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The Silver Dollar

By Ester Miller Malmstrom


It was the year 1913, and life on our Iowa farm was vastly different from the same sort of life today.  Work was our theme song and everyone had chores to do.  Everyone, that is, except the youngest child in the family.  I was that child.  I was only five years old and really not much help, although at the time I felt that I was being ignored and left out of things.  Sometimes I was allowed to take a half-bushel basket and pick up chips from the woodpile for the kitchen range, and occasionally I was asked to take water to the chickens in a three-pound lard pail.  But mostly I was told, "Run along and play, Tess!  Can't you see that we're busy?"

Every once in a while my sister Edna, who was 10 years old, would play with me.  But more often than not Edna preferred to sit at the piano, picking out gay little tunes with one finger, and whistling to her own accompaniment.

Edna was the middle child.  My really big sister, Mae, who was 12, helped in the house and garden and even went to the barn morning and night, to milk.  But when I started after her she'd always turn and shout, "Stay in the house, Tess!  You'll be in my way if you come to the barn."  This hurt, especially when there were new calves--for I loved all the animals on the place and yearned to pet them.  But here, also, my natural instincts were curtailed.

"Don't lean on the fence," my mother would say.  "you might fall in, and then the sow would trample you....Yes, I know, the little pigs are having their dinner, but that's no reason why you should look for trouble!  Go into the house and eat your own dinner."

I'd come outdoors on a windy spring morning with hair flying and my eyes dancing, and would race toward a field that was being made ready for planting, and my father would shout, "Don't run up to the fence whooping like an Indian--you'll scare the horses!"

"But I wanted to see if I could get to the end of the field row before the team pulled the plow there," I'd tell my father, and he'd frown and say--"Keep away from the fence, that's all I ask!"

It was like that day after day.  "Don't pick up the baby chicks, it isn't good for them to be handled...Don't wade into the water where the ducks are swimming."

When I was alone I'd talk to myself.  I'd say, with a deep resentment, "Some time I'll have a horse or a chicken or a sheep or a kitty that's mine.  And I'll hold it and love it and feed it and do what I want with it, and nobody can tell me not to!"

Sometimes Queen, the shepherd dog, would walk along beside me and allow herself to be patted on the head, but mostly Queen was a working dog and had her own chores to do.  She rounded up the sheep when they strayed from the fold, and in the evening, at a word from Father, she was off to bring in the cows.  She slept in the barn and only came to the house for table scraps which Mother put out after supper.

Perhaps I loved the horses more than any of the other animals.  If so, I inherited my feeling from my father, who had the best kept teams in the neighborhood.  There was a big draft team that did the really hard work around the farm.  Their names were Pete and Daisy, and on a hot summer day father would stop them in the fields at regular intervals, so that they'd have a chance to rest.  He might drive himself to exhaustion, but never his horses!

Then there was the matched bay team--lighter in build than the draft team, and much more lively; the draft team plodded, the bays danced!  They were meant for use on the carriage or the spring wagon or for the very easiest hauling.

A never-forgotten experience in my young life was the time when my father left the farm in the capable hands of the hired man and started out, with his whole family, in the cool gray dawn, to drive to Oskaloosa, 50 miles away.  The horses kept a brisk pace.  In the middle of the fore noon when the heat of the day was begging to be felt Father slowed the team, and at noon they had a nice long rest, while Mother set out the lunch she'd brought.  We'd stopped in a farmer's yard, after Father had gone to the door and asked permission.  He'd brought along his own grain for the horses, but the farmer's wife told him to water them at the big trough in the lot, which was filled by the turning of a windmill.  When we'd settled down to eat, a young girl brought us a pitcher of milk and cool slices of cantaloupe--it was the first time I'd ever tasted cantaloupe.  Early evening found us drawing up in front of my uncle's house, and the team hardly had a lather after the long trek.

In one of Mae's picture books there was a story of a little girl who had her own pony, named Tommy, and the girl rode him every place.  I dreamed of the day when I'd have a pony--and, of course, his name would be Tommy.  How I longed for something of my own, something alive!

And then the miracle happened!

One morning in mid-summer, everyone was busy but me.  Father was in the pasture, Mother and Mae were cleaning the upstairs rooms, all the comforters and quilts were blowing on the line, the feather pillows, fastened to the clothesline with many pins, hung fat and stiff in the warm sun.

Edna, my middle sister, was in the kitchen cleaning the flatware.  She sat at the table with a jar of silver polish and had an old sock of Father's over her hand.  She'd dip into the polish and rub each piece until the last bit of tarnish was gone, then she'd rinse it in a pan of hot soapy water and dry it.  I begged to help and Edna at first said yes, but soon decided that I wasn't getting the pieces of silver clean enough.  So it was the same story.  "Run along and play!"

I didn't run.  I wandered disconsolately into the yard.  The weather was warm and I didn't need the sweater I was wearing, so I took it off and hung it over the porch railing.  I found a stick and played with it for a while, stirring the mud left from last night's rain, and then I walked over to a small coop where a biddy hen was tied with a piece of string.  A dozen soft yellow chicks followed her as she pecked here and there.  I kept my distance, for I knew by experience that it didn't take much to make the hen shake her feathers and get big and angry.

I moved on toward the barn.  I saw a flock of pigeons circle the barn and finally settle down on the ridge of the roof.  I went a little closer and wished they'd come down onto the ground so that I could see what made them glisten so in the sunlight.  I watched until, sensing my presence, they took to the air and flew out of sight.

I was turning to go back to the house when all at once I heard an unfamiliar noise--it was a little whimper or moan, the sort of sound a baby would make.  It came from inside the barn, so I crept close, scarcely daring to breathe, and finally mustered enough courage to step over the threshold.

It was cool and shadowy inside the barn and smelled of cows and milk and horses and hay.  Tiptoeing, I followed the sound.  It came from somewhere behind the grain bin.  Then suddenly I stopped, for I could hardly believe my eyes!  There, curled in the hay, lay six of the most beautiful puppies I'd ever seen.  They were all brown, like Queen, except that one had a white bib.  I knelt beside them, adoringly.  I didn't touch them, only looked, for I remembered my mother's oft-repeated admonition, "It isn't good for small things to be handled."

I got down on the barn floor beside the puppies and was still watching them at noon when Father came into the barn with the draft team.  Trotting behind him was Queen, who hurried to her family.  The puppies had been asleep, but when Queen lay down beside them they began a clamor that only died down when she started to nurse them.  My father came over to stand beside me and I looked up at him with stars in my eyes.

"Father," I cried, "why didn't you tell me about the puppies?  I love them all--they're beautiful!"

Father patted my head gently.  He said, "We thought we should wait until they were a little bigger, but now you know.  You must treat them with care.  Don't pick any of them up until I tell you they're big enough."

"Oh, I won't," I told him, "I'll just look at them.  I promise."  And my father said, "See that you keep your promise!"

And I did keep that promise!  Morning, noon and night I sat beside the puppies in their nest.  It became a family joke that Tessie no longer lived in the house; she'd moved into the barn with Queen and her babies.  But I didn't touch them until the wonderful day when Father picked up the beautiful puppy with the bib and laid it in my arms.  From then on he was mine.

The litter grew faster than fast, and soon they were spilling out from the barn and into the yard.  I loved them all, but the puppy with the bib was my constant companion.  I named him Roderick.

Gradually the babies were weaned, and five of them went home with friends and neighbors.  Folks asked about Roderick, too, since he was such a big dog and so well behaved, but Father always said, "My small girl has a fondness for him--I'm planning to keep him!"   And I'd never had occasion to doubt my father's word.

So, at last, I had something of my very own--something alive.  I took good care of Roderick, brushing and combing his coat until it was like satin.  I saved the best of my meat at the table and gave it to him, and saw that he had plenty of fresh warm milk to drink and clean straw in his bed.  Life had a new meaning for me.  I was in love.  My happiness was packed down and running over, my cup was full to the brim.

And then, one hot day in August, a man came driving up to the house just before noon.  I'd seen him before--he was the agent for the daily paper my father took, and once a year he drove through the countryside, collecting subscriptions.  He usually made it to our farm along toward evening and spent the night with us.  He and father would sit up late and talk of weather, farm products, politics and what the world was coming to.  On this special day the man told Father he intended to spend the night in Brighton, but would be glad to have dinner with us.  And Father sent me to tell Mother, who began to sputter, and give orders.

"Edna, take off that tablecloth and get a clean one--put in another leaf.  Mae, peel a few more potatoes, and then run to the cave and get some pickles, and--oh, yes, some peaches for desert.  If I'd expected company I'd have baked some pies."  Her voice was plaintive.  "Tess, please get out from under foot."

So I went into the yard--and stopped short, for a boy about 12 years old had got out of the buggy.  He was fat and overgrown and sullen and I didn't like him.  My father and the other man went into the barn with the horse, to feed it, and the boy and I stood and stared at each other.

"I live in town," he told me.

"I'd hate to live in town," I retorted.

"My papa lets me drive his horse sometimes."

"I'm going to get a pony."

"I'm going to get a dog."

"I have a dog," I bragged.  "His name is Roderick."

"Can I see him?"  Something like interest came into the boy's eyes.

So, unsuspicious, I called Roderick and he came running and tumbling in ecstasy at being wanted.  The boy whistled and Roderick, in the silly exuberance of youth, left me and hurled himself on the stranger and licked his hands and face.  When the boy knelt to pick him up, there was a strange look in his eyes; I was too young to realize that he was making plans.

Soon Mother called us to dinner and we all trooped to the washstand, and then to the table.  In 1913 children had dinner with their elders, but they ate silently, never entering into the adult conversation.  After dinner Father opened his worn old wallet and paid the agent for the paper, and the agent said he'd like to settle up for the excellent dinner, but Father said, "Nothing doing!  We were glad to have you and your fine son."

And then the two men went out to the barn and hitched up the horse, and Mae and Edna and Mother cleared the table and then we all went onto the porch to tell the guests good-by.  The fat boy was holding Roderick as he stood beside the buggy, and all at once my heart sank down in the soles of my shoes.  I guess I knew what Father was going to say.

"Tess," he told me, "the boy has taken a fancy to Roderick, and I told him you wouldn't mind giving up your dog."

For a moment I couldn't believe I'd heard right.  Roderick was mine, a part of me.  I'd rather have given away Mae or Edna, much rather.

"No, no," I shrilled, "I won't give him up--he's mine!"

Father's face grew very red and everyone looked uncomfortable, except the fat boy, who held the dog tighter.  And then the agent stepped over to me and said pompously, "Lookee here, sis," he said, "see this bright new dollar?  It's all yours if you'll let my boy have your dog.  You can buy yourself something when you go to town!"   He forced the silver dollar into my hand and turned to the buggy.

I stared down at the dollar.  The most money I'd ever had before was a quarter my uncle had given me on my birthday.  I kept it in a little pill box on the dresser in the bedroom I shared with Edna--it was much too wonderful to spend.  I didn't know about the value of money, but I did know that this was worth a lot more than a quarter.  Maybe it would buy a beautiful collar for Roderick, like the one I'd seen in the Sears' catalogue--but I wouldn't have Roderick!  I couldn't give him up--I couldn't. I started to cry again, but the agent and his son, still clutching Roderick, had climbed into the buggy and were pulling out of the driveway.

"Bring him back--please bring him back," I sobbed, but they drove on.  And my father told me sternly, "This has gone far enough, Tess.  So much fuss over a dog--it's ridiculous!  You can have another, so hush."  He turned away and my streaming eyes followed him with bewilderment.

I stood for a moment, as if I were rooted to the ground, and then I realized that I still held the hateful dollar in my hand, and I raised my arm and threw the dollar as far as I could.  It hit the ground, glimmered like a star in the grass, and then rolled into a ditch beside the road.  I turned from mother's pitying glance, from my sisters, who tried to comfort me, and ran into the house.  From the upstairs room I could look out of the north window and see the buggy as it crossed the bridge and turned toward Brighton.  I pictured myself running after the buggy and catching up with it and scratching the boy's fat face and snatching Roderick from him.

But, of course, it was only my mind that ran after them.  My real self stood at the window and watched until the buggy was out of sight, and then I whispered fiercely--for I was a child, there in the throes of her first heartbreak, "I'll never love anything again, as long as I live!"

Mae and Edna, and even Mother and Father, searched for the silver dollar many times, but I pretended I didn't know what they were doing.  And I was glad--glad--glad--that they never found it!

After the first hard rain the soil washed over it, so that it was buried like a seed in the ground.  But nothing ever grew from it.  Not a flower for beauty, not a tree for shade, not a stalk of grain for food, not a memory for happiness.

It was only a piece of silver.





This story was published in the April 1961 Edition of Christian Herald.  The following information was included about the Contest Prize Winner:

Home to Ester Miller Malmstrom, third prize winner in the Christian Herald story contest, is a 160-acre "highway farm" with a small herd of registered Black Angus cattle near Preston, Missouri.  With her electrician husband she has lived in Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, Utah, Iowa and California, but hopes to spend the rest of her life in this spot where she can look up from her book or handwork and see out her picture window deer grazing unafraid in the gently rolling meadow beyond the highway.

"We have three wonderful children," she writes--"but what mother doesn't say that?  Between them, they have given us four handsome grandsons and two lovely little granddaughters."  The Malmstroms attend the Baptist Church in Macks Creek, Missouri, "a beautiful little valley town of about 100 inhabitants."  Her writing revives an interest of pre-marriage, school-teaching days.