Farmer Boy (Chapter 9)
Laura Ingalls Wilder
BREAKING THE CALVES
Almanzo had been so busy filling the icehouse that he had no time to give the calves another lesson. So on Monday morning he said:
“Father, I can’t go to school today, can I?
If I don’t work those calves, they will forget how to act.”
Father tugged his beard and twinkled his eyes. “Seems as though a boy might forget his lesson, too,” he said.
Almanzo had not thought of that. He thought a minute and said:
“Well, I have had more lessons than the calves, and besides, they are younger than I be.”
Father looked solemn, but his beard had a smile under it, and Mother exclaimed:
“Oh, let the boy stay home if he wants! It won’t hurt him for once in a way, and he’s right, the calves do need breaking.”
So Almanzo went to the barn and called the little calves out into the frosty air. He fitted the little yoke over their necks and he held up the bows and put the bow-pins in, and tied a rope around Star’s small nubs of horns. He did this all by himself.
All that morning he backed, little by little, around the barnyard, shouting, “Giddap!” and then, “Whoa!” Star and Bright came eagerly when he yelled, “Giddap!” and they stopped when he said, “Whoa!” and licked up the pieces of carrot from his woolly mittens.
Now and then he ate a piece of raw carrot, himself. The outside part is best. It comes off in a thick, solid ring, and it is sweet. The inside part is juicier, and clear like yellow ice, but it has a thin, sharp taste.
At noon, Father said the calves had been worked enough for one day, and that afternoon he would show Almanzo how to make a whip.
They went into the woods, and Father cut some moosewood boughs. Almanzo carried them up to Father’s workroom over the woodshed, and Father showed him how to peel off the bark in strips, and then how to braid a whiplash. First he tied the ends of five strips together, and then he braided them in a round, solid braid.
All that afternoon he sat beside Father’s bench. Father shaved shingles and Almanzo carefully braided his whip, just as Father braided the big blacksnake whips of leather. While he turned and twisted the strips, the thin outer bark fell off in flakes, leaving the soft, white, inside bark. The whip would have been white, except that Almanzo’s hands left a few smudges.
He could not finish it before chore-time, and the next day he had to go to school. But he braided his whip every evening by the heater, till the lash was five feet long. Then Father lent him his jack-knife, and Almanzo whittled a wooden handle, and bound the lash to it with strips of moosewood bark. The whip was done.
It would be a perfectly good whip until it dried brittle in the hot summer.
Almanzo could crack it almost as loudly as Father cracked a blacksnake whip. And he did not finish it a minute too soon, for already he needed it to give the calves their next lesson.
Now he had to teach them to turn to the left when he shouted, “Haw!” and to turn to the right when he shouted “Gee!”
As soon as the whip was ready, he began. Every Saturday morning he spent in the barnyard, teaching Star and Bright. He never whipped them; he only cracked the whip.
He knew you could never teach an animal anything if you struck it, or even shouted at it angrily. He must always be gentle, and quiet, and patient, even when they made mistakes. Star and Bright must like him and trust him and know he would never hurt them, for if they were once afraid of him they would never be good, willing, hard working oxen.
Now they always obeyed him when he shouted, “Giddap!” and “Whoa!” So he did not stand in front of them any longer. He stood at Star’s left side. Star was next to him, so Star was the nigh ox. Bright was on the other side of Star, so Bright was the off ox.
Almanzo shouted, “Gee!” and cracked the whip with all his might, close beside Star’s head. Star dodged to get away from it, and that turned both calves to the right. Then Almanzo said, “Giddap!” and let them walk a little way, quietly.
Then he made the whip-lash curl in the air and crack loudly, on the other side of Bright, and with the crack he yelled, “Haw!”
Bright swerved away from the whip, and that turned both calves to the left.
Sometimes they jumped and started to run. Then Almanzo said, “Whoa!” in a deep, solemn voice like Father’s. And if they didn’t stop, he ran after them and headed them off. When that happened, he had to make them practice “Giddap!” and “Whoa!” again, for a long time. He had to be very patient.
One very cold Saturday morning, when the calves were feeling frisky, they ran away the first time he cracked the whip. They kicked up their heels and ran bawling around the barnyard, and when he tried to stop them they ran right over him, tumbling him into the snow. They kept right on running because they liked to run. He could hardly do anything with them that morning. And he was so mad that he shook all over, and tears ran down his cheeks.
He wanted to yell at those mean calves, and kick them, and hit them over the head with the butt of his whip. But he didn’t. He put up the whip, and he tied the rope again to Star’s horns, and he made them go twice around the barnyard, starting when he said “Giddap!” and stopping when he said, “Whoa!”
Afterward he told Father about it, because he thought anyone who was as patient as that, with calves, was patient enough to be allowed at least to currycomb the colts. But Father didn’t seem to think of that. All he said was:
“That’s right, son. Slow and patient does it. Keep on that way, and you’ll have a good yoke of oxen, yet.”
The very next Saturday, Star and Bright obeyed him perfectly. He did not need to crack the whip, because they obeyed his shout. But he cracked it anyway; he liked to.
That Saturday the French boys, Pierre and Louis, came to see Almanzo.
Pierre’s father was Lazy John, and Louis’ father was French Joe. They lived with many brothers and sisters in the little houses in the woods, and went fishing and hunting and berrying; they never had to go to school. But often they came to work or play with Almanzo.
They watched while Almanzo showed off his calves in the barnyard. Star and Bright were behaving so well that Almanzo had a splendid idea. He brought out his beautiful birthday hand-sled, and with an auger he bored a hole through the cross-piece between the runners in front. Then he took one of Father’s chains, and a lynch-pin from Father’s big bobsled, and he hitched up the calves.
There was a little iron ring underneath their yoke in the middle, just like the rings in big yokes. Almanzo stuck the handle of his sled through this ring, as far as the handle’s little crosspiece. The cross-piece kept it from going too far through the ring. Then he fastened one end of the chain to the ring, and the other end he wound around the lynch-pin in the hole in the cross-bar, and fastened it.
When Star and Bright pulled, they would pull the sled by the chain. When they stopped, the sled’s stiff handle would stop the sled.
“Now, Louis, you get on the sled,” Almanzo said.
“No, I’m biggest!” Pierre said, pushing Louis back. “I get first ride.”
“You better not,” said Almanzo. “When the calves feel the heft, they’re
liable to run away. Let Louis go first because he’s lighter.”
“No, I don’t want to,” Louis said.
“I guess you better,” Almanzo told him.
“No,” said Louis.
“Be you scared?” Almanzo asked.
“Yes, he’s scared,” Pierre said.
“I am not scared,” Louis said. “I just don’t want to.”
“He’s scared,” Pierre sneered.
“Yes, he’s scared,” Almanzo said.
Louis said he was not either scared.
“You are, too, scared,” Almanzo and Pierre said.
They said he was a fraidy-cat. They said he was a baby. Pierre told him to go back to his mamma. So finally Louis sat carefully on the sled.
Almanzo cracked his whip and shouted, “Giddap!”
Star and Bright started, and stopped. They tried to turn around to see what was behind them. But Almanzo sternly said, “Giddap!” again, and this time they started and kept on going. Almanzo walked beside them, cracking his whip and shouting “Gee!” and he drove them clear around the barnyard.
Pierre ran after the sled and got on, too, and still the calves behaved perfectly. So Almanzo opened the barnyard gate.
Pierre and Louis quickly got off the sled and Pierre said:
“They’ll run away!”
Almanzo said, “I guess I know how to handle my own calves.”
He went back to his place beside Star. He cracked his whip and shouted, “Giddap!” and he drove Star and Bright straight out of the safe barnyard into the big, wide, glittering world outside. He shouted, “Haw!” and he shouted,
“Gee!” and he drove them past the house. He drove them out to the road. They stopped when he shouted “Whoa!”
Pierre and Louis were excited now. They piled onto the sled, but Almanzo made them slide back. He was going to ride, too. He sat in front; Pierre held on to him, and Louis held onto Pierre. Their legs stuck out, and they held them stiffly up above the snow. Almanzo proudly cracked his whip and shouted, “Giddap!”
Up went Star’s tail, up went Bright’s tail, up went their heels. The sled bounced into the air, and then everything happened all at once.
“Baw-aw-aw!” said Star. “Baw-aw-aw-aw!” said Bright. Right in Almanzo’s face were flying hoofs and swishing tails, and close overhead were galumphing hindquarters. “Whoa!” yelled Almanzo. “Whoa!”
“Baw-aw!” said Bright. “Baw-aw-aw!” said Star. It was far swifter than sliding downhill. Trees and snow and calves’ hind legs were all mixed up.
Every time the sled came down Almanzo’s teeth crashed together. Bright was running faster than Star. They were going off the road. The sled was turning over. Almanzo yelled, “Haw! Haw!” He went headlong into deep snow, yelling, “Haw!”
His open mouth was full of snow. He spit it out, and wallowed, scrambled up.
Everything was still. The road was empty. The calves were gone, the sled was gone. Pierre and Louis were coming up out of the snow. Louis was swearing in French, but Almanzo paid no attention to him. Pierre sputtered and wiped the snow from his face, and said:
“Sacre bleu! I think you say you drive your calves. They not run away, eh?”
Far down the road, almost buried in the deep drifts by the mound of snow over the stone fence, Almanzo saw the calves’ red backs.
“They did not run away,” he said to Pierre. “They only ran. There they be.”
He went down to look at them. Their heads and their backs were above the snow. The yoke was crooked and their necks were askew in the bows.
Their noses were together and their eyes were large and wondering. They seemed to be asking each other, “What happened?”
Pierre and Louis helped dig the snow away from them and the sled. Almanzo straightened the yoke and the chain. Then he stood in front of them and said, “Giddap!” while Pierre and Louis pushed them from behind. The calves climbed into the road, and Almanzo headed them toward the barn.
They went willingly. Almanzo walked beside Star, cracking his whip and shouting, and everything he told them to do, they did. Pierre and Louis walked behind. They would not ride.
Almanzo put the calves in their stall and gave them each a nubbin of corn. He wiped the yoke carefully and hung it up; he put the whip on its nail, and he wiped the chain and the lynch-pin and put them where Father had left them. Then he told Pierre and Louis that they could sit behind him, and they slid downhill on the sled till chore-time.
That night Father asked him:
“You have some trouble this afternoon, son?”
“No,” Almanzo said. “I just found out I have to break Star and Bright to drive when I ride.”
So he did that, in the barnyard.