By Helen Hinckley Jones
The Story So Far: The first day of school, John is challenged to a fight by Jess, the biggest boy in school. Although John is defeated, the boys admire his courage and he is popular at once. Prudy is told by John that she must “earn her own way.” She tells herself she doesn’t want to be popular in school. What she wants is to go to California and find her mother’s brother, Angus, who, angry at his sisters, has promised to never see them nor speak to them again. But in her heart Prudy wants to find a way to win the admiration of her schoolmates.
Prudy had said that she didn’t want to like school and that she didn’t care what the other scholars thought of her, but in her heart she wanted desperately to have the other children accept her as they had John. She lay awake at night thinking of John’s advice, “You’ve got to earn your own way.”
It was almost three weeks before her chance came to do anything that would help her to “earn her way.”
One morning Miss Baker put on the blackboard in her lovely flowing hand, “I want to –” Then she explained to the fifth reader class that each of them was to finish the sentence absolutely honestly. A student might write, “I want to be rich,” or “I want to be a teacher,”or “I want to go fishing.” Then after the sentence was finished each student was to write a composition explaining why he wanted what he wanted. It sounded complicated, but fun. Much nicer than “My summer vacation”or “Honesty is the best policy.”
There were to be three days before the composition was due. Monday morning Miss Baker had suggested the subject and Wednesday afternoon the papers were to be handed in, written perfectly in ink.
All day Prudy looked forward to doing the supper dishes. It seemed that was the only time she got to see John any more. He spent his time at school with the boys and his afternoons at the Browning Gun Shop. But she didn’t have to wait until dishwashing time to discuss the composition assignment with John. At supper he asked suddenly, “Prudy, w hat do you want to do or be?”
“I don’t know.” Prudy shook her head and her brown curls bobbed. Her wide gray eyes were troubled. “Yes. I do know, but I want so many things and I can’t write a composition on all of them!”
Father was interested. “What’s this?”
Prudy and John explained.
“That’s a fine idea,” Father approved,”to get you children thinking about the port you’re sailing toward. I never yet knew a ship to reach a port it hadn’t seen in advance and aimed for.” He scratched his head with a slender, nervous finger. “Now me, I want to be the best tailor in Utah, and the best Latter-day Saint it’s possible for me to be.” He looked at Mother and a teasing light came into his eyes. “And your mother wants to go to California.”
Prudy didn’t look at Mother. “That’s it,” she whooped. She galloped around the table and gave Father a quick hug. “That’s it. That’s what I’m going to write about – ‘I want to go to California’.”
It was almost ten o’clock before Prudy pushed back her papers and sighed. “I’m satisfied with it,” she said. “At least, almost satisfied.”
Tuesday she made the final copy without a blot or a blur, and Wednesday she carried it carefully to school. “Very nice,” Miss Baker said when she saw the even, neat writing.
Wednesday afternoon and evening seemed very long. Thursday morning seemed long, too. But just before noon Miss Baker said, “It’s a custom in this school to invite visitors to our school one Friday afternoon a month. You boys and girls may invite your parents and neighbors to come tomorrow at two o’clock. We’ll read for our guests, possibly have a spelling match, do some sums. Prudence has written such a splendid composition that I’m going to ask her to read it for our guests if she cares to.”
Everyone turned and looked at Prudy. She blushed as rosily as John might have done. She stood up and said, “I would, Miss Baker. I’d love to, thank you!”
The next afternoon when Prudy rose to read her composition the room seemed to swim around her and the floor waved up and down. “Why, I’m scared,” she thought. But the sight of the familiar pages which Miss Baker handed her seemed to steady her. She had worked so many hours over the composition that the words were as clear in her mind as on the paper. She looked at the audience as she began to read. There was Mother, flushed and proud and looking a little queer in her English clothes; there were the neighbors Prudy had invited; there was Sister Freiber who was visiting at Minnie’s home and had come to the program instead of Minnie’s mother; there were the school trustees, sitting in a group.
Prudy began reading in a clear, firm voice. She told her story in simple language, but every word carried a feeling with it as well as a thought. She told of two sisters and a brother who loved each other very dearly, then something came between them. She pictured the boy, angry because he couldn’t understand his sisters’ point of view, storming out of the house and bidding his sisters to never speak of him again and promising never to think of them again either, in a voice that broke with tears in spite of his resolve.
The story ended simply: “This boy is my uncle. We know that he is in California, probably somewhere on the Sacramento River. I feel that if I could find him, he would listen to me and come back to his sisters again. That’s why I want to go to California.”
People clapped when Prudy finished. Some of the women wiped their eyes. Prudy looked at her mother, expecting to see her looking proud and happy, but she was blowing her nose into her cotton handkerchief.
When school was over, a group of boys and girls gathered around Prudy. “You make it sound so real,” one said. Another said, “I never heard such a good story teller in all my life.” Minnie said, “Some of us girls have a little club. Would you like to join us Tuesday evening? You could tell us about your experiences – or something.”
John waited to walk home with her and Mother. “Prudy,” he said, putting his arm across her shoulder for a minute, “You’ve earned your own way. I knew you’d do it.”
At supper Mother said, “I was surely proud of Prudy today, Father. I only wish you could have heard her.” She laughed a little shakily. “You’d be sending her to California by the next train.”
Prudy surprised everyone by tossing back her brown curls and saying with an air of certainty, “I don’t want to go to California. Not now. I want to finish the year at school, and go to Minnie Carver’s club, and – everything.”
John gave her a slow wink.
Before supper was over there was a knock at the door and Mother rose, hastily wiping her lips with her napkin, and went to answer it. On the step stood Minnie with Sister Freiber, who had been at the afternoon program with her. Minnie was so full of the importance of her present call that she couldn’t even wait to be invited inside. “This is Sister Freiber, Sister Hatfield. She’s going to California and she’ll take Prudy along.”
“Sakes,” Mother exclaimed. “Come in.”
Sister Freiber sat on Mother’s low rocking chair and rocked back and forth. “Sister Hatfield, my husband’s started a print shop in Sacramento. I’ve been visiting the Carvers here until he found a place for us to live down there. Now he’s sent for me and the children. It came to me when I heard your little girl this afternoon, that it would be just the thing for her to travel with me and mind the children. I don’t feel too well and they get me nervous at times. I’d gladly pay her way and keep her down there ‘till we could get a chance for her to come back with some other Latter-day Saints.”
Prudy, who had been standing in the kitchen door, turned to find John standing beside her.
“We’d have to talk it over, of course,” Mother said. “What do you say, Prudy?”
Prudy stammered for the first time in her life. “I – I don’t know. Right now when I was going to join Minnie’s club and everything –”
But by the next morning Minnie’s club didn’t seem so important. “What do you think, Mother?” Prudy asked at breakfast. “About me going to Sacramento with Sister Freiber, I mean.”
Mother looked worried as she measured a spoonful of sugar into her barley coffee. “We talked it over last night, your father and I. You may decide for yourself, Prudy. Sister Freiber promised us that she would send you to school down there and that–” Her voice stopped.
John ran his fingers through his newly combed hair. “But we’ve all been together for such a short time!” he protested. “First Prudy and I were in Arizona and you were in England, now –”
A shadow of a smile crossed Father’s face. “But you think the trip to California would be a fine idea if you were going along with Prudy,” he suggested.
John blushed, but he nodded.”It would be. We’d find Uncle Angus then, and–”
For just a moment Mother’s eyes glowed. “You might happen onto your uncle – But that isn’t likely. Prudy, you aren’t to go adventuring. I’d worry every minute you were gone if I thought that you’d be trying to carry out some wild scheme.” She leaned over the table and put her hand on Prudy’s wrist. “Promise me,” she insisted.
Prudy moved uncomfortably. “I haven’t really decided to go yet.” For a moment she was silent, then she said, “Yes, I have. I’m going to California and I’m going to–” She stopped and her eyes followed the red check in the table cover. “But I promise if you want me to.”
John waited for Prudy to walk to school with him. “What made you decide to go?” he asked her.
“Well, I’ve been praying every night for a chance, and now that it’s come – well, I couldn’t turn it down, could I?” Prudy looked up, tears standing in her wide gray eyes. “But I don’t want to go without you. It won’t be any fun – or anything.”
John turned away from her eyes. “I’ll find some way to go with you.” He shifted his books to a place under his arm and held out his hand. “Shake.”
All during the morning John thought of his promise. Too bad that Sister Freiber didn’t have a horse or cow that needed minding. He was no good at minding children. But animals – they were different!
At recess he turned down Jess’s invitation to play “Anti-I-Over” over the school wood shed. Jess wrinkled his little blue eyes and looked John full in the face. “What’s eating on you?” he wanted to know.
John blushed. “Well, I’ll tell you, Jess.” He told about Prudy’s plan to go to Sacramento and what the two of them could do if they were there together. He finished, “And this morning like a dunce I promised Prudy I’d go with her. I can’t keep that promise. I don’t know why I made it.”
Jess’s eyes closed until John could just see a glint of the blue between his white lashes. “That gives me an idea,” he said. “My uncle Dave –”
In spite of himself John was hopeful. “Your uncle Dave–” he prompted.
“My uncle does business with cattlemen in California. You see, he’s raising special cows. ‘Pure blood’ they call them. Once last year he let my brother and me go down to California and take care of some animals on the way back. We had to feed them, milk them – things like that. We rode out on a passenger train and came home with the cows on the freight train.”
“And is your uncle going to get any more cows?”John’s voice rose in his excitement, then dropped. “Ah, well, he wouldn’t let me go anyway, I guess. There’s lots of boys he knows that –”
Jess clapped his big hand on John’s shoulder. “He knows you. At least he knows about how you stood up to me and –”
John attempted an indifferent shrug to hide his mounting excitement, but after school that afternoon he went with Jess to meet his uncle.
Uncle Dave was a large man who looked much like Jess. When John met him he was sitting in the outer office of his creamery, his feet propped on the railing that ran around his great desk and worn chairs. “Sit down, sit down,” he invited expansively.
John was almost too nervous to sit, but when Jess sat down he lowered himself on to the edge of a chair. “This is John,” Jess said.
“John?” The man’s voice was a question.
“You know, Uncle Dave. I told you about John. He’s John Hatfield. He was new at our school and – I couldn’t be happy until I fought him.”
Uncle Dave laughed and wiped a finger under his collar. He turned to John. “I’m glad somebody was big enough to take this nephew of mine down a peg.”
“But he –” John began to protest, but Jess motioned him to silence.
“John’s got a special reason for wanting to go to California and I wondered if –”
Uncle Dave’s eyes went suddenly shrewd. He studied John. “What do you know about cattle?”
“I don’t know much, sir. I can milk and feed them, and clean stables, and–”
“That’s all there is to do. When is it you want to go?”
“Two weeks from Friday,”John answered, almost jumping from his chair.
“I don’t know why it can’t be arranged,” Uncle Dave said. “I’m planning to get some more fine animals from down that way and I don’t see why you can’t bring them back in three weeks or so –”
“Thank you. Thank you, sir!” John almost sang. He got up from his chair, but Uncle Dave went on, “There’s a big future in cattle and dairy animals in this region. I’d be willing to prophesy that before long Ogden will certainly be heard from. Some folks think cows are just cows, but we know cows are good or they’re runts.”
Uncle Dave was launched on his favorite subject. Jess signaled John to be patient. It was more than fifteen minutes before John could put in, “When will I know for sure? About going, I mean.”
“You can count on it,” Uncle Dave promised, letting his chair down on its four legs. “I’ll let Jess, here, know when I have a ticket and instructions for you. When did you say?”
“Two weeks from Friday, sir.”
“You particular about that special day?”
“Oh, yes, sir!”
Outside Uncle Dave’s dairy, John grasped Jess’s hand. “Jess,” he said, his face shining, “I don’t know how to thank you. I’m so – so tickled!”
Jess blushed, but his little eyes were warm with friendliness. “Aw, I figure I sort of owe you something.”
“For– for– Aw, you know what.”
“Forget it,” John advised. “I have.”
The two boys parted at the door of the tailoring shop. When John told his father about the interview with Jess’s uncle Dave, Father said, “It would be nice for Prudy if you could go along.”
John blushed. “I couldn’t stand to see her going off to – well, to do things while I stayed here and went to school.”
Father frowned. “School. Well, I guess you could miss two or three weeks of school if you worked hard to make it up.”
Tossing his hair back from his eyes with a quick gesture of his hand, John declared, “It’s too good to be true.”
Father looked at him keenly. “I wouldn’t count on it, son. Something might come up, you know. And I wouldn’t tell Prudy.”
“Well, if something should come up –”
“Something won’t come up,” John declared stoutly, but he pulled at his ear thoughtfully. The whole thing had seemed too easy. But there was nothing to worry about, really. The talk with Uncle Dave hadn’t been very different from Sister Freiber’s conversation with Father and Mother.
As he hurried north along Washington Avenue hoping to catch up with Jess, his spirits grew lighter and lighter. He and Prudy would go to Sacramento together, and once there they’d figure out some way to find Uncle Angus.
The next few days went by very quickly. He watched Mother’s preparations for Prudy’s trip. Father was making a coat with a flaring cape by a style that had just come from New York. There were no preparations being made for John’s trip and when he diffidently asked Father about it the answer was, “When you have your ticket we’ll see about getting you ready.”
The next few days went by more slowly. John asked Jess each morning whether or not he had seen Uncle Dave and each day Jess answered that he hadn’t.
“Don’t you think we’d better go down and talk to him?” John would suggest, a worried frown growing between his eyes.
But Jess always answered, “You can’t hurry Uncle Dave. You’d just get him sore.”
“Maybe he’s forgotten about me. I’ve been thinking that you’d told him how you licked me in a fight and he’d forgotten. Seemed to think I’d mashed you to a pulp.”
Jess laughed heartily. “Uncle Dave’s a busy man and he does forget things. But he doesn’t forget his cows. If he’s going to get some cows from California, he’ll remember that. Keep your shirt on. There’s lots of time yet.”
Figuring for a minute, John said, “Ten days.”
The days dragged on. At last Tuesday afternoon of the week that Prudy was to leave Friday morning, John said, “Jess, I can’t wait any longer. Let’s go see your uncle.”
When the boys went into Uncle Dave’s office, he greeted Jess jovially but didn’t seem to see John at all. “This is John Hatfield, Uncle Dave.”
Uncle Dave offered his hand. “Glad to meet you, John.”
John’s heart sank like a lump of lead and he felt the tears rising before his eyes. Jess said, “Uncle Dave, John came with me once before.”
“That’s right.” Uncle Dave interlaced his square fingers.”Sorry I did not remember you, John, but I meet a lot of folks every day, you know.”
Jess went on doggedly, encouraged by the stricken look on John’s face. “I told you that John wanted to go down to California and you said –”
Uncle Dave’s chair came down on all four legs and Uncle Dave said,”So you’re the lad.”
John’s spirits lifted suddenly. So Uncle Dave remembered!
“Well, I think it can be arranged,” the man went on in his heart voice. “You drop in later, say, in a couple of weeks –”
“A couple of weeks! But I wanted to go Friday!”
“Well, I’m sorry about that. I had forgotten that you had any special date in mind.” Uncle Dave was silent for a minute, then he stood up.”If you boys will excuse me–” The boys nodded, not knowing what else to do.
“Drop in sometime, John, if you’re still interested,” Uncle Dave said, offering his hand.
“Thank you, sir,”John said with difficulty. Then the two boys were on the street.
Friday morning John missed school to go with Prudy to the train. Prudy tried to catch John’s eyes as she sat on her little trunk while John fastened the latches. Finally she said, “Aren’t you coming with me, John?”
John lifted his eyes from the latches. “Don’t ever trust a man who forgets his promise, Prudy,” he said, thinking of Uncle Dave. “That’s one thing I’ve learned.”
Prudy laughed in spite of herself at his mournful look and his pessimistic words. “I think you’re just teasing me. I think when I get on the train you’ll be there, too.”
But when Sister Freiber and her four children and Prudy climbed on the train John stood with Father and Mother.
Prudy stood fora minute on the steps. “Come on, John,” she called. “You promised!”
John forced himself to sound merry. “I’ll be seeing you down there,” he called. But his heart was as heavy as lead.