Just Plain Sarah Jane
by Nancy Julien Kopp
The dish was only big enough to hold a few morsels of Christmas candy, or perhaps Ma’s special pickles. Shaped like a leaf, the scalloped edges were painted blue with fine gold lines curving and swirling through the color. Three ruby red and pink roses with soft green vines graced the center. Ma had nothing this pretty.
Sarah Jane slipped her hand into her pinafore pocket and fingered the smooth metal and tiny ridges of the pennies lying there. She pressed her nose against the window to see the price tag propped beside the dish. In bold black print it said “19 cents.” She rubbed the pennies once more and marched into the store.
“What do you want, Sarah Jane?” Mr. Owensby said.
He was tall and thin with a mouth that turned down and eyes that watched the merchandise in his shop like a hawk guarding its prey.
“Ma needs some white thread, Mr. Owensby. She said to put it on the bill.”
“I’ll bet she did,” the storekeeper mumbled. His mouth turned down even farther.
Sarah Jane ignored the comment. She stepped closer to the display window.
“You want something there?” Mr. Owensby asked.
“No, just looking. That little dish is the prettiest thing I ever did see.”
“Huh! May be pretty, but it isn’t practical. Folks ‘round here need practical more than pretty. Don’t know why I let that city salesman talk me into it.”
Mr. Owensby clamped his lips together and handed Sarah Jane the thread.
“Thanks,” she called as she sailed out the door. She started down the wooden walkway but backtracked for one more peek at her treasure. The roses look so real I can almost smell them, she thought. She took two quick hops and turned toward home.
She could see Pa unhitching the horses from the plow when she neared their barnyard.
Sarah Jane ran to her father. “Pa, Pa, will you give me a penny every Saturday like you promised? Will you?”
Pa grabbed hold of the harness. “Said I would. One penny every Saturday if you help me hitch up and unhitch. Hope you’ll save it, Sarah Jane, not go buying candy at Owensby’s every week.”
“Oh, I’ll save it, Pa. I’ve put aside fourteen cents already, and I’ve my eye on something special.”
“Must be mighty special to make your eyes shine so and set your feet to dancing.”
Sarah Jane stopped by Owensby’s window on her way home from school every day. In only five weeks she’d have enough to buy the dish for Ma.
Finally the day arrived when Pa gave her the last penny she needed. She tied them up in an old handkerchief and ran most of the way to town. Out of breath by the time she reached the store, she stopped to take in great gulps of air. The familiar excitement bubbled up once more, but when she turned to the window, the bubbles burst. The dish was gone. Cold fingers of fear clutched at her stomach.
She ran inside. “Mr. Owensby, where is the dish, the one with the roses?”
“Ha!” Mr. Owensby said, placing both hands on the counter and leaning forward. “Finally sold it. Lowered the price this morning, and Johnny Ripple snapped it up for Annabelle Nelson’s birthday.” His mouth turned upwards a bit, then he frowned. “Why?”
Sarah Jane’s voice trembled. “It was mine. I’ve been saving my money.” She held up the cloth bundle. “See. I have the nineteen cents here.”
“Nineteen cents! Now look what you’ve done.” Mr. Owensby’s mouth turned down farther than ever before. “You should have told me you wanted it. I sold it to that boy for twelve cents.” He pounded his fist on the counter. “You made me sell that dish at a loss. Boy got himself a real bargain, and it’s all your fault, Missy.”
Sarah Jane slipped out the door and headed straight for Annabelle’s house. All the boys liked Annabelle, but Sarah Jane knew none of the girls at school felt the same.
She bounded up the steps of Annabelle’s house and rapped on the door. Her thumping heart kept time with her knocking. When Annabelle answered, Sarah Jane lost no time in small talk. “Annabelle,” she said, “may I see the dish Johnny gave you?”
“How did you know about that?” Annabelle put her hands on her hips and stamped her foot. “He only gave it to me today.”
Sarah Jane eased by the other girl into the house. “Where is it? I want to buy it from you.”
She surveyed the room. “Annabelle, look at all the pretty things you have. You don’t need the dish, but I do. It’s for my ma. Please. I’ll pay you nineteen cents, exactly what Mr. Owensby wanted. ‘Course Johnny didn’t pay that much. He got a bargain, a big sale.”
While she talked, Sarah Jane moved toward Annabelle until she had the girl backed up against the flowered wall.
When Annabelle could move no farther, she put her hands out. “Wait. You can have the dish. I don’t even like it.” She smiled and narrowed her eyes. “For twenty-five cents.”
“That’s not fair,” Sarah Jane shouted. “You can’t do that.”
“Oh, yes I can. It’s my dish.” Annabelle stuck her tongue out. “Well?”
Sarah Jane figured quickly in her head. “I can have the money for you in six more Saturdays.”
“Perhaps. I suppose I will. I’d rather have the money than the dish. Now go away and don’t bother me until you have the money.”
The weeks dragged for Sarah Jane. Annabelle tossed her curls and darted mean looks every day at school. Sarah Jane bit her lips, counted her pennies, and kept quiet.
Six Saturdays passed, and Sarah Jane presented herself at Annabelle’s door, the twenty-five pennies tied in the handkerchief in her pinafore pocket. She knocked firmly.
A smiling Annabelle answered the door. Her smile vanished. “Oh, it’s just plain Sarah Jane. Whatever do you want?”
Sarah Jane held up the cloth-bound pennies. “I have the twenty-five cents for the dish.”
Annabelle shrugged. “I don’t have the old dish anymore. I traded it this morning for something better. Besides, what does a plain person like you want with something so fancy?”
“But, who…what?” Sarah Jane could barely get the words out. She balled her hands into fists, her face turned red, and she shouted, “You are the meanest person I have ever met!”
She whirled around to leave, and her hand holding the pennies hit the railing so hard that the cloth tore, and the coins flew across the porch.
Annabelle laughed as Sarah Jane crawled on hands and knees picking up pennies. Annabelle slammed the door, still laughing.
Halfway home she came across a horse hitched to an empty wagon, standing in the road. The black horse shook its head and stomped its hooves.
“Are you alone, old boy?” She patted the horse’s nose, looked right and left but saw no sign of life among the trees, rocks, and wildflowers. Then a faint sound caught her attention. It came from beyond the stand of trees.
“Anybody there?” she hollered, walking past the wagon full of boxes and sacks.
“Help me! Help me!” The voice was weak but distinct.
“Where are you?” she called.
Sarah Jane ran to the edge of a deep ravine, bent over and searched. Sitting on the ground, about halfway to the bottom, was an old man. His clothes and beard were covered with twigs and leaves.
He moaned and said, “My leg, I’ve hurt my leg. I fell down the ravine looking for firewood. I thought no one would ever come.” He put his hands over his face, and his shoulders shook.
Sarah Jane studied the injured man, then looked back at the horse and wagon still on the road. She cupped her hands around her mouth. “I can’t pull you up, but maybe the horse can.”
She raced back to the horse and unhitched him as Pa had taught her. Sarah Jane walked around the wagon looking for something to use for a lifeline. She spotted a long piece of rope coiled on a nail.
She led the horse to the ravine and fastened the rope to the harness. Next, she threw the other end of the rope as far as she could. It landed only a short distance from the injured man.
The old man inched himself toward the rope. “That’s a smart thing to do,” he said breathing hard. He inched himself closer and grasped the rope with both hands, his leather gloves allowing him a firm hold.
Slowly, Sarah Jane led the horse away. Little by little, bump by bump, the old man moved up the ravine until he reached the top. She helped him try to walk back to the wagon. She found a fallen tree limb for him to lean on, and with her help, they made it halfway to the wagon.
“I can go no farther,” the old man said, weariness in his voice. “Let’s rest a little while.” He smiled at Sarah Jane, and his dark eyes brightened. “Who are you? A beautiful angel, perhaps?”
Warmth worked its way up to Sarah Jane’s cheeks, and she lowered her head. She studied her shoes. “No, I’m just plain Sarah Jane—not beautiful anything.”
“Ah, but to me you are very beautiful. Wait here.” The old man inched himself to the wagon. He searched among the many items it held until his hand grasped a burlap sack. “Ah, here it is. Something special. An old peddler like me comes across many beautiful things, but this I got only today.”
He removed his gloves and pulled something small out of the sack. “Here—here is something beautiful to help you remember your kindness to me.”
In his gnarled and dirty hands he held the dish, Ma’s dish. The roses looked real enough to smell. Sarah Jane’s twenty-five pennies jingled in her pocket as she reached out to accept the gift from the peddler.
1. What did Sarah Jane want to buy for Ma?
2. What did Sarah Jane do to earn the money?
3. Who bought the dish before Sarah Jane could?
4. How did Sarah Jane help the old peddler man?
5. What did the peddler give to Sarah Jane for her kindness?