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Once upon a time a woman lived with her two sons. The older boy was lazy and greedy, but the young lad was kind and hardworking. One day, when the poor widow had almost run out of food, she sent her oldest son out into the world for help.
The boy set off grumbling over his task. Before long he came upon an old shepherd. “Where are you headed?” the old man asked.
“I’m looking for a master to help our family,” the boy complained.
“If you’ll mind my sheep, I’ll pay you well,” the old man said. “All you have to do is take along this little box and this bottle. At the end of each day you will bring me a little of the grass from which my sheep have grazed and a bit of water from which they have drunk.”
“I can do that easily,” said the boy.
“One more thing,” the shepherd said. “You must make sure always to follow the sheep wherever they go.”
Early the next morning the boy stood in the pasture watching the flock of sheep graze. After a while the sheep ambled toward the hills. As the lad followed, a little snowy lamb affectionately rubbed his leg. The boy roughly pushed him away. “Go on with your own,” he said, and the lamb ran to follow the sheep.
Before long they came to a steep ravine. The sheep began to cross a bridge over the ravine, but when the boy saw how rickety and narrow the bridge was, he shook his head. “I won’t cross such a dangerous bridge,” he said aloud.
The snowy lamb turned to help him across, but the boy crossly said, “Be on your way.” He watched the sheep cross the bridge, and when they were all on the other side, he lay down on the grass and fell fast asleep. When he awoke, the sheep were returning over the bridge. The boy quickly tore some grass from the patch where he had slept and stuffed it in the box. Then he filled his bottle with water from a nearby spring.
When the boy presented the box and bottle to the old shepherd, the man shook his head. “This is not what my sheep have been eating and drinking,” he said. “I’m afraid you have failed your test. I’ll no longer be needing your help.”
“And what about my earnings?” the boy asked.
“Would you prefer a bag of gold or an honest heart?” the shepherd asked.
The boy laughed. “Give me the gold,” he said, and the man handed him a bag of gold. The boy set off for home, pleased with his fortune.
That night he stopped at a roadside inn to sleep. He joined some people who were making merry. In the morning, when he woke, his gold was gone. And so the boy returned to his mother empty-handed. “It’s no use,” he said. “We’re doomed.”
“Mother,” the youngest son said, “I’ll go into the world and seek our fortune.” Though the mother hated to say farewell to her kind child, she sent him out into the world.
As the young lad was walking, he too met the old shepherd. The shepherd offered him the same task he had given to his older brother. The boy happily agreed to try his hand.
But the younger son was a very different boy from his brother. When the little lamb rubbed against his leg, the boy stroked his wool. When they came to the rickety bridge, the little lamb spoke to the boy. “Hold my wool, little shepherd, and I’ll bring you safely across.”
The boy walked across the bridge and followed the sheep through a dense forest. Soon they came to a land that seemed magical to the boy. Trees of every shape grew in abundance, and from their golden branches hung the most magnificent fruit the boy had ever seen. Streams of silver flowed through the land. Birds flew everywhere, singing beautiful songs.
To the lad’s astonishment, the moment the sheep drank from the silver stream, they shook themselves and cast off their wool and were transformed into fairies. They pranced around all day, eating fruit and singing songs, riding on the backs of the birds. As twilight fell, the fairies put on their wool coats and became sheep once more. They began to head home. The little shepherd followed them.
When the old shepherd asked the boy for the box of grass and the bottle of water, the boy handed him a bottle filled with the silvery water and the box filled with fruit.
The old man smiled. “Dear boy, you have fulfilled your task, and I want you to work for me forever. Now you must choose your reward — a bag of gold or an honest heart.”
“Oh,” said the boy, “my mother is very poor and we need gold a great deal, but an honest heart is worth more than all the gold in the world. And I must tell you honestly, good sir. Your sheep aren’t really sheep. They’re fairies.”
“So they are,” said the old shepherd, and once again the sheep shook themselves and turned into fairies. Each one came to him and handed him a bag of gold. “An honest heart is worth more than all the gold in the world,” they told him.
That night the boy returned home and gave his mother the gold. “And better still,” he told her, “my work with the shepherd will provide for us forever.”
“And your brother?” his mother asked.
“He will take care of the chores at home,” the young boy said.
From that day on, the older boy changed his ways, for he had learned that an honest heart is a valuable gift.
by Amy Friedman and Meredith Johnson