It had been a rotten, miserable spring, full of bad news, hard work, and heartache.
The trouble had started when James walked home from school one afternoon in mid-March. At ten, he’d known his scholarly days were just about up, but he thought he had at least a few more ahead of him.
Paw had other ideas.
Old Mr. Raferty, the Stinsons’ longtime farmhand, had died in his sleep the night before. With the weather breaking, that left Paw on his own to prepare the fields for planting and tend to the spring babies in the farmyard.
It was too much for one man, and that meant it was time for James to step in to help his father.
The boy took on his new responsibilities without complaint, but it killed him to watch his sisters and little Joe head to school each morning while he slopped the pigs or chased off some varmint that was pestering the hens.
That last was normally Sally’s job, but the old collie got bit by a raccoon one night in April, and she didn’t make it through another week. That dog had been part of the family longer than James had, and losing her was a bitter blow.
By the time summer finally rolled around, James had come to expect more hardship each day, and he usually got it. Oftentimes, it came loaded on the back of Paw’s wagon, in the form of fence posts to set, seed to plant, or even a new animal to take care of.
One Saturday in July, as James was finishing his morning chores, Paw pulled the wagon to a stop in the barnyard.
“There are some things under the tarp back there I need you to unload, boy.” Paw motioned to the bed of the wagon with his thumb.
James’ body already ached, but there was no use in arguing with Paw. There was work to be done, and only the two of them to do it. James nodded and walked around to the back of the wagon.
At first, he thought the bed was empty, because the tattered tarp lay nearly flat against the floorboards. Then he noticed a couple of small lumps under the cloth, and, when he started to lift a corner … one of the lumps moved toward him!
James stumbled backwards and crashed smack dab into Paw’s belly. He looked up at his father, who pointed at the wagon.
“Go on, boy.”
James nodded and took hold of the tarp again, timidly lifting an edge to reveal a single brown eye glinting in the sun. Before he could register what was happening, the puppy bounded off the bed of the wagon and knocked him to the ground, licking his face and yapping in joy.
James giggled and wriggled back and forth in the dirt as the puppy’s tongue tickled his chin and neck, but he was able to catch glimpses here and there, enough to capture the essence of the dog — fuzzy and brown, oversize paws, a perfectly beautiful mutt. And flecks of gold that sparkled in its eyes when a ray of sunshine caught them just right.
After a couple of minutes, the boy managed to sit up and corral the pup under one arm.
“What’s his name?” Paw asked.
James thought of those eyes that glistened in the sunbeams and knew there was only one answer … “His name is Ray!”
Paw tousled the boy’s hair.
“Alright, then. I think you and Ray need to unload that straw from the back of the wagon and go fix up a proper dog bed for him.”
James’ face brightened.
“Then,” Paw continued, “spend the rest of the day showing him around the farm, maybe take him down to the fishing hole. If Ray’s going to be a farm dog, he needs to know how things work around here.”
James hardly heard those last few words. He and Ray were already running across the sun-dappled prairie, headed for adventure.