Farmer Boy (Chapter 3)
Laura Ingalls Wilder
After supper Almanzo took care of his moccasins. Every night he sat by the kitchen stove and rubbed them with tallow. He held them in the heat and rubbed the melting tallow into the leather with the palm of his hand. His moccasins would always be comfortably soft, and keep his feet dry, as long as the leather was well greased, and he didn’t stop rubbing until it would absorb no more tallow.
Royal sat by the stove, too, and greased his boots. Almanzo couldn’t have boots; he had to wear moccasins because he was a little boy. Mother and the girls washed the dishes and swept the pantry kitchen, and downstairs in the big cellar Father cut up carrots and potatoes to feed the cows next day. When the work was done, Father came up the cellar stairs, bringing a big pitcher of sweet cider and a panful of apples. Royal took the corn-popper and a pannikin of popcorn.
Mother banked the kitchen fire with ashes for the night, and when everyone else had left the kitchen she blew out the candles. They all settled down cosily by the big stove in the dining-room wall. The back of the stove was in the parlor, where nobody went except when company came. It was a fine stove; it warmed the dining-room and the parlor, its chimney warmed the bedrooms upstairs, and its whole top was an oven.
Royal opened its iron door, and with the poker he broke the charred logs into a shimmering bed of coals. He put three handfuls of popcorn into the big wire popper, and shook the popper over the coals. In a little while a kernel popped, then another, then three or four at once, and all at once furiously the hundreds of little pointed kernels exploded.
When the big dishpan was heaping full of fluffy white popcorn, Alice poured melted butter over it, and stirred and salted it. It was hot and crackling crisp, and deliciously buttery and salty, and everyone could eat all he wanted to.
Mother knitted and rocked in her high-backed rocking-chair. Father carefully scraped a new ax-handle with a bit of broken glass. Royal carved a chain of tiny links from a smooth stick of pine, and Alice sat on her hassock, doing her woolwork embroidery. And they all ate popcorn and apples, and drank sweet cider, except Eliza Jane. Eliza Jane read aloud the news in the New York weekly paper.
Almanzo sat on a footstool by the stove, an apple in his hand, a bowl of popcorn by his side, and his mug of cider on the hearth by his feet. He bit the juicy apple, then he ate some popcorn, then he took a drink of cider. He thought about popcorn. Popcorn is American. Nobody but the Indians ever had popcorn, till after the Pilgrim Fathers came to America. On the first Thanksgiving Day, the Indians were invited to dinner, and they came, and they poured out on the table a big bagful of popcorn. The Pilgrim Fathers didn’t know what it was. The Pilgrim Mothers didn’t know, either. The Indians had popped it, but probably it wasn’t very good. Probably they didn’t butter it or salt it, and it would be cold and tough after they had carried it around in a bag of skins.
Almanzo looked at every kernel before he ate it. They were all different shapes. He had eaten thousands of handfuls of popcorn, and never found two kernels alike. Then he thought that if he had some milk, he would have popcorn and milk. You can fill a glass full to the brim with milk, and fill another glass of the same size brim full of popcorn, and then you can put all the popcorn kernel by kernel into the milk, and the milk will not run over. You cannot do this with bread. Popcorn and milk are the only two things that will go into the same place.
Then, too, they are good to eat. But Almanzo was not very hungry. And he knew Mother would not want the milkpans disturbed. If you disturb milk when the cream is rising, the cream will not be so thick. So Almanzo ate another apple and drank cider with his popcorn and did not say anything about popcorn and milk.
When the clock struck nine, that was bedtime. Royal laid away his chain and Alice her woolwork. Mother stuck her needles in her ball of yarn, and Father wound the tall clock. He put another log in the stove and closed the dampers.
“It’s a cold night,” Mr. Corse said.
“Forty below zero,” said Father, “and it will be colder before morning.”
Royal lighted a candle and Almanzo followed him sleepily to the stairway door. The cold on the stairs made him wide awake at once. He ran clattering upstairs. The bedroom was so cold that he could hardly unbutton his clothes and put on his long woolen nightshirt and nightcap. He should have knelt down to say his prayers, but he didn’t. His nose ached with cold and his teeth were chattering. He dived into the soft goose-feather bed, between the blankets, and pulled the covers over his nose.
The next thing he knew, the tall clock downstairs was striking twelve. The darkness pressed his eyes and forehead, and it seemed full of little prickles of ice. He heard someone move downstairs, then the kitchen door opened and shut. He knew that Father was going to the barn.
Even those great barns could not hold all Father’s wealth of cows and oxen and horses and hogs and calves and sheep. Twenty-five young cattle had to sleep under a shed in the barnyard. If they lay still all night, on nights as cold as this, they would freeze in their sleep. So at midnight, in the bitter cold, Father got out of his warm bed and went to wake them up.
Out in the dark, cold night, Father was rousing up the young cattle. He was cracking his whip and running behind them, around and around the barnyard. He would run and keep them galloping till they were warmed with exercise. Almanzo opened his eyes again, and the candle was sputtering on the bureau. Royal was dressing. His breath froze white in the air. The candle- light was dim, as though the darkness were trying to put it out.
Suddenly Royal was gone, the candle was not there, and Mother was calling from the foot of the stairs:
“Almanzo! What’s the matter? Be you sick? It’s five o’clock!”
He crawled out, shivering. He pulled on his trousers and waist, and ran downstairs to button up by the kitchen stove. Father and Royal had gone to the barns. Almanzo took the milk-pails and hurried out. The night seemed very large and still, and the stars sparkled like frost in the black sky.
When the chores were done and he came back with Father and Royal to the warm kitchen, breakfast was almost ready. How good it smelled! Mother was frying pancakes and the big blue platter, keeping hot on the stove’hearth, was full of plump brown sausage cakes in their brown gravy.
Almanzo washed as quickly as he could, and combed his hair. As soon as Mother finished straining the milk, they all sat down and Father asked the blessing for breakfast.
There was oatmeal with plenty of thick cream and maple sugar. There were fried potatoes, and the golden buckwheat cakes, as many as Almanzo wanted to eat, with sausages and gravy or with butter and maple syrup. There were preserves and jams and jellies and doughnuts. But best of all Almanzo liked the spicy apple pie, with its thick, rich juice and its crumbly crust. He ate two big wedges of the pie.
Then, with his cap’s warm ear-muffs over his ears, and his muffler wrapped up to his nose, and the dinner-pail in his mittened hand, he started down the long road to another day at school.
He did not want to go. He did not want to be there when the big boys thrashed Mr. Corse. But he had to go to school because he was almost nine years old.