As far as sons go, Jack was a decent lad most of the time. He cleaned his room when told, he did all of the chores assigned to him by his mother, he studied hard at the one room school that he attended whenever he wasn't working the family farm, and he was generally obedient. His mother loved him dearly, but knew that, though he was a smart boy, he often did not practice common sense.
For instance, he had gone to the fair this past summer and spent his three coins on a game trying to win some candy, but didn't bother to look at the stall behind him where the candy was for sale for a coin apiece. And on occasion Jack would go for a long walk when the sky was cloudy and then come home soaking wet and complain that he should have worn a jacket. There had been a few occasions were he'd tried to sweep the yard only to find that it was dirt through and through, and once he even called one of his classmates stupid because he thought it would get her to like him.
On the bright side, he had plenty of knowledge, even if he didn't have wisdom. He got top marks in his class and knew the names of every king of England there'd ever been. It was unfortunate that he was born to a life where common sense was far more valuable than book sense because he would have made an excellent scholar. But there was no room for advanced mathematics or literature analysis on their meager farm.
The farm became even more meager as time passed and a great drought hit the land. Their crops dried up and withered away to nothing, their chickens stopped laying, the pigs overheated without mud to roll in and soon became slabs of bacon and ham, and their one cow stopped giving milk.
The cow was the greatest loss in Jack's mind, as he loved it like the sibling he'd never had. So when his mother said it was time to sell the cow to the butcher in town or to, frankly, anyone who would take it, Jack took a moment from his chores to cry for his cow. His mother let him be for a little while and when he'd dried his tears he went out to put a lead on the poor old cow.
"Now Jack," His mother, whose name was Sybil, said, straightening her son's jacket as he prepared to walk into town, "I want to put my faith in you, I really do, but I've got to hear you promise me something."
"What's that, Mom?"
"Promise me that you will sell her for a good price that will actually allow us to afford some food. I know you love that cow, so I thought it would be better to sell her than to eat her, but it's only worth selling her if you can get enough so that we can buy food. Non-cow food, apparently."
"And what are you promising to do?"
"To sell the cow for a good price so that we can buy food to eat that isn't my cow."
"Say all of it together now."
"I promise that I will sell the cow for a good price."
"Good. And what is a good price for a cow do you think?"
"Uh…" Jack was glad to have some math to do and he quickly calculated how much they'd spent on cows in years past, how much the butcher sold beef for, and what a good meal would cost, "Ten to fifteen?"
"Oh you are a smart one," Sybil grinned at him and slapped his long departed father's cap on his head. It slipped down over his eyes a bit, but he was proud to have it on.
"Now you've got your water canteen and your coin purse?"
"Good lad. Be safe."
"I love you Mom!" He called as he left the yard with his cow in tow.
"I love you too, Jack," Sybil waved at him and as soon as he was out of sight on the path she went to the barn and saddled their old plow horse. She hopped on and rode after Jack to watch him from a distance.
It wasn't that she didn't trust her son. She had heard him promise and she knew that he would do his best to sell the cow for the right amount. However, their very lives was a lot to stake on Jack's unreliable common sense. She'd watch from afar and swore to only intervene if someone tried to swindle her son and he didn't handle it well.
She followed him to the outskirts of town and planned on following him right on to the marketplace, where he would get the best money for the old heifer, but he stopped when an old man called out to him. Sybil had always taught her son to be kind to the elderly so she was pleased when Jack stopped and smiled at the man.
"You look like a strong youth," The wrinkly fellow said, his voice raspy, "And you look like you could go a lot longer without a drink than I could."
"Would you like some of my water, sir?" Jack held up his canteen.
"Yes, I would. That's what I was hinting at actually," The man snatched the container in his gnarled hands and guzzled it down, "Thanks kid."
"You're welcome, sir. Do you need someone to walk you into town?"
Sybil was getting suspicious by this point. While she'd taught Jack to be kind, she'd also taught him to be wary of strangers. He seemed to be doing a poor job of remembering both lessons at the same time.
"No, no," The man snapped, "I've been to town already today. I was just leaving there."
"Oh, well then I guess this is where we part ways," Jack tipped his father's hat, "Safe travels."
"Wait just a second, boy! What's your rush?"
Sybil scowled when the hand with veins popping out of it wrapped around Jack's wrist and pulled him back. She didn't make a move yet, though. She was confident Jack could get out of this situation on his own and if he couldn't she was right there to help.
"I've got to go sell this cow," Jack gestured to the beast, "And get a good price for her."
"So you are looking to sell her, eh?"
"Well why would you want to walk all the way into town and spend all day looking for a buyer when you have one right here? I'll take that cow off of your hands."
This was getting to be quite the shady business, Sybil thought as she watched. She hadn't ever considered teaching her boy about shifty cow dealers. It hadn't seemed like something he would need to be prepared for until now.
"My mom says I need to get a fair price for the cow so that we can buy food."
"And I'll give you more than a fair price for it!"
"Look at this if you don't believe me," The old man held something small out to Jack, but Sybil couldn't see what it was. It was easy to tell that it was much too small to be ten to fifteen coins though.
"What the heck are those?" Jack asked, "There's no way three beans are worth a cow, even if she hasn't been giving milk lately."
It wasn't like Sybil wanted to cheat anyone, but she personally wouldn't have mentioned the lack of milk from the old cow.
"Ah! But aren't they? What you don't know, my boy, is that these are magic beans!"
Sybil prepared to ride in and steer her son clear of the old man and his "magic beans". She strongly suspected that the legumes would be enticing to Jack, who was curious about the world and might trade for the beans just to find out if they really were magic.
"You betcha! Truly, truly magic. I wouldn't lie to you."
"What do they do?"
"They will grow a huge beanstalk in your backyard that will reach to the clouds and the magical castle that sits in there and holds treasures beyond compare!"
"Even if the beans had the capacity to grow in this drought - which, due to the lack of moisture and nitrogen, they would not - there is no way they could get all the way up to the clouds."
"Magic, my boy, magic!"
"Fine, if they did get up to the clouds how would I walk on the clouds? Clouds are just made of drops of water that settle on dust particles that are in the atmosphere. I'd fall right through! A castle would too if there was one even up there."
"But you don't understand, my boy, these beans are magic and that takes care of all of those problems! And even if it didn't then you'd still have the giant beanstalk and you could live off of beans for years!"
"You know, it's really better to rotate your crops. It's better for the soil and for preventing erosion. Plus it keeps pests down. So we couldn't just keep planting magic beans."
"But, but, but!" The old man stuttered, "MAGIC!"
"I'm really more of a man of science, honestly," Jack tipped his hat once more, "Good luck with your beans, sir, you might want to work on your sales pitch."
"Have a nice day."
With that, Jack took his cow to the market and sold her to a local animal rights activist who wanted to take the cow to her animal reserve and care for her. The activist gave Jack twice what he was expecting and as Sybil watched him purchase items for their meal in town she was impressed to see him bargaining with the vendors and getting the lowest prices for the best goods. Before he could spot her, she rode home and put away the horse with a smile on her face.
When Jack got back that evening he had enough food for a week and he said that he had put away the rest of the money in the bank and it was acquiring interest. Sybil was incredibly proud of him, but also incredibly baffled and surprised. When she asked how he had come to make all of these wise decisions he answered with a shrug.
"I dunno, I think it might have been because of this man that I saw before I got to market. He was trying to sell me magic beans of all things. I felt so bad for him because I'm sure that he made a lot of dumb mistakes to get to a place where he had to try to con people with his beans. Right then and there I decided I was going to be different and I had no trouble at all thinking about what I had to do for the rest of the day."
Sybil gave him a hug and told him once more how proud she was. She secretly wondered if the beans were magic and if some of that magic had rubbed off on Jack, but she supposed it could just be that he was becoming a sensible boy.