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Juan’s Birthday

Today Juan was ten. He held up two hands and said, “Yo tengo diez años,” because he spoke Spanish. Diez. Ten.

That was a big boy age, Mamá said, and sent him to gather firewood. “Take Lucita,” she said. “She can ride on Coco.”

Juan dragged his brown feet down the path to where Coco, the gray donkey, was tied. He didn’t feel like working on his birthday. Papá didn’t have lots of money for presents, but he could have played or gone swimming.

“Come, Coco.” The clip-clop of hooves followed Juan all the way to the shed. Lucita was waiting with a red bundle. “What’s that?” Juan asked, as he slapped the pack on Coco.

“Something for lunch,” she said with a smile.

“Fine, but let’s hurry.” And with that little, seven-year-old Lucita was lifted on the sturdy donkey back and they set off. Behind the hut a dirt path led between the growing cornfields and up a hillside dotted with trees. Here Juan dropped Coco’s rope.

The burro stood quietly while they scouted through the grass. “Too bad,” Juan said, when they found only five small sticks. But he had gathered wood there only last week, so it was to be expected. “Let’s go,” Juan said, and trudged farther up the hill.

Large rocks and the bumpy ground made hard climbing, but Juan was impatient. “Coco, you must hurry or we will never get done,” he said sharply. But the little burro only plodded. “Get off and walk, Lucita,” Juan said. “You are probably too heavy for him when it is so steep.” So Lucita walked behind, holding the red scarf tightly.

Finally the ground leveled and the trees got thicker. “Let’s hurry and fill the sacks,” said Juan. Coco waited while they piled the load on his back, a bit on this side, a bit on that side. Some of the long sticks Juan snapped in half. At last nothing more could be added.

“Let’s go,” Juan said. But Lucita sat on the ground, one small foot held in her lap. “What is the matter?” he asked, and felt grouchy because the sun was so high.

“I got a poke in my toe,” she said. It was a little scratch, nothing to matter about, Juan thought. But Lucita wouldn’t walk.

“Come on, for I’m hungry and Coco surely can’t carry you,” he said. Lucita started to cry. Juan began to feel a bit sorry for what he had said, for she was probably just as tired as he. Coco was tired, too, for the little donkey’s head hung to the ground, and they were far from home.

“Maybe I can find a spring to cool your foot,” Juan said, remembering some green grass that he had seen not too far off.

“Then we can have our picnic,” Lucita said, brushing away her tears. “Water will go well with cheese and bread and mango.”

“Mango?” said Juan. “Did Mamá really pack a mango?” And when they sat beside the rippling little brook with their hot feet in the water, Juan thought it was a happy birthday after all. He cut the sweet, orange fruit with his jackknife: a piece for Lucita, a piece for himself, and the sticky pit for Coco to chew on.