Tommy stared gloomily at the horse stall floor. It was caked with dirty straw. “Mucky work again,” he growled to himself. “Why do I have to be the one always getting in trouble?” He shoved his pitch fork under a section of the wet brown muck and tried to lift. It was heavy and Tommy grunted as he lifted with both arms. As he flopped the stinky forkful into the wheel barrow, he wrinkled his nose. “Uhg!” Two more scoops, and Tommy stopped to rest.
Uncle Jerry stood in the barn doorway. “When that stall is cleaned out, call me to inspect,” he said. His usually jolly face was serious. “I want it completely cleaned out. You can use that shovel to finish off. Dump the muck in the manure pile. Any questions?”
Tommy shook his head and picked up the pitch fork again. He had questions, but he knew better than to ask. It would only get him more work—maybe even scraping out the barnyard. But as he slowly filled the wheelbarrow with sloppy, mucky straw, his mind was filled with mucky thoughts.
It is Emma’s fault that the towels were stained, he told himself. She always cleans her dirty feet on them instead of washing them off first. Why is Mom so picky about the laundry anyway? I hate scrubbing stains on her old washboard! That’s girls’ work anyway. Emma should be scrubbing, not me! And just because I complained, Mom sent me to do mucky work for Uncle Jerry again. It isn’t fair!
The rumble of a diesel engine filled the air and Tommy looked outside the barn door. Uncle Jerry was driving his tractor. Put-put-put-put it purred as it disappeared around the corner of the barn. Now that was the job Tommy wanted to do! But Uncle Jerry said that tractors were for boys who knew how to be respectful and responsible at home. Cousin Mike was only a year older than Tommy, and he got to help drive the tractor sometimes. He even had his own quad!
Tommy looked back at the wheelbarrow. It was getting full. He lifted the handles. It was heavy. But he was strong. He could push a full barrow out to the old manure pile! Tommy jabbed his pitch fork under the corner of the wet bedding and watched as another section of the slimy muck lifted and slopped into the wheelbarrow. It was almost like a machine. He was imagining himself as a giant crane lifting huge loads when a new sound came to his ears. A screech of brakes out by the road and the excited voices of children. Tommy peeked out of the door again. Oh, no! The cousins had come home from school!
Tommy hurried back to his work. Maybe he could get the stall cleaned before they came out to the barn. If Mike sees me, he’ll know that I’ve been in trouble again, Tommy thought. He will never trust me to drive his quad! Tommy held his breath and listened. Yes, they were going in the house. The screen door slammed and everything was quiet. He’d better dump the wheel barrow quickly. Tommy picked up the handles and slowly backed toward the barn door. He glanced over his shoulder. Oh, no! He could see the cousins sitting at the kitchen table right through the sliding glass doors. If he went out to dump his load in the manure pile, they would surely see him!
Quickly Tommy looked around the barn. In the corner was an empty calf pen. He grabbed the big push broom and shoved the clean straw to one side. I’ll just dump the wheelbarrow here. If I cover it with clean straw, Uncle Jerry won’t notice. He’s so busy, he will just check to see if the horse stall is clean, he told himself. Tommy worked quickly and soon he had a second load of mucky bedding ready to dump. The pile in the calf stall was getting pretty big. He kicked some clean straw over it. That would have to do. But what about the rest of the horse stall muck? There was still enough for one more wheelbarrow load. As Tommy hurried to finish the job, he thought of an idea. Beneath the barn stairs there was a stack of buckets and feeding troughs. He could dump the last load behind them!
The horse stall looked pretty clean when Tommy put the tools away against the barn wall. He peeked outside the barn door again. Mike was sitting at the table with is back to the barn, but his big sister, Julie, was at the kitchen window. Tommy could hear Uncle Jerry and the tractor out behind the barn somewhere. That’s right! There was a door in the back of the barn that went out to the horse corral. Tommy opened it and slipped outside. The horse twitched his ears and looked at Tommy. The tractor was stopped out by the big straw shed and Uncle Jerry was walking toward the barn. Tommy quickly climbed through the corral bars and ran to meet him.
“Ready for inspection?” Uncle Jerry asked.
Tommy wasn’t sure if he saw a twinkle in his eyes or not, but he nodded. “Yes, sir! And when I’m done, can I help drive the tractor?”
Uncle Jerry frowned. “You remember, tractor driving is for boys who are respectful and responsible at home. When you get this work done, you have a job to do at home, remember?” Tommy’s heart sank. He slowly nodded. Uncle Jerry was walking around to the big barn door, and Tommy tried to keep in step behind him. Maybe the cousins wouldn’t notice that he was there. Or they would think he had just come to borrow something for Mom.
Uncle Jerry stopped inside the barn and blinked a few times. It was dark in the horse stall after being in the bright sunshine. Tommy held his breath. Uncle Jerry was nodding. “Looks good,” he said, and then he started walking toward the stairway. “Now pitch in some clean—” Suddenly his voice stopped as he bent down to pick up a bucket. Tommy’s heart pounded and he felt like the time a spoonful of mashed potatoes got stuck in his throat. When Uncle Jerry stood up and looked straight at him, Tommy wished he could disappear.
“Why in the world did you put all that muck under my stairwell!?” Uncle Jerry’s voice was angry. “What were you even thinking!?” He turned and looked around the barn closely. His eyes stopped on the pile in the calf pen. “And there’s the rest of it! Where do you think the manure pile is, anyway?” Uncle Jerry was standing right in front of Tommy now, and his voice sounded like the roar of a tractor just starting up.
“Where is the manure pile?” Uncle Jerry growled.
“Outside,” Tommy managed to say.
“Right. And that is where all of it needs to go. All of it! Why you would want to make your job twice as difficult, I don’t understand!”
In the silence that followed, Tommy could only think of one thing. Finally he got courage to ask, “Can I take it out through the horse corral?”
“What in the world for?” Uncle Jerry spluttered. “Do you want it to take you twice as long?”
“I just don’t want the cousins to see me out here,” Tommy confessed. “Can I, Uncle Jerry?” His voice was pleading now.
Uncle Jerry didn’t answer for a minute. He looked at Tommy and then out the barn door toward the house. “I see how it is,” he said at last, and his voice was low and rumbley again. “I know you don’t want the others to see you, but a consequence is a consequence. There are people all over that are in trouble for something they’ve done, and they lose their privileges… their licenses… their children… and it is embarrassing. It is better to learn this lesson now when you are young.”
Uncle Jerry turned toward the door. “So can I…” Tommy began.
“Haul all this mucky mess to the manure pile—through the front,” Uncle Jerry said firmly. He walked toward the house. Tommy’s heart sank. Uncle Jerry stopped and looked over his shoulder. “A man of character faces the hard work and conquers it,” he said.
Tommy watched Uncle Jerry disappear around the barn. He glanced toward the house. No one was in sight. Tommy grabbed the wheelbarrow and started working as fast as he could.
Cleaning up the piles took a long time. Every time he heard a door slam or voices, he froze. Once Mike walked right past the barn door and then Tommy heard the quad start up. He watched him drive off toward the field. As quick as he could, Tommy drove the wheelbarrow to the manure pile and dumped it. He was glad when the last scraping was done and he could dump the last load. Now he had to get Uncle Jerry to inspect.
Tommy waited until the tractor came around the field and was driving close to the back of the barn. He didn’t see Mike until he was almost to the tractor. It was Mike driving, not Uncle Jerry! His cousin waved and pointed to the house. Tommy’s face felt hot. Did Mike know? He quickly turned and headed back to the barn.
Uncle Jerry was standing in the doorway when he rounded the corner. He put his hand on Tommy’s shoulder and pointed toward the horse stall. “How do you feel about your work now, Tommy?” he asked.
“I don’t know. Okay, I guess,” Tommy said. He wondered if Uncle Jerry had found something wrong with it. He watched his uncle’s big hand point to the stairway.
“No hidden piles, are there?” There was a nice sound in Uncle Jerry’s voice, like the purr of the tractor working in the field. Tommy shook his head. Uncle Jerry continued talking. “Everything is cleaned out and dumped like it is suppose to be. A job well done. That is what a man of character does. Remember, God is faithful. He does a good job. That is what He wants for you, Tommy. You can be satisfied with yourself.” Uncle Jerry gave Tommy’s shoulder a squeeze.
Tommy took a deep breath. The faint smell of muck mixed with the dust from the field and the fresh spring air. It smelled good. Like hard work, done right.
“Spread clean bedding in the horse stall and sweep the floor, and you’ll be done,” Uncle Jerry said. “Then you can go home and show your mom that you are ready to be a man of character.”
Tommy lifted his chin and nodded.