Hands in his pockets, and slumping as he walked, a gloomy Samuel trudged slowly home, to his rickety old cabin in the woods.
If the Fates had handed anyone the short end of the stick, it was Samuel. Recent times had been difficult for this youngster from Missouri. His elder brother had been killed when the Confederates took Sedalia. Then a flood had come two years back, killing his parents and destroying their little farm house that stood at the bend of the Elkhorn River near Steep Hollow. At this point, Samuel was all alone in the world, with no one left to serve as a mentor.
Neighborly charity, made available to him for a brief time after the flood, eventually dried up. Lacking any earthly inheritance, he looked for prosperity along several different paths, though none seemed to fit his knowledge or abilities. He had tried to be a farm hand, a butcher, a farrier, and a brick mason. Unfortunately, he failed miserably at each of those trades, and now spent most of his days going from shop to shop looking for odd jobs, so that he could at least earn a few pennies for groceries. Because of his continuously despondent disposition, the townsfolk had changed his name from Samuel to “Poor Samuel.”
As he shuffled along, he came upon the old washerwoman who was quite aware of his condition.
“Head up, there, young fellow. Ye walk as if ye had lost your soul to the Devil, himself.”
“Aaaahh. As if he’d have it. It’s worth nothing at all…just like me.”
“I’ll admit it’s been shady in your world for the past few years, Laddie. But ye walk like you’ve given up on tryin’ your best.”
“No use. I’m just a failure.”
“Sure it is you’re on a losin’ streak, Poor Samuel. But sunshine might be just over the next hill. And if you don’t keep walking that direction, you’re likely to miss it.”
In spite of her encouragement, she could tell that he was paralyzed with fear and doubt about the future.
“Ye know, Lad…they tell about a fish pond just beyond the footbridge on the far side of the village. If the legend be true, ye can drop a couple of pennies into the pond and make a wish. If the fish believe you to be a pious man, they’ll make your dreams come true.”
“You’ve read too many fairy tales, Old Woman,” he replied before starting on down the road.
But after a few steps, he thought, “Of course, I might as well give it a try. Nothing else has worked.”
The next morning, Poor Samuel had a biscuit for breakfast, and then wandered across the old footbridge, finding the little round pond the laundry maid had talked about. It was a lovely pool, surrounded by cattails and covered with beautiful green lily pads. The air was still, and all was quiet, except for the occasional bellow from a bullfrog and the buzz of a honeybee.
Samuel looked into the water and did indeed see the bright-colored goldfish that were, according to folklore, the magical creatures that could instantly change the fortunes of those who brought even a meager offering.
He thought silently for a minute about what to wish for, and then pulled two pennies from his pocket. Just as he was ready to pitch them to the water, he was startled by a nearby voice.
“That wish will do you no good, young feller.”
He jerked around to see who was speaking. There, seated on a fallen tree, was an elderly gentleman with a long beard, wearing a tattered old straw hat, and smoking a clay pipe. He was dressed as one might find a beggar, in mismatched clothes that were full of holes, and covered with cockleburs from wandering through high grass.
“What’s that, you say?”
“I said you was about to waste your pennies on that wish.”
“Who are you, anyway? And how would you know what I was about to wish for?”
“Who I am ain’t important. But I’ve lived around this old pond for a good many years…seen lots of desperate folks just like yourself…and I’m smart enough to know that you are risking those two pennies, hoping that them fish you’re eye-ballin’ will give you a sack of gold.” He tipped his head to one side. “That’s so, ain’t it?”
“Well…maybe. But, would that be such a bad thing to hope for? Doesn’t every man deserve a chance at prosperity?”
The old hillbilly scratched his chin. “Well, I reckon so. But don’t you figger you ort to wish for somethin’ that will make you happy, instead of somethin’ that will just make you rich?”
“To me, they’re one and the same.”
“A wiser man might think otherwise. But, if that’s your decision, then go ahead, and see what the fish decide.”
Samuel again reached back to toss the coins to the fish, but then paused. He looked again at the old man and reconsidered his words. He walked over to the tree and sat next to the strange advisor.
“Look, Neighbor. I’m poor and I’m lonely. If there was ever a feller that needed a bag of coins, it would be me. And by the way, what makes you so high-and-mighty that you’re givin’ out advice to others? Judgin’ by them duds you’re a-wearin’ and them wore-out boots, it ‘pears you could use some help from this old wishin’ well, yourself.”
The older man adjusted his hat a bit, and then grinned. “Well, now, I’d say that kinda depends on your point of view. Think about it. I’m a-restin’ here in a big patch of cornflowers. There’s the shade from this big oak tree overhead. And I got a jug of moon here that’s mighty nigh two-thirds full. Can’t imagine what more them fish could do to make me happier.”
“Just the same, I’d like to choose my own wishes.”
“Okay,” said the old hillbilly. “But let me ask you somethin’. If you had a big bag of gold, would you know what to do with it?”
“How do you mean?”
“I mean, you’d be lookin’ over your shoulder every minute, a-wonderin’ if some rascal was gonna hit you over the head and take it from you. And even if you was able to keep a-holt of it, what would you do after the last coin was spent? You can’t expect the fish in this pond to give out treasures more than once.”
Samuel gave it a thought. “You might be right.”
“Tell you what. Go home and sleep on it. Then come back tomorrow with a better wish.”
The next morning, Samuel returned to the pond to find the old hillbilly in the very same spot, puffing away on a pungent bowl of tobacco.
“Hey, Old-Timer. I had a better idea. I think I’ll wish for a big tall house overlooking the Elkhorn. No robber would be able to walk off with that.”
“True…true,” replied the gentleman after blowing a ring of smoke. “Of course, them houses can be a heap of work without ary a female to help you tend to them. You might be a-spendin’ all your time fixin’ and mendin’ and paintin’, and sich as that. Maybe you could think of somethin’ even better by tomorrow.”
Another day passed, and Poor Samuel again rushed over the footbridge to run another suggestion by the old hillbilly.
“Say, Mister. Maybe I should wish for a wife before thinkin’ about a mansion to sleep in. You reckon the fish would send a pretty girl my direction…one who would consider marryin’ up with the likes of me?”
“Couldn’t say, Son. Couldn’t say. But tell me…have you ever had a wife before? Marriage can be a blessing or a blight, depending on your own luck. I mean, Samson thought Delilah was the answer to all his problems. Reckon you’d want to rush into something like marriage…just all-of-a-sudden-like?”
“You know, Old-Timer, I’ve been here every morning this week. You’ve been critical about everything I’ve suggested. Suppose you tell me what the fish in this pond would let me have that would make me happy.”
“Well, let’s see now. You’ve been talkin’ about things that you can only suppose would make you happy…but they’ve been things you’ve never experienced before. Maybe you should look to your past…about times that you are sure made you happy. Think back. What were your best days?”
Samuel thought quietly for a moment, staring intently at the pretty little fish swimming near the bank of the pond. Finally, he offered a response. “Well, I’m a-guessin’ my happiest times were when I was a-sittin’ by the fireplace eatin’ a bowl of Ma’s fresh-baked apple cobbler. She could cook with that old Dutch oven better than anyone around. But, I ain’t tasted that kind of treat for a long time…well…ever since that old pot got warsh’d away in the flood, along with everything else we owned.”
“So, maybe you should wish for that.”
“What…you mean a Dutch oven? Waste my wish on a Dutch oven?”
“I’ve heard worse ideas,” replied the hillbilly. “Besides, you said it was something that brought you happiness.”
And so Poor Samuel pitched two cents to the pond, closed his eyes, muttered a few words, and then turned to walk home.
A year passed by, and a warm summer afternoon found the old hillbilly at his regular location, napping on the fallen tree beside the mysterious pond. His sleep was interrupted by the sound of a handsome young couple approaching from the footbridge. The man was a well-dressed gentleman, all decked out in fine clothes and top hat, and he was escorted by beautiful lady in an elegant dress.
“Hey, there, Old-Timer! Recognize me?”
“Well, sure! But I don’t remember you lookin’ quite so successful back when we was acquainted before. Looks like life has treated you proper.”
“You’re right. Things started a-goin’ my way after I left the pond about a year ago.”
“Well, Sir, the afternoon I got home from this here pond, I discovered a Dutch oven a-settin’ on my doorstep. I’m not absolutely sure how it got there. But, rememberin’ my Ma’s old recipe, I cooked up an apple cobbler that very evenin’, and every now and again after that, especially when I was feelin’ low.”
He continued his tale. “Then one day, a hungry hunter that was in my neck of the woods smelled one of my cobblers a-coolin’ in the window, and I cut him a slice to eat on the porch. He claimed it was the best he had ever tasted. Then he told me that he owned a big hotel in Springfield, and that he was a-needin’ a good kitchen cook. He offered me the job, and I gladly accepted.”
“Yep. One thing led to another. I moved to the big city. Before long, my Dutch oven and I were the Toast of the Town, and offers for my cookin’ just came pourin’ in. Soon, I had a bank account full of money. I married this lovely woman, and the two of us now live in a big tall house on the banks of the river. I couldn’t be happier. I guess I got all the things I had wished for, but each one arrived in its own due time.”
“So…it was the Dutch oven you wished for when you pitched your pennies to the fish, then.”
“Oh! No, Sir. I reckon the Dutch oven was their idea. I just asked them if I could someday be as wise as the old hillbilly who keeps them company.”