As soon as Rodney left, I felt sick inside. I hadn’t exactly promised to help him and Bryce take Mr. Archuleta’s apricots. I had just said that I knew Mr. Archuleta and wouldn’t be afraid to talk to him. Of course, I knew Rodney and Bryce wanted me to get Mr. Archuleta’s attention away from his trees so that they could slip over his back fence and steal some of his giant orange apricots.
I had been in Cedar Fork only two weeks. The thing that had worried me most about moving here from Logan was leaving my friends and going to a place where no one knew me. School was starting soon, and I’d dreaded going to fourth grade not knowing anyone.
Mom had told me that things would work out, but I wasn’t so sure. I wanted to just go back to Logan. Then Rodney stopped by my second day in Cedar Fork and invited me to play baseball with him and his friend Bryce.
After that, I was with Rodney and Bryce a lot. We played ball at the park, built a clubhouse in Bryce’s backyard, walked to Bond’s Market for ice-cream bars, and rode our bikes out to Juniper Hill, where we hunted for horned toads and lizards. I didn’t worry anymore about going to school, because I would be with them.
Then they decided they wanted some of Mr. Archuleta’s apricots.
“We won’t get caught.” Rodney grinned at me. “We’ve taken stuff out of his orchard and garden before.”
“Yeah,” Bryce joined in. “Last year, before you came, his cherry trees were loaded, and we took all we wanted. He almost caught us a couple of times, but we were too smart for him.”
I thought about the things Mom and Dad had taught me about being honest. “But isn’t that stealing?”
Rodney and Bryce glanced at each other, their smiles drooping a little. Then Rodney shook his head. “We’re just sort of borrowing. He has plenty.”
“Besides,” Bryce added, “lots more than we take fall off the tree, and he has to throw them away. We’re just getting them before they fall and get ruined. We don’t like things to go to waste.” He laughed, and Rodney joined in. I smiled but felt sick inside.
Mr. Archuleta had been one of the first people to come over and welcome us to Cedar Fork. Now I was going to return his friendship by stealing from him.
I watched Rodney and Bryce ride away. They said that they’d be back after lunch to get the apricots. I shuffled uneasily up my front walk and into the kitchen, where Mom was fixing sandwiches.
“Well, Joel, you look like you lost your best friend. What’s the matter?”
“Nothing,” I mumbled. There was no way that I could explain to Mom what I was planning to do.
“Well, wash up and sit down. These sandwiches are almost ready.”
Mom tried to get me to talk during lunch, but I just silently nibbled on the corner of my sandwich. “Do you have any chores for me?” I finally asked her hopefully.
She looked across the table at me and raised her eyebrows. Usually I was trying to get out of work. “You cut the grass and raked it yesterday afternoon, didn’t you?”
“And you cleaned your room?”
I nodded again.
“And you took the trash out today.”
“Don’t you have anything else? I’ll do it.”
“You could clear the table and do these few dishes,” Mom said.
“Don’t you have something that will take more time than that?”
Mom laughed. “Are you feeling all right?”
“Why don’t you just enjoy the afternoon today. Aren’t Rodney and Bryce coming over again?”
I looked down at my half-eaten sandwich and nodded.
“Why don’t you play with them, and then if you still want to do a little work, I’ll find something.”
I dragged out to the front lawn, knowing that Rodney and Bryce were going to show up any minute. If I didn’t think of something quick, I’d soon be stealing Mr. Archuleta’s apricots.
I liked Mr. Archuleta. But I liked Rodney and Bryce, too, and wanted to be their friend. Except for sneaking things from Mr. Archuleta, they seemed to be pretty good guys. I didn’t want them getting upset with me. Then I thought of all the times Mom and Dad had talked to me about being honest. I had made up my mind a long time ago that I would never steal, but now. …
I had never felt so miserable in my life. I loved eating juicy orange apricots, but somehow I knew that the plumpest, sweetest apricot off Mr. Archuleta’s tree would taste bitter if it were stolen. I tried to tell myself that I wasn’t actually going to steal the apricots. Bryce and Rodney would do that. I wouldn’t eat any of them, either. I could tell Rodney and Bryce that I didn’t like apricots or that I didn’t feel hungry. But those were just more lies.
Finally I decided to run away from my problem. I’d go to the park and stay all afternoon. That way I wouldn’t have to face Rodney and Bryce, and I wouldn’t have to steal from Mr. Archuleta.
Pushing myself up from the grass, I headed down the walk, wanting to get away before Bryce and Rodney came.
I didn’t get fifty feet, though, before Bryce called to me. “Hey, Joel, where are you headed?”
I stopped and turned. He was jogging down the walk toward me. “Did you think we’d ditched you?”
I gulped and shrugged.
“Rodney’ll be here in just a second. He had to do a couple of chores at home first.” Bryce pulled a plastic bag out of his back pocket and held it up. “I’m all ready. All you’ll have to do is keep Mr. Archuleta busy, and Rodney and I will do the rest.”
I knew I should have said something, but I couldn’t. I just swallowed hard and followed Bryce down the street.
Rodney showed up a few minutes later. We were soon across the street from Mr. Archuleta’s place. He was working in the flower beds along the side of his house. From there he had a perfect view of his apricot trees in the backyard. As long as he was working there, Rodney and Bryce couldn’t slip unseen into his backyard.
“All right, Joel,” Rodney whispered, “you start talking to him. We’ll go around and slip over his back fence. If you keep him talking, he won’t see anything.”
“What am I going to say to him? I mean, how can I keep talking that long?”
Rodney rolled his eyes. “All you have to do is ask him about his flowers and yard. He loves to talk about stuff like that.”
I looked away. Reaching down I picked up a pebble and tossed it into the street.
“You’re not chickening out on us are you?” Bryce accused, suddenly serious.
This was it. My two best friends in Cedar Fork were going to walk away, and I’d be alone again. I didn’t want to lose them, but I just couldn’t steal from Mr. Archuleta!
“I can’t do it,” I rasped, staring across the street at Mr. Archuleta.
“Why not?” Bryce demanded. I could tell he was angry.
“Because it’s stealing.”
“Come on, Rodney, let’s go.”
When I looked up, they were walking down the street. For a moment I wanted to call to them, tell them to come back, that I would go ahead and talk to Mr. Archuleta. But I didn’t. I just watched them disappear into Rodney’s yard.
“Hello, Mr. Archuleta,” I called out as I walked up his driveway and wandered over to where he was working.
He stopped digging in the dirt, turned, and smiled at me. “Why, hello, Joel.” He set his digging fork down, pushed his straw hat back, and wiped his brow with a white handkerchief. “What’s up?”
I shrugged. “I was just passing by and saw you out here working. Do you need some help? I don’t have much else to do.”
“Where are the two buddies you’ve been running around with?”
I took a deep breath. “They had some other things to do. I can give you a hand if you need some help.”
Mr. Archuleta thought for a moment. “There is one thing you could do, Joel. It’s a bit messy, but it’d sure help me out.”
“I’ve been messy before.”
“My apricots are coming on. A bunch of them have fallen on the ground. If I leave them, they just get stepped on or turn rotten and make an even worse mess. If you don’t mind, you could grab that bucket on the back steps and pick up all the fruit that’s dropped on the ground.”
I was glad to help out. As I worked picking up the soft and bruised fruit, I thought how much better I felt doing something kind for Mr. Archuleta instead of stealing from him.
When I’d finished and dumped the last bucketful into the garbage barrel, Mr. Archuleta thanked me and handed me a paper sack. “Now, Joel, do you see that one low branch that’s loaded with apricots? Why don’t you pick yourself a sackful. Those are some of the best apricots I’ve grown. I think you’ll like them.”
“Thanks, Mr. Archuleta! I love apricots.”
A few minutes later I jogged down the street with my freshly picked apricots.
“Hey, what’s in the sack?”
I turned. I was in front of Rodney’s place. He and Bryce were sitting under the willow tree in his front yard.
“Apricots,” I said, smiling and holding up the bulging bag. “Want some?”
“You got some of Mr. Archuleta’s apricots?” Rodney asked, standing up.
“You did it all by yourself?”
I nodded again.
“I told you he wasn’t chicken.” Rodney laughed and slapped me on the shoulder as I opened the sack and let them reach in. They each chomped down hungrily.
“But I didn’t steal them.”
Rodney and Bryce stopped chewing and stared at me.
“He let me pick them. I don’t like stealing things.”
“You just walked into his yard, and he let you pick a whole sackful of his best apricots?” Bryce didn’t believe me.
“I did some work for him, and then he let me pick the apricots.”
Bryce stared at me and took another bite. “They’re good apricots.”
Rodney nodded with his mouth full.
“And they taste better this way,” I said.
“What way?” Rodney wanted to know.
“When they’re not stolen.”
Rodney thought a moment, then nodded. “Do you think Mr. Archuleta would let us work for apricots too?”
“He probably would—we can ask him tomorrow.” I took an apricot for myself.
Bryce grabbed another apricot. “Rodney and I were just headed for the park to play ball. You want to come?”
I nodded, happy that we were still friends—the right kind of friends.