Out on the prairie in one of the western states where buffaloes and wild horses once had roamed at their pleasure and where cacti and yuccas still thrived and bloomed could be seen a small two-story frame building. There was nothing strange in this except that the house was different from the average house of the plains; for at this particular time the greater part of the dwellings were made of sod, mud, and brush.
The people, generally speaking, were of that type who think principally of getting all the enjoyment from their every-day lives that it is possible to obtain. There was, therefore, little thought among them of the hereafter, when men must give an account of themselves before a just and living God. In fact, the younger generation scarcely knew that there was a God who took note of all their ways.
The building, so different from the ordinary dwellings upon the prairie, was the home of a tiny lad named John. It was a happy home; for both his parents were living, and the love that bound their hearts together brought peace and happiness to each member of the little household. But could this happy group have known of the presence of a grim monster just outside the door, who at that very moment was seeking an entrance, their joy would have given place to sorrow. Death was soon to destroy the light and comfort of that home. The devoted wife and mother was not strong; and after a severe illness lasting but a few short days, her spirit left the ones she loved and her lifeless body was carried to its last resting place in the cemetery a few miles away.
Little John was, of course, too young to realize the true meaning of the change; but that something dreadful had happened he very well knew, and his large pathetic eyes spoke the grief that he did understand and could not express. During the three years of his short life he had known the care of a tender, loving mother, whose ambitions were high and noble. Although not a Christian, she had often expressed her wish that her little brown-eyed boy might grow up to be an honor to his father and mother, and a blessing to his country. After her death his papa's eyes were often filled with tears, for he loved and pitied his little boy.
One evening when the lights were dim and the hands of the clock were pointing to the bedtime hour, John felt his father's arms tenderly encircled about him and heard him softly saying: |My little John, we are left all alone now, and you must hurry up and become a man as soon as you can; for I need you to help me. Mama has gone away and left us, and she cannot teach you the things that she had planned that you should know; so we will have to do the best that we can, but you must help me. First of all, I want you to learn how to pray; for there is a God in heaven, who made you, and of whom your mother expected to tell you. Before Him we should bow down and pray every night before we go to sleep.|
|Does He hear all the words we say?| asked little John in an awed tone, quite unable to comprehend his father's meaning, |and does He look at us when we are asleep?|
|Yes,| his father answered; |God sees and knows everything. Now, I will tell you the short prayer that I used to say when I was a little boy like you -- the prayer that my mother taught me.|
Thus it was that John, kneeling beside his little bed repeated the prayer that has been lisped by thousands of other baby voices:
|Now I lay me down to sleep;
I pray thee, Lord, my soul to keep.
If I should die before I wake,
I pray thee, Lord, my soul to take.|
As the days and weeks sped by, John thought often of his dear mama and wished that he might see her; but he as often would recall his father's words to be a little man, and with all his strength he endeavored to be what he considered a man ought to be. But although he tried, in his childish way, to be one, he was often very lonely; and had it not been for frequent visits to his uncle's home, several miles distant, he would have missed his precious mother even more than he did. While at his uncle's, he could play with his two cousins, Will and Charley. At last it was decided that it would be best for John and his father to go and make their home with the uncle until John was older.
Now Charley was just about John's age; but as Charley was a cripple, John had chosen Will, who was several years the oldest, to be his closest friend and companion. Regardless of these facts, however, the three boys generally played together. Their playground was the vast dooryard extending far out over the prairie.
In time they were given the responsibility of herding the cows. To herd the cows meant to see that the cattle did not wander about in the neighborhood corn, wheat, and barley fields that were scattered about here and there over the prairies and that were in but few instances fenced, and to see that they were driven to some water-place at certain intervals and were brought home at the milking hour.
The watering places were known as |buffalo-wallows,| for they had been made by the buffalos in wallowing. These basins were usually kept filled with water by the rains. Some of the |wallows,| or |ponds,| were rather deep, and were treacherous because of sudden |drop-offs|; but they were usually shallow, and it was generally safe for the children to play along the edge.
After the first sharp edge of his grief was dulled, John's father did not feel it so keenly his duty to instruct his child and to teach him to reverence his Creator; and when John was about six years of age, the father was kept so busy with his work that he had but little time to spend with the child. John's aunt, too, although a good woman, was too much occupied with housekeeping to do her duty by her own two boys, much less by a third. So John and his cousins had spent nearly all of the three years that they had been together in doing as they pleased, and in finding as much enjoyment in living as it was possible for them to find. It was, therefore, not strange that they had learned and invented many new ways to get amusement, and that some of these were evil; for Satan, as he always does in such cases, had lent them a helping hand.
The work of attending to the cows did not, of course, occupy nearly all their time, and the boys found it great sport to play around the wallows and in them.
On one occasion Will said:
|Say, boys, did you ever hear the story about the man who walked upon the water? I don't remember just how the story went; but I heard somebody say that the man's name was Jesus, and that another man got out of a boat to go and meet Him. The first fellow did all right, but the second one came very near drowning because he looked down at the water. Maybe he wanted to see how deep the water was, and I guess he would have got drowned if they hadn't been close to the shore. Now, I am going to do like Jesus did. Want to see me?|
Naturally both the boys wanted to see him perform a feat like that, and Will quickly scampered into the water. Now, the wallow was very shallow all the way across, and Will was soon on the opposite side. The smaller boys, not knowing the depth of the water, supposed that it was deep and that Will had actually done some marvelous thing. Will did not know that he was doing wrong by speaking lightly of one of the Savior's miracles; for he had never been in Sunday-school, and his parents had not taught him the sacredness of the words and acts of the Savior. He simply wanted to play a joke on his companions.
The smaller boys talked the matter over when they were alone, and John said:
|Say, Charley, what do you suppose held Will up the other day on that water? That wallow must have been deep out in the middle. Let's try it some time for ourselves when Will isn't around. I believe we could do it as well as he did.|
Charley was agreed, and the two smaller lads watched their chance. One day when Will was not with them, they chose a wallow that they thought would answer their purpose. |I'll go first,| Charley said, and he hurried forward as rapidly as his little crippled limb could carry him, to the water's edge and out into the pond.
Suddenly poor little Charley disappeared. John saw his cousin as he went down into the deep water, and realized his danger. He knew that something must be done and done at once, and with a bound he sprang in after his companion. He did not, however, go beyond the shallow water, and when his cousin came to the surface, he reached out his hand and caught him by the hair; and as Charley had not lost the power to help himself, he was soon able, by John's assistance, to scramble to a place of safety.
The boys decided that they would say nothing about the accident; and as they remained away from the house long enough for Charley's clothing to dry, no questions were asked. But was the scene unnoticed? No. He who notes the sparrow's fall was watching over these little boys; He had not forgotten John's little prayer that had been taught him by his father. God was caring for these little untaught children in that vast prairie pasture.