Little House in the Big Woods (Chapter 12)
Little House in the Big Woods
Laura Ingalls Wilder
THE WONDERFUL MACHINE.
Next day Pa cut the heads from several bundles of the oats, and brought the clean, bright, yellow straws to Ma. She put them in a tub of water, to soften them and keep them soft. Then she sat in the chair by the side of the tub, and braided the straws.
She took up several of them, knotted their ends together, and began to braid. The straws were different lengths, and when she came near the end of one straw, she put a new, long one from the tub in its place and went on braiding.
She let the end of the braid fall back into the water and kept on braiding till she had many yards of braid. All her spare time for days, she was braiding straws.
She made a fine, narrow, smooth braid, using seven of the smallest straws. She used nine larger straws for a wider braid, and made it notched all along the edges. And from the very largest straws she made the widest braid of all.
When all the straws were braided, she threaded a needle with strong white thread, and beginning at the end of a braid she sewed it round and round, holding the braid so it would lie flat after it was sewed. This made a little mat, and Ma said it was the top of the crown of a hat.
Then she held the braid tighter on one edge, and kept on sewing it around and around. The braid drew in and made the sides of the crown. When the crown was high enough, Ma held the braid loosely again as she kept on sewing around, and the braid lay flat and was the hat brim.
When the brim was wide enough, Ma cut the braid and sewed the end fast so that it could not unbraid itself.
Ma sewed hats for Mary and Laura of the finest, narrowest braid. For Pa and for herself she made hats of the wider, notched braid. That was Pa’s Sunday hat. Then she made him two everyday hats of the coarser, widest braid.
When she finished a hat, Ma set it on a board to dry, shaping it nicely as she did so, and when it dried it stayed in the shape she gave it.
Ma could make beautiful hats. Laura liked to watch her, and she learned how to braid the straw and made a little hat for Charlotte.
The days were growing shorter and the nights were cooler. One night Jack Frost passed by, and in the morning there were bright colors here and there among the green leaves of the Big Woods. Then all the leaves stopped being green. They were yellow and scarlet and crimson and golden and brown.
Along the rail fence the sumac held up its dark red cones of berries above bright flame-colored leaves. Acorns were falling from the oaks, and Laura and Mary made little acorn cups and saucers for the playhouses. Walnuts and hickory nuts were dropping to the ground in the Big Woods, and squirrels were scampering busily everywhere, gathering their winter’s store of nuts and hiding them away in hollow trees.
Laura and Mary went with Ma to gather walnuts and hickory nuts and hazelnuts. They spread them in the sun to dry, then they beat off the dried outer hulls and stored the nuts in the attic for winter.
It was fun to gather the large round walnuts and the smaller hickory nuts, and the little hazelnuts that grew in bunches on the bushes. The soft outer hulls of the walnuts were full of a brown juice that stained their hands, but the hazelnut hulls smelled good and tasted good, too, when Laura used her teeth to pry a nut loose.
Everyone was busy now, for all the garden vegetables must be stored away. Laura and Mary helped, picking up the dusty potatoes after Pa had dug them from the ground, and pulling the long yellow carrots and the round, purple-topped turnips, and they helped Ma cook the pumpkin for pumpkin pies.
With the butcher knife Ma cut the big, orange-colored pumpkins into halves. She cleaned the seeds out of the center and cut the pumpkin into long slices, from which she pared the rind. Laura helped her cut the slices into cubes.
Ma put the cubes into the big iron pot on the stove, poured in some water, and then watched while the pumpkin slowly boiled down, all day long. All the water and the juice must be boiled away, and the pumpkin must never burn.
The pumpkin was a thick, dark, good-smelling mass in the kettle. It did not boil like water, but bubbles came up in it and suddenly exploded, leaving holes that closed quickly. Every time a bubble exploded, the rich, hot, pumpkin smell came out.
Laura stood on a chair and watched the pumpkin for Ma, and stirred it with a wooden paddle. She held the paddle in both hands and stirred carefully, because if the pumpkin burned there wouldn’t be any pumpkin pies.
For dinner they ate the stewed pumpkin with their bread. They made it into pretty shapes on their plates. It was a beautiful color, and smoothed and molded so prettily with their knives. Ma never allowed them to play with their food at table; they must always eat nicely everything that was set before them, leaving nothing on their plates. But she did let them make the rich, brown, stewed pumpkin into pretty shapes before they ate it.
At other times they had baked Hubbard squash for dinner. The rind was so hard that Ma had to take Pa’s ax to cut the squash into pieces. When the pieces were baked in the oven, Laura loved to spread the soft insides with butter and then scoop the yellow flesh from the rind and eat it.
For supper, now, they often had hulled corn and milk. That was good, too. It was so good that Laura could hardly wait for the corn to be ready, after Ma started to hull it. It took two or three days to make hulled corn.
The first day, Ma cleaned and brushed all the ashes out of the cookstove. Then she burned some clean, bright hardwood, and saved its ashes. She put the hardwood ashes in a little cloth bag.
That night Pa brought in some ears of corn with large plump kernels. He nubbed the ears—shelling off the small, chaffy kernels at their tips. Then he shelled the rest into a large pan, until the pan was full.
Early next day Ma put the shelled corn and the bag of ashes into the big iron kettle. She filled the kettle with water, and kept it boiling a long time. At last the kernels of corn began to swell, and they swelled and swelled until their skins split open and began to peel off.
When every skin was loose and peeling, Ma lugged the heavy kettle outdoors. She filled a clean washtub with cold water from the spring, and she dipped the corn out of the kettle into the tub.
Then she rolled the sleeves of her flowered calico dress above her elbows, and she knelt by the tub. With her hands she rubbed and scrubbed the corn until the hulls came off and floated on top of the water.
Often she poured the water off, and filled the tub again with buckets of water from the spring. She kept on rubbing and scrubbing the corn between her hands, and changing the water, until every hull came off and was washed away.
Ma looked pretty, with her bare arms plump and white, her cheeks so red and her dark hair smooth and shining, while she scrubbed and rubbed the corn in the clear water. She never splashed one drop of water on her pretty dress.
When at last the corn was done, Ma put all the soft, white kernels in a big jar in the pantry. Then at last, they had hulled corn and milk for supper.
Sometimes they had hulled corn for breakfast, with maple syrup, and sometimes Ma fried the soft kernels in pork drippings. But Laura liked them best with milk.
Autumn was great fun. There was so much work to do, so many good things to eat, so many new things to see. Laura was scampering and chattering like the squirrels, from morning to night.
One frosty morning, a machine came up the road. Four horses were pulling it, and two men were on it. The horses hauled it up into the field where Pa and Uncle Henry and Grandpa and Mr. Peterson had stacked their wheat.
Two more men drove after it another, smaller machine.
Pa called to Ma that the threshers had come; then he hurried out to the field with his team. Laura and Mary asked Ma, and then they ran out to the field after him. They might watch, if they were careful not to get in the way.
Uncle Henry came riding up and tied his horse to a tree. Then he and Pa hitched all the other horses, eight of them, to the smaller machine. They hitched each team to the end of a long stick that came out from the center of the machine. A long iron rod lay along the ground, from this machine to the big machine.
Afterward Laura and Mary asked questions, and Pa told them that the big machine was called the separator, and the rod was called the tumbling rod, and the little machine was called the horsepower. Eight horses were hitched to it and made it go, so this was an eight-horsepower machine.
A man sat on top of the horsepower, and when everything was ready he clucked to the horses, and they began to go. They walked around him in a circle, each team pulling on the long stick to which it was hitched, and following the team ahead. As they went around, they stepped carefully over the tumbling rod, which was tumbling over and over on the ground.
Their pulling made the tumbling rod keep rolling over, and the rod moved the machinery of the separator, which stood beside the stack of wheat.
All this machinery made an enormous racket, rackety-banging and clanging. Laura and Mary held tight to each other’s hand, at the edge of the field, and watched with all their eyes. They had never seen a machine before. They had never heard such a racket.
Pa and Uncle Henry, on top of the wheat stack, were pitching bundles down on to a board. A man stood at the board and cut the bands on the bundles and crowded the bundles one at a time into a hole at the end of the separator.
The hole looked like the separator’s mouth, and it had long, iron teeth. The teeth were chewing. They chewed the bundles and the separator swallowed them. Straw blew out at the separator’s other end, and wheat poured out of its side.
Two men were working fast, trampling the straw and building it into a stack. One man was working fast, sacking the pouring grain. The grains of wheat poured out of the separator into a half-bushel measure, and as fast as the measure filled, the man slipped an empty one into its place and emptied the full one into a sack. He had just time to empty it and slip it back under the spout before the other measure ran over.
All the men were working as fast as they possibly could, but the machine kept right up with them. Laura and Mary were so excited they could hardly breathe. They held hands tightly and stared.
The horses walked around and around. The man who was driving them cracked his whip and shouted, “Giddap there, John! No use trying to shirk!” Crack! went the whip. “Careful there, Billy! Easy, boy! You can’t go but so fast no how.”
The separator swallowed the bundles, the golden straw blew out in a golden cloud, the wheat streamed golden-brown out of the spout, while the men hurried. Pa and Uncle Henry pitched bundles down as fast as they could. And chaff and dust blew over everything.
Laura and Mary watched as long as they could. Then they ran back to the house to help Ma get dinner for all those men.
A big kettle of cabbage and meat was boiling on the stove; a big pan of beans and a johnny-cake were baking in the oven. Laura and Mary set the table for the threshers. They put on salt-rising bread and butter, bowls of stewed pumpkin, pumpkin pies and dried berry pies and cookies, cheese and honey and pitchers of milk.
Then Ma put on the boiled potatoes and cabbage and meat, the baked beans, the hot johnny-cake and the baked Hubbard squash, and she poured the tea.
Laura always wondered why bread made of corn meal was called johnny-cake. It wasn’t cake. Ma didn’t know, unless the Northern soldiers called it johnny-cake because the people in the South, where they fought, ate so much of it. They called the Southern soldiers Johnny Rebs. Maybe, they called the Southern bread, cake, just for fun.
Ma had heard some say it should be called journey-cake. She didn’t know. It wouldn’t be very good bread to take on a journey.
At noon the threshers came in to the table loaded with food. But there was none too much, for threshers work hard and get very hungry.
By the middle of the afternoon the machines had finished all the threshing, and the men who owned them drove them away into the Big Woods, taking with them the sacks of wheat that were their pay. They were going to the next place where neighbors had stacked their wheat and wanted the machines to thresh it.
Pa was very tired that night, but he was happy. He said to Ma:
“It would have taken Henry and Peterson and Pa and me a couple of weeks apiece to thresh as much grain with flails as that machine threshed today. We wouldn’t have got as much wheat, either, and it wouldn’t have been as clean.
“That machine’s a great invention!” he said. “Other folks can stick to old-fashioned ways if they want to, but I’m all for progress. It’s a great age we’re living in. As long as I raise wheat, I’m going to have a machine come and thresh it, if there’s one anywhere in the neighborhood.”
He was too tired that night to talk to Laura, but Laura was proud of him. It was Pa who had got the other men to stack their wheat together and send for the threshing machine, and it was a wonderful machine. Everybody was glad it had come.