Nearest His Heart
It was a long sermon, but no one minded. Benny hardly took his eyes from the missionary's face as he talked. His hands clasped together between his knees, he leaned forward to catch every word. The kind-faced minister seemed to be looking straight at Benny when he asked, "Why should the children in America have all the good things, and the children in Africa all the poor things? I want to know if there isn't some little boy or girl here who would like to give just one of his blessings to one of those children over there? "
Benny's hand went up highest of all.
"You know," he went on to say, "some of us over here give the poor heathen only the things that we don't want our old clothes, our old broken-up toys, or maybe a nickel left after we have bought all the ice cream and all the candy, and all the bicycles and baseballs and balloons and kites, and everything else we want. But you know, the things that help the most, the things that Jesus appreciates the most, are the things that we sacrifice to give the things that lie nearest our hearts."
He paused, and in the tense silence Benny's throat clicked in a dry sob. When the last song, "I Gave My Life for Thee, What Hast Thou Given for Me?" was sung, Benny followed his grandfather out of the church. On the sidewalk a big police dog sprang up to meet him, and the boy's heart stood still. Instantly he knew what it was that he must give. "The thing that lies nearest our hearts," the minister had said. It would be Rex; he must give him to one of those poor heathen boys.
The dog snuggled his nose into Benny's hand as he started home. Inside the church his heart had been aching, for he thought he had nothing to give. But what a glorious gift Rex would be for some little African boy. How thrilling to make such a gift!
Grandfather looked down, and his old face wrinkled into a painful smile. "What ails you, Benny boy?" he asked in his high, cracked voice. "Thinkin about them black boys over in Africa?"
Benny raised shining eyes that were filled with tears.
Grandfather saw the tears, but his eyes did not detect the light shining from Benny's soul. He ruminated consolingly, "Well, Sonny, you an' me an' Mother have seen some pretty hard times, but I guess we ain't as bad off as the heathen yet. Got a heap to be thankful for, spite of it all."
They reached the edge of town, where their tiny brown house stood. Grandmother was waiting for them in the small bedroom where she had lain for several years. "Well, we are back, Mother," called Grandfather cheerfully. A thin, small voice answered from her bed, "Lasted longer today, didn't it?"
"Quite a spell, Mother. There was a missionary from Africa a-tellin' all about the heathens and makin' a plea for help. Kinder touched our hearts, it did." He laid his worn Bible on the old dresser beside the bed, took off his shiny Sabbath coat, and hung it carefully on a nail behind the door.
"Benny and I were sayin' on the way home that we ain't so bad off compared to the Africans."
Benny changed his "good" clothes, and went out with Rex. They sat down together in the sunshine outside the door, and Benny felt again the missionary fever mounting in his breast.
"Rex, how'd you like to belong to a little black, naked, African boy?" he asked solemnly. Rex blinked and licked his hand, but those words were not in his vocabulary, broad though it was, so he maintained a polite silence while his master talked. The sermon was explained to him, and the wonderful dog seemed almost to understand what Benny said.
"So you see," he concluded, "you are the nearest to my heart, so you must go to Africa!"
They went into the house in answer to Grandfather's call to dinner, but Benny was not hungry for the first time in his nine years. He passed his cornbread down to Rex, who eagerly swallowed each piece and waited for more. Grandfather's nearly blind eyes did not notice the boy's lack of appetite. A kind woman from the church came in with a little Sabbath delicacy for the Grandmother, which she ate in bed.
Benny interrupted Grandfather's silent thinking. "Would the African's like a dog, Gramp?"
"What! A dog? No, my child, they have more dogs than they need now." Then, peering at the boy's face, he emphasized his remark. "No, Ben, you can't give 'em Rex. They can't feed the lot of good-for-nothin' dogs they have howlin' around "em now."
But Rex was nearest to Benny's heart, and somehow he must go. The answer came almost at once. He could sell him and send the money. The surly old dog trainer who loved dogs and hated everything else had once asked Benny how much he would sell his beautiful dog for. There was no such thing as a price for Rex not then. But now he would sell him for a thousand dollars, maybe, or a hundred. That much money ought to buy a lot of things for the black children who had only poor things.
Grandfather did not seem to notice the little boy's unusual quietness as he helped with their few dishes. As soon as the work was finished, he asked permission to go for a walk, and took his cap and hurried away, Rex trotting beside him. They had gone but a few blocks when he began to realize what it would mean to give up his pal. He recalled how he had become the happy owner of this beautiful dog. A lady stopped at their humble little home two years ago, lifted a little puppy out of the back seat of her car, and asked Benny if she might let it run about a bit on the grass. She was, she explained, taking it to her mother, who lived in another town, but the motion of the car had made the puppy sick.
When she saw how tenderly Benny followed it with his eyes, she decided to leave it with him for a few days, promising to pay for the care of it. When she returned, Benny gave the little fellow into her hands with such touching reluctance that she suddenly thrust it back into his arms and told him to keep it for his own. He had not seen her since, but her generous gift had filled his two years with an unbelievably happy companionship.
At first Grandfather couldn't see how they could keep a dog, for it was all he could do to get enough food for themselves. But one look into his orphaned grandson's eyes and Grandfather gave in. He had had a dog when he was a boy.
Kindly neighbors with sympathetic hearts had occasionally helped out on the food problem for the growing boy and dog.
Benny stopped on a street crossing, the sudden complete realization of his intentions paralyzing his legs for a moment. An automobile honked loudly and Rex gave Benny a violent shove toward the sidewalk. Nothing could happen to Benny while the dog was along. On they went, his steps lagging more and more as they neared the trainer's place.
The man who loved dogs was carrying water to the kennel when Benny walked into the yard. "Well, hello!" he said, stopping abruptly, a bucket in his hand.
"How is the dog today?" He had always been rather friendly to Benny on account of Rex. Rarely did he allow the boys of the town to visit the kennels, and then more because he wanted to show off his dogs than to be obliging. Ben was always welcome.
The boy spoke quickly, afraid to trust himself with any delay in stating his errand. "Would you like to buy him?"
"Buy him, sure I'll buy him. Do you want to sell him?"
Benny felt the fervor again, and raised his head proudly. "Yes, I want to send the money to Africa to help the heathen boys there."
"What's that? You want to send money to the heathen?" He muttered some oaths and turned to place his bucket on the ground.
Benny stood quietly unmoved, his eyes shining in spite of the misery in his heart. The trainer gave him a careful scrutiny, and then asked, "You really want to sell him? I'll be glad to have him, of course, but you'll be back for him by morning."
"No, I'll not," Benny shook his head. "The minister said that it didn't mean much unless we gave what was nearest our hearts. I love Rex almost more than I do Gramp and Grams so I want to give him. You let me have the money, and I'll take it to the minister."
The dog trainer looked at the boy again closely and shrugged his shoulders in indifference. "Well," he said, "you are only a boy. I'll not argue with you. If you really want to sell your dog, I'll take him." He reached into his pocket and handed Benny a crisp bill. The dog was worth many times the amount of the bill, but the man was sure the boy would be back and did not want more money involved.
Benny put the bill into his pocket, and then knelt beside his pet. How he loved him! Many times he had gone hungry that Rex might not miss a dinner. The big dog seemed to sense some trouble. He whined and licked Benny's face. The boy took the huge dog's head between his hands and looked into his soft brown eyes, and then, with a sob, turned and ran out of the enclosure and down the street.
Rex's bark followed him until his sound failed to penetrate the distance.
Benny crept into the house. Grandfather lay back in his chair, taking his Sabbath afternoon nap. The little boy, who had given his all, lay down on the floor behind the old kitchen stove, where Rex had slept for the last two years. No sleep came, but tears streamed down his cheeks.
Twilight came. Grandfather awoke with a start and shouted to Benny to come help do the chores. The cow must be milked and the milk delivered. The chickens must be fed and put away for the night. It was when he came back to the house and saw that Grandfather had filled Rex's pan with milk that he sobbed out his story.
"Well, well, well," the old man said slowly, "so you sold Rex to help the Africans. Well, well, well!" He sat down on the old bench outside the kitchen door. Benny crouched at his feet. The man thought of the martyrdom and the sacrifice of the ages while the small boy sobbed himself to sleep.
The next morning Benny was coming with slow steps from the woodshed, when Rex bounded onto his shoulders. They greeted each other with sobs and barks of delight. The dog trainer stood by the gate waiting for Benny's attention.
Finally he asked, "Well, son, do you still want to sell your dog?"
Benny stood up and lifted his haggard face to the man. All his loneliness had been swept away. He had forgotten that Rex was no longer his. The expression in his eyes was pitiful to see. "Oh, why did you bring him?" He fell upon Rex's neck crying uncontrollably.
The profane dog trainer laid his hand on the heaving shoulder.
"My boy," he began, "I sat up all last night beside Rex's kennel, trying to comfort him. I got to thinking. I don't believe much in God nor in foreign missions, but a minister who can make a boy give up a dog like Rex, must have something to tell to the world. So I'm going to let you give the money to the heathen, and you can have your dog, too.
You can't sell him. He is part of your family. I may drop into church some day and listen to that minister."
He went away quickly, and left Benny looking entirely bewildered, one arm thrown tightly about the big police dog's neck.
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