Paul Davidson did not have a typical childhood. For one thing, his family had cows. Lots of them. Being dairy farmers was more than an occupation for Mr. and Mrs. Davidson. It was their vocation, their life, and their all-encompassing passion. Mr. Davidson loved cows. Mrs. Davidson loved cows. If there was a bright center to the Davidson family, it would probably be a 2,000-pound heifer.
Paul did not love cows. They were too judgmental.
When Paul was eight years old, he had helped his father replace some rotten boards on the family’s porch. His father made the mistake of leaving him momentarily unsupervised. Paul had been given instructions to start removing nails from the rotten boards, but instead of following his father’s orders, he found his favorite cowboy story and began to read. By the time his father returned, Paul was thoroughly engrossed in the book.
“Paul!” his father hollered. “What are you doing?” The boy flinched, embarrassed. In the pasture, a cow booed.
Paul looked up at his crimson-faced father. “I was just reading,” he muttered.
“That’s not helpful!” Mr. Davidson bellowed. “That’s being lazy!” Paul’s father sat down on the porch and set to work. “I just need you to be more helpful, Paul,” he grumbled. “Is that too much to ask?”
The boy looked at his feet, ashamed of himself. Cows booed. Mr. Davidson glared. It was a very bad day.
From then on, Paul had done his best to be helpful. When his mother asked him to take the laundry off the line, he shot off to obey with a smart “yes ma’am.” When his sister Sally didn’t want to collect eggs, Paul would do it for her. If he ever thought about ignoring his family’s requests, the distant booing of a cow would remind him of that dreadful day when he ignored his father’s plea for help. Time passed, and Paul grew into a hard-working, obliging, twelve-year-old boy. He became very helpful.
Paul crashed through the front door of the house and slung his backpack to the floor. “Home!” he announced as he charged up toward his room. Mrs. Davidson stuck her head out of the kitchen.
“Don’t leave your backpack in the middle of the floor!” she admonished as her son skidded to a halt on the stairs.
“Yes ma’am,” he sighed, dutifully picking up the bag before slogging his way up the stairs once more.
“Paul!” Mr. Davidson called, appearing at the base of the stairs, cinnamon roll in hand.
Paul’s shoulders sagged. He turned towards his father. “Yes, Dad?”
“Old Man Reynolds called today.”
“Alright?” Paul hedged cautiously, wondering how this concerned him. His father took a bite out of his cinnamon roll.
“His chicken coop’s been vacant for quite some time now,” Mr. Davidson continued, swallowing. “He wants to turn it into a sauna.”
“Sounds like a good idea!” Paul remarked, hoping to be able to cut this conversation short so he could finish reading 101 Deadly Objects with Deadlier Uses. He was on the second-to-last chapter, and was really curious how one managed to make a ballistic missile out of a car battery.
“I’m glad you think so,” Mr. Davidson smiled. “He wanted to know if you’d help him by cleaning out his chicken coop. Old Man Reynolds’ back isn’t too good these days, and he needs a strong young man to help him out.”
Paul’s face fell. Ballistic missiles faded from his mind, replaced by piles of reeking chicken feces. “I told him I’d drive you over once you got back from school,” Mr. Davidson announced, grinning as though cleaning a chicken coop was what every boy wanted to do with his Tuesday afternoon.
“Yes sir,” Paul said obediently.
“Change into some old clothes then, and let’s get going. We wouldn’t want to keep the old man waiting!”
Ten minutes later, Paul found himself riding shotgun in his father’s pickup truck as they bumped down the dusty dirt road to Mr. Reynold’s farm. Paul wore a tattered pair of jeans and an old shirt that was several sizes too big for him. Mr. Davidson wore an old ball cap and a contented smile. “It’s a fine thing to help out a neighbor,” the man announced thoughtfully. “Doesn’t it make you feel great?”
Paul privately thought that lending out your only son as slave labor was hardly the sort of thing that ought to make one feel “great,” but wisely said nothing. Father and son turned down a long driveway and made their way past tall fields of corn, dust billowing out from behind the pickup. They pulled up in front of Mr. Reynold’s small farmhouse just as the old man emerged onto the porch. White paint was peeling from the weathered siding, and the porch boards sagged dubiously, but the shutters on the windows had been recently painted, and the lawn in front of the house was neatly trimmed.
Old Man Reynolds squinted at his visitors as Mr. Davidson parked the pickup. “Howdy Bruce,” the old man called over to his neighbor.
“Hello Jim,” Mr. Davidson replied. He swung out of his truck, Paul following suit. The two approached the man, who scratched absentmindedly at some dry skin on the back of his neck. He wore a pair of suspenders, but one strap dangled behind him like a red-and-black checked tail.
“This your boy?” Mr. Reynolds asked, nodding at Paul.
“Yes, this is Paul,” Mr. Davidson grinned.
Paul nodded politely. “Hello.”
A loud, high-pitched barking shattered the air as an energetic young dog came bounding up to the Davidsons. The dog jumped up with his front paws on Paul’s chest. “Toad!” Mr. Reynolds growled. “Leave the boy alone.” The dog glanced over at his master. “Go to your kennel,” the old man ordered sternly. Toad obediently loped away, his tail wagging steadily as he disappeared into the barn. “Sorry about him,” Mr. Reynolds said, shaking his head.
Mr. Davidson and Mr. Reynolds proceeded to shoot the breeze for nearly half an hour, during which time Paul became increasingly annoyed. There was nothing more aggravating to him than wasting time quietly listening to a conversation he cared nothing about. “Well, I should let you get to work,” his father finally announced, glancing down at Paul. “I hope your back starts feeling better!” he told his neighbor.
“Thanks,” replied Mr. Reynolds before looking over at the boy. “The coop is out back,” the elderly man explained, gesturing with his thumb.
“Great!” Mr. Davidson said, thrusting a pair of work gloves and a red bandana into his son’s hands. “I’ll be back in a few hours. Have fun!”
With that dubious exhortation, Paul’s father hopped back into his truck and roared away, leaving a cloud of dust in his wake. Paul watched the pickup disappear around a bend, feeling entirely deserted.
“You ready, young feller?” Mr. Reynolds asked, squinting down at the scrawny boy that stood in front of his porch.
“Yes sir,” Paul gulped, looking up at the old man.
“Then get to it!”
Half an hour later, Paul was standing in his neighbor’s chicken coop, chiseling his way through a crispy carpet of chicken dung. He had tied his bandana over his nose and mouth to protect against the dust, but the ammonia from the feces was already making his head swim, promising a splitting headache by the end of the afternoon. He had dug a foot-deep hole in the manure, but didn’t seem to be getting any closer to the floor of the coop. Flies droned noisily in the corners, and Paul found himself wondering if the sequel to 101 Deadly Uses would include a chapter on the dangers of (and possible applications for) chicken poo.
The boy worked diligently for hours, shoveling the dung and old chicken bedding onto a tarp before dragging it away to Old Man Reynold’s manure heap. The discovery of several broken eggshells and a mostly-decomposed chicken carcass were the only things that made his job somewhat interesting. At one point he hoped that his father would arrive in a blaze of glory to put an end to the malodorous task, but he eventually realized that there was a good chance that he would finish cleaning out the building before his father arrived. The boy set-to with renewed vigor, envisioning the look on Mr. Reynolds’ face when he saw his once-disgusting coop nicely cleaned. As the sun sank lower in the sky, a cold autumn breeze picked up, reminding Paul of the time of year, and the fact that his school’s fall dance was fast approaching. He hadn’t paid much attention to it, but according to his younger sister, the dance was the only topic of conversation for the giggling gaggles of girls that plagued the middle school. Dances meant little to Paul other than an opportunity for some free food, but they were still usually enjoyable.
It was nearly dark by the time Paul was finished. Other than a brown stain from the poop that some long-dead chicken had rudely splattered on the wall, the small building looked quite respectable. Paul put Mr. Reynolds’ shovel and rake away, emerging from the barn to find Mr. Davidson pulling into the driveway.
The boy approached his father’s truck, hoping for a quick getaway, but it was not to be. Mr. Davidson swung himself out of the pickup and proceeded to talk to Mr. Reynolds for decidedly too long as Paul stood by, watching listlessly. The putrid stench of the coop had burned itself into his nasal passages, making it seem as though he was still hauling chicken manure. The two men talked about hunting, politics, and finally, cows. This last subject seemed to grow tedious for Mr. Reynolds, and he abruptly interrupted his neighbor.
“Now, let me give the boy something,” he stated, pulling out an old leather wallet.
Frowning, Mr. Davidson cut short his pontification on the best breeds of cows for northern climates. “No, no,” he protested. “That’s not necessary.”
“Of course it is,” Mr. Reynolds insisted, pulling out a tattered bill of an uncertain amount. “You don’t expect the boy to work for nothing, do you?”
Paul looked back and forth between his father and Mr. Reynolds, uncertain how to react.
“We’re happy to help out a neighbor,” Mr. Davidson stated firmly.
“Come on,” Mr. Reynolds said, exasperated. “Let me give the boy some money. I won’t take no for an answer.”
“No, no, no,” Paul’s father answered, waving his hands in the air as if to swat away invisible bees. He backed away toward his truck, Paul tentatively following his father’s lead.
“Well, thanks for your help,” Mr. Reynolds said, frowning. “I really appreciate it.”
“No problem,” Paul replied absentmindedly, his head aching and nostrils smarting. Father and son climbed into the truck and drove off into the gloaming.
Mr. Davidson whistled merrily as he drove home down the dusty road. Paul glanced up at his father, the man’s face illuminated in the vague green tint coming from the dashboard. “It sure is nice to help out a neighbor,” Mr. Davidson stated happily. Paul sighed and closed his eyes.
The next morning Paul slept later than he had intended, waking up to a splitting headache, a sore back, and his mother’s shrill voice demanding him to get up or be late for school. He had been too tired to finish his book the night before, and now that he had slept in, he wouldn’t have time before school either. Paul wearily clambered out of bed, tossed on some clothes, and dashed downstairs just as the school bus stopped at the end of his driveway. He barely caught the bus, and was so tired that he nearly fell asleep on the way to school. Eyes closed, he rested his forehead against the cold glass pane as the bus bounced along the country road. Paul’s seat jolted as a girl sat beside him and struck up an annoying conversation with a girl in the seat behind her.
“I can’t believe it!” the girl next to Paul exclaimed, and he recognized her voice as that of Amy Androwski. She had always shown a marked lack of personality in his opinion, but she was also (admittedly) one of the prettiest girls in his class. “Matthew still hasn’t asked me to go to the dance with him!”
“Oh I’m so sorry,” the second girl commiserated. “Boys are just the worst.”
“I know, right?” the first girl commented, exasperated. “Like, I think I’ve hinted a hundred times.”
Guys aren’t exactly the most observant when it comes to “hints,” Paul thought, chuckling quietly to himself.
“Maybe I should just ask someone else,” the girl sitting next to him mused. “Then Matthew will be jealous and he’ll have to take me to the dance!”
Paul failed to see any logic in that proposition, but thought it would be unwise to point it out.
“Who would you ask?” the second girl, Ruth Martin, questioned.
“There’s Jimmy Jenkins, but he can’t really dance. Billy Williamson would go with me, but he would probably show up to the dance in those dorky snow boots he always wears.”
“What about Paul?” Ruth posited. The boy opened his eyes and glanced over to find Amy studying him with a calculating air. She finally gave a short nod.
“Yes, he might just do.” Paul smiled faintly, uncertain how he managed to get himself in this situation, and very positive that it would not end well for him. Matthew Roberts was the tallest and strongest boy in the class, and it was generally acknowledged that he and Amy were madly in love (at least by middle-school standards). In any case, Matthew was a nice guy. The last thing Paul wanted was to make him mad.
“Paul,” Amy said deliberately. “Would you take me to the fall dance?”
Paul hesitated, frowning.
“Come on,” Amy pleaded. “Can’t you help a girl out?”
That caught him off-guard. “I…sure. Yes,” Paul stammered.
“Great!” the girl exclaimed. “I can’t wait to see the look on Matthew’s face.”
Paul closed his eyes again, groaning inwardly. My day can’t get much worse, he thought to himself.
He was wrong. School was a nightmarish assortment of diagramming sentences, solving complicated equations, and reading the biography of a scientist named Georges Lemaitre. Bad cafeteria food, and the knowledge that sooner or later Matthew would discover that Amy had found herself a different companion for the school dance twisted Paul’s stomach into knots. That afternoon, on the way out of the school, he was approached by Matthew.
“Say, I’ve got a bone to pick with you,” the tall boy said, his usually good-natured face darkened by a scowl. “What’s this about you taking Amy to the dance?”
Paul grasped helplessly for something to say. “I’m…” he began. “She just…”
“We’ll settle this like men,” Matthew stated grimly, spitting into his hand and holding it out for Paul to shake. “Agreed?”
“I don’t…” the smaller boy began glumly.
“Do you accept or don’t you?” Matthew snapped, irritated. “Stop standing there like a wimp, and face me like a man!”
Paul considered refusing Matthew’s proposition, but the way the bigger boy’s jaw was clenched suggested that it might be easier in the long run for him to just accept the challenge and get it over with.
“Yeah, fine,” Paul announced, spitting into his hand and thrusting it into Matthew’s strong grasp.
“Meet me at the sand hollow as soon as you get home,” the tall boy ordered. “Don’t keep me waiting.”
Paul nodded miserably before tromping off toward the school bus.
The boy half-hoped that his father had volunteered him to help another neighbor so he’d have an excuse for not meeting Matthew. Perhaps Mrs. Madison needed him to mow her lawn, or Mr. Daniel needed help splitting logs for his sugar shack. Unfortunately, neither his mother or his father were in the house when Paul got home, so he left them a note and set out down the road on his bike.
The sand hollow was located halfway between Paul’s and Matthew’s homes. Many years ago, someone had excavated part of a sandy hillside, leaving a high berm that was the perfect backdrop for sighting in rifles or practicing trap shooting. The area was littered with old beer cans, shattered clay pigeon fragments, and the charred remnants of bonfires. It was the perfect trysting place for two middle-school boys with a score to settle.
Matthew was already at the sand hollow when Paul arrived. A rusty old car sat idling nearby, Matthew’s older brother Jack waiting impatiently in the driver’s seat. Matthew was tall and strong, but his older brother made him look positively puny. According to rumor, when his family needed one of their livestock killed, Jack would go out and either wring its neck with his bare hands, or else break its back with a quick karate-chop, whichever he preferred. Matthew was leaning against the side of his brother’s car, but quickly pushed off as Paul skidded to a halt. The shorter boy flipped down the kickstand of his bike before glancing up at his opponent.
“I’m kind of surprised you even showed up,” Matthew scoffed, stalking forward. “You ready? Winner takes Amy to the dance.”
“Dude, I just…” Paul began, his mouth dry. “I don’t want to fight.”
“You should have thought about that before asking Amy to the dance,” the other boy shot back, sticking up his dukes.
“I didn’t!” Paul exclaimed, halfheartedly raising his fists. A moment later, he went reeling backward, his jaw aching from Matthew’s blow. He staggered dizzily, his eyes watering. “Come on man!” he protested. A punch to the stomach left Paul doubled-over and gasping for air. This was quickly followed up by a quick salvo of blows that dropped him to the ground.
Matthew scuffed the ground with the side of his shoe, annoyed by Paul’s docility. There was no sport in beating up a smaller kid who wasn’t even fighting you. “Hey, are you going to fight or what?” he demanded.
“Nope,” Paul gasped, keeping his face firmly planted in the dirt.
“Seriously dude?” Matthew sighed, frowning. “Come on, throw a punch at me or something!”
Paul groaned, remembering a time when his sister wanted him to play with her and he wouldn’t do it. He had been very unhelpful then. He didn’t want to make that same mistake twice.
Paul struggled to his feet, his face covered in blood, dirt, and tears. He squared off with his opponent, but Matthew was already moving. He launched a wild haymaker, but the shorter boy managed to dodge it. Before Matthew could recover from the surprise of not hitting his adversary, Paul wound up and struck him with all his strength. The tall boy flew backward, landing motionless in the dust.
“Hey!” Jack yelled, sticking his head out of the car window. “What are you doing to my brother?”
“He told me to punch him!” Paul protested, glancing at the prone figure of his foe.
“It’s just a friendly little fight!” Jack retorted, frowning furiously as he climbed out of his car. “You didn’t need to hit him so hard. What you need is a lesson in manners!”
Jack balled his fists. Matthew lifted his head with a groan. Paul gulped.
He took one look at the size of Jack’s biceps before fleeing into the woods surrounding the sand hollow. “Hey!” Jack called in shock, helping his younger brother to his feet. “Come back here! Kid!”
Despite this order, Paul’s sense of self-preservation was stronger than his desire to be helpful. He ran. Behind him, he could hear Jack and Matthew crashing through the underbrush, yelling threats that ranged from spiking his school lunch with pepper flakes to mounting his head on a wall. Heart in his throat, Paul sprinted through the forest, abandoning all sense of direction in the mad rush for safety.
Half an hour later, the exhausted boy emerged from the woods and into someone’s driveway. Without stopping to look around, he plunged underneath a tarp that covered a pile of old lumber. Paul tried to steady his breathing as the sounds of his pursuers grew louder. The two brothers crashed out of the woods, skidding to a halt on the gravel driveway.
“Where is that kid?” Jack growled. Paul held his breath, hoping that his hiding place would go unnoticed.
A gunshot splintered the air, and Paul’s pursuers yelped in alarm.
“Darn kids! Get off my land!” a man’s voice shouted. Another shot rang out, accompanied by the loud yapping of a dog. This second shot was entirely unnecessary, however. Fearing for their lives, the trespassers had fled back into the forest. The dog continued barking, and Paul heard gravel grinding underfoot as the man walked out onto his driveway. “Waste of good shotgun ammo,” the man grumbled, and his voice seemed vaguely familiar to Paul. “Do these kids think I have money to just throw away like that?” The yapping dog approached the woodpile, nosing around suspiciously. Paul held still, hoping the animal wouldn’t give him away. “Hush up Toad! What’s your problem? Goofy dog,” the old man said affectionately.
Toad? Paul thought to himself, suddenly realizing why the man’s voice sounded familiar.
“Mr. Reynolds?” he said, poking his head out of the tarp.
The old man jumped, clapping a hand to his chest. “Don’t scare me like that!” he complained. “Young…Paul, isn’t it? You looking for another coop to clean?” The old man’s eyes twinkled good-naturedly.
“No sir,” the boy replied, eyeing the double-barreled shotgun the man was holding. “Nice gun.”
Mr. Reynolds laughed. “Thanks! It seems to do the trick. It sure scared those boys away!” He suddenly seemed to notice Paul’s bedraggled appearance. “But what happened to you, son? You look like you were mauled by a bear!”
Before he knew what he was saying, Paul found himself spilling out the whole story. He told the old man about the dance debacle, and Matthew challenging him to a fight. Paul told him about the frantic chase through the woods and his parent’s obsession with cows. He explained about his love of reading, and his attempts to be helpful. The old man sat next to him on the stack of lumber the whole while, patiently listening to his woes.
When the boy finished, Mr. Reynolds scratched his stubbly chin. “You know, it’s a fine thing to be the sort of person that will help others out, Paul,” he said thoughtfully. “It’s a mighty fine thing.” The old man glanced down at Toad, who was sprawled out at Paul’s feet. “That dog likes you,” he mentioned, somewhat randomly. “Anyway, what I was saying was that it’s good to be helpful, but there is such a thing as being too helpful. People might take advantage of you if you always do whatever they ask. It’s good to be able to say “no” to people on occasion.
“Be helpful, Paul,” the man advised. “But be helpful because you want to be. Not because you’re afraid of disappointing others.”
The old man, the boy, and the dog watched the sun disappear into the flame-colored trees. “Thanks,” Paul said at last.
Mr. Reynolds grunted, glancing down again at Toad. “Son, do you have a dog?”
Paul blinked in surprise. “No sir,” he replied. “Just cows.”
“Every boy should have a dog,” Old Man Reynolds grunted. “Everyone in the world has a dog but you.” Paul heartily doubted that was true, but wasn’t about to gainsay the old man. “Besides, I never paid you for cleaning out my chicken coop,” Mr. Reynolds continued. Paul opened his mouth, but Mr. Reynolds raised a hand, silencing him.
“No, no arguing. A kid should be paid for a job well-done.” He paused for a moment. “What would you say if I gave you Toad?” he asked.
Paul gaped up at him, then down at the dog at his feet. “I’d say…thank you!” he exclaimed.
“He’s a bit too young and energetic for me these days,” the old man explained. “I’ve been thinking of giving him to someone who’ll be able to train him better.” Toad glanced up at his master with raised eyebrows, as if wondering when the man had planned on sharing that information with him. The man ignored his dog. “Would you be up to the challenge?”
“Absolutely!” Paul said.
“Then he’s yours,” Mr. Reynolds said. “All I ask is that you let me see him every now and again.”
“Oh yeah, of course!” Paul replied, scratching the dog’s ears.
“Glad to hear it!” the old man said, creaking to his feet. “Now let’s get you home.”
They flew down the dirt road, the wind whipping through the cab of Mr. Reynolds old-fashioned pickup truck. After recovering Paul’s bike from the sand hollow, Old Man Reynolds turned towards the boy’s home. Paul’s parents were just starting to worry about their son when he arrived, though their concern was actually increased when they saw him covered in dirt and dried blood. The boy quickly explained what had happened, at which point Mr. Reynolds helpfully made note of the fact that the Davidson family were now the proud owners of a dog. Mr. Davidson looked more than a little unsettled by this information, but thanked his neighbor nevertheless.
The next morning when Paul arrived at school, he found Matthew waiting for him in the entrance hall.
“Hey Paul!” he called, walking over awkwardly.
“Hello,” Paul replied warily, not particularly wishing to start out his day with another fist fight.
“I, um, talked to Amy last night,” the tall boy announced. “When I told her that I beat you up, she told me that you never even asked her to the dance…she asked you. I guess what I’m trying to say is…I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have made you fight me.”
“I forgive you,” Paul said, feeling a giant weight lift off his chest. “You can take her to the dance, you know. I never really wanted to go with her.”
“Are you kidding?” Matthew laughed, incredulous. “I had planned on going with her, but not after this fiasco. She got us to fight each other for no good reason. Who’d want to take someone like that to a dance?”
Paul chuckled. “Not me, that’s for sure.”
“Friends?” Matthew asked, extending his hand.
“Friends,” Paul agreed, shaking it.
When Paul got home from school he was greeted by Toad’s excited yapping and frantically wagging tail. “Hello!” the boy said, grinning down at his new dog. “Don’t worry boy. I’m going to get you all trained up. But not just yet!” In a distant pasture a cow booed, but Paul ignored it. He marched into the house and raced upstairs. He had a book to finish.