The Promise


Based on a true story
[Be] baptized in the name of the Lord, as a witness before him that ye have entered into a covenant with him, that ye will serve him and keep his commandments (Mosiah 18:10).

Life in the Latter-day Saint community of Safford, Arizona, in the early part of the twentieth century was hard. Water was scarce, money scarcer.

I was eleven years old. It was 1919, and my pa had died the year before of influenza. Taking care of us six children and keeping the farm going took most of Mama’s time. There was no money for extras. What money her milk and egg business brought in was put by to pay the property taxes.

When school let out for the summer, my thirteen-year-old sister, Florence, begged Mama to let her work for a family in town. Mama said no because she needed her at home to help care for the little ones.

Being the oldest boy, it was up to me to bring in the much-needed money for the family. I heard from our ward (home) teachers that Brother Miller needed help.

According to my Aunt Minnie, Brother Miller had not set foot inside church in more than thirty-five years. Aunt Minnie was my great-aunt and knew the history of every family in town. What she didn’t know, she was fond of saying, wasn’t worth knowing.

I found Brother Miller working in his garden. He looked up from his work to scowl at me. “What brings you this way, boy?” “I’m looking for a job. Sir,” I added, remembering my manners.

He wiped his forehead with the bandanna tucked in his pocket. “You’d be Donald McBride’s boy, is that right?”

I nodded. “Hyrum Andrew McBride.”

“Well, Hyrum Andrew, your pa had a reputation for being a hard worker.” He squinted against the glare of the sun as he took my measure. “Do you take after him?”

“I try, sir.”

“You have yourself a job.” He led the way to the back of the barn. “You chop this pile of wood and stack it neatly. You do a good job, and I’ll pay you $2.25.”

It seemed a huge sum of money. I gulped, thinking of what we could buy with it—a bit of sugar, maybe some material for Mama to make herself a new dress.

“Mind you, I don’t pay for a poor job or a job not done.”

I nodded once more.

“I need the wood cut by Sunday evening. If you don’t finish, there’ll be no money.”

Today was Wednesday. I figured I could complete the work by Saturday night.

Mama didn’t believe in working on the Sabbath. Animals had to be fed and the cows milked, but we didn’t work in the garden or the fields. We ate bread left over from Saturday’s baking, dipped in milk and butter and spread with some of Mama’s jam. Sundays belonged to the Lord and were treated with reverence.

The work was backbreaking, and I stumbled home at night too tired to do more than fall into bed. The thought of how much our family needed the money kept me going, even when the temperature climbed above a hundred degrees.

By Friday afternoon, I knew I had underestimated how long it would take to do the job. Even if I worked twelve hours the next day, I wouldn’t finish the work by nightfall.

Of course, Brother Miller had given me until Sunday evening. I could work on Sunday, complete the job, and collect my money, but the idea left a sour taste in my mouth.

On the way home, I reasoned with myself that working just this once on Sunday would be all right. No matter how hard I tried, though, I could not quiet the small voice that reminded me of the baptismal covenant I had made three years before.

When I explained to Mama about the money, how Brother Miller wouldn’t pay me for the job if I didn’t complete it on time, she continued kneading her bread dough. “Do you remember the promises you made at your baptism?”

I nodded and hung my head, shamed that, even for a moment, I had considered breaking the Sabbath.

I recalled the blessing my father had given me when he had confirmed me a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “Keep the commandments, Son. Use them as a compass to guide you.”

The following morning I told Brother Miller of my decision.

He fell silent. At last, he asked, “You in the habit of breaking a promise, boy?”

“No sir. That’s why I can’t work for you on Sunday.”

“How’s that?”

“I made a promise back when I was baptized that I would obey the commandments. That means I don’t work on Sunday. I can’t go back on that. Even for this.” I gestured to the pile of wood. The money I would have earned didn’t seem as important anymore.

“I told you I don’t pay for an unfinished job.” He paused and gave me a long look. “You still planning on working today, even if I don’t pay you?”

“Yes sir. I aim to keep my promise to you the best I can. But I won’t be working tomorrow.”

Brother Miller scratched his chin. “You do what you have to.” With that, he turned and left.

I was sure that I wouldn’t receive any pay, but I was determined to finish what work I could that day. By late afternoon, Brother Miller returned. After counting out two dollar bills and a pile of coins, he pressed them into my hand.

My fingers started to close around the money. Then, reluctantly, I opened my hand to give the money back to him. “I can’t finish until Monday, sir.”

“That’s fine.”

“But—”

“You made me think of some promises I made a long time ago,” he said, his voice gruffer than normal. “I expect you here first thing Monday morning.”

“Yes sir.”

Sweat and wood dust coated my arms and face when I returned home. My muscles screamed with fatigue, but I scarcely noticed. I handed the money to Mama and explained what had happened.

“The Lord takes care of His own,” she said. Her faith never wavered. I hoped my own faith would be as strong someday.

The next day, we saw Brother Miller in church, sitting right up front. Shyly I smiled at him. He didn’t smile back but nodded shortly. He continued attending church until he died twelve years later.

I never forgot that job. Or the promise I had made and kept.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Mark Robison