parts of Joseph and Mary—but the Christmas story was to be put on inside the building, and Paco was not allowed there.
“Are you sad because Paco can’t be in the Christmas play?” Mamá asked now.
“No, Mamá. That is a little thing. That he is so sick is a big thing. I just want Paco to get better. I love him very much. He is my friend.”
“I will pray for him tonight,” Mamá said.
As she left the room, José entered and got into bed. “I’m sorry that your burro is ill,” he said.
“I am, too, but Mamá reminded me of what I can do to help poor Paco. I will say a special prayer for him so that he will not suffer.”
“But, Juan, Paco is only an animal. Prayers such as that are for people.”
“No, José,” Juan said, “my Primary teacher, Sister Martinez, told us that Amulek, a great leader in the Book of Mormon, taught that we should pray for our animals.* Surely God does not want Paco to suffer. If I go to the stable and say a special prayer, he will recover or he will die in peace.”
With this, Juan arose from his bed and put on his best blue jeans, the white shirt he wore to church on Sundays, and his sandals.
José said, “Wait, Juan. I’ll go with you.” He got up and dressed and followed Juan out into the hall.
Rosita poked her head out of her bedroom. “What’s the matter?” she asked, rubbing her eyes.
“We’re going to the stable to say a special prayer for Paco,” Juan told her.
“May I go too?”
“Of course,” Juan said. “Paco will like that.”
Juan entered the stable first. He flipped on the light switch that lit a dim bulb hanging from a long cord, then knelt by the little burro’s head and gave Paco a pat on the neck. All three children folded their arms and bowed their heads. Juan prayed, “Father in heaven, we thank Thee that we have had Paco since he was small. He has given us much joy. Now he is very sick. If it be Thy will, bless him that he will grow strong and healthy again. But if Thou art in need of a fine burro, please take him in peace so that he will not suffer anymore. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.”
Crying softly, no one spoke as they went back to bed, but all three children felt much better for having talked to Heavenly Father about Paco.
As the morning light came through the window and Juan awoke, his first thoughts were of Paco. A few minutes later he was hurrying through the stable doors. How delighted he was to see Paco standing! His hair was matted and dirty; he would not eat and would only drink water—but he was standing!
By Christmas Eve day, when the elders made a return visit to the hacienda, Paco was as well as ever and Juan and Rosita were taking turns riding him in the front yard.
That evening everyone went to the meetinghouse. Juan wore a bathrobe and a towel tied around his head to look like Joseph. Rosita braided her long hair and wore Mamá’s shawl when she played the part of Mary. After the acting out of the Christmas story, Elder Mendoza talked about the meaning of God’s gift of His Son to each of them. Then there was a wonderful party with many good things to eat, lots of colored balloons, and some special treats taken outside to the little brown burro named Paco.