Farmer Boy (Chapter 11)
Laura Ingalls Wilder
Now breakfast was eaten before dawn, and the sun was rising beyond the dewy meadows when Almanzo drove his team from the barns.
He had to stand on a box to lift the heavy collars onto the horses’ shoulders and to slip the bridles over their ears, but he knew how to drive. He had learned when he was little.
Father wouldn’t let him touch the colts, nor drive the spirited young horses, but now that he was old enough to work in the fields he could drive the old, gentle work-team, Bess and Beauty.
They were wise, sober mares. When they were turned out to pasture they did not whinny and gallop like colts; they looked about them, lay down and rolled once or twice, and then fell to eating grass. When they were harnessed, they stepped sedately one behind the other over the sill of the barn door, sniffed the spring air, and waited patiently for the traces to be fastened. They were older than Almanzo, and he was going on ten.
They knew how to plow without stepping on corn, or making the furrows crooked. They knew how to harrow, and to turn at the end of the field. Almanzo would have enjoyed driving them more if they hadn’t known so much.
He hitched them to the harrow. Last fall the fields had been plowed an covered with manure; now the lumpy soil must be harrowed.
Bess and Beauty stepped out willingly, not too fast, yet fast enough to harrow well. They liked to work in the springtime, after the long winter of standing in their stalls. Back and forth across the field they pulled the harrow, while Almanzo walked behind it, holding the reins. At the end of the row he turned the team around and set the harrow so that its teeth barely overlapped the strip already harrowed. Then he slapped the reins on the horses’ rumps, shouted, “Giddap!” and away they went again.
All over the countryside other boys were harrowing, too, turning up the moist earth to the sunshine. Far to the north the St. Lawrence River was a silver streak at the edge of the sky. The woods were clouds of delicate green.
Birds hopped twittering on the stone fences, and squirrels frisked. Almanzo walked whistling behind his team.
When he harrowed the whole field across one way, then he harrowed it across the other way. The harrow’s sharp teeth combed again and again through the earth, breaking up the lumps. All the soil must be made mellow and fine and smooth.
By and by Almanzo was too hungry to whistle. He grew hungrier and hungrier. It seemed that noon would never come. He wondered how many miles he’d walked. And still the sun seemed to stand still, the shadows seemed not to change at all. He was starving.
At last the sun stood overhead, the shadows were quite gone. Almanzo harrowed another row, and another. Then at last he heard the horns blowing, far and near.
Clear and joyful came the sound of Mother’s big tin dinner-horn.
Bess and Beauty pricked up their ears and stepped more briskly. At the edge of the field toward the house they stopped. Almanzo unfastened the traces and looped them up, and leaving the harrow in the field, he climbed onto Beauty’s broad back.
He rode down to the pumphouse and let the horses drink. He put them i their stall, took off their bridles, and gave them their grain. A good horseman always takes care of his horses before he eats or rests. But Almanzo hurried.
How good dinner was! And how he ate! Father heaped his plate again and again, and Mother smiled and gave him two pieces of pie.
He felt better when he went back to work, but the afternoon seemed much longer than the morning. He was tired when he rode down to the barns at sunset, to do the chores. At supper he was drowsy, and as soon as he had eaten he climbed upstairs and went to bed. It was so good to stretch out on the soft bed. Before he could pull up the coverlet he fell fast asleep.
In just a minute Mother’s candle-light shone on the stairs and she was calling. Another day had begun.
There was no time to lose, no time to waste in rest or play. The life of the earth comes up with a rush in the springtime. All the wild seeds of weed and thistle, the sprouts of vine and bush and tree, are trying to take the fields.
Farmers must fight them with harrow and plow and hoe; they must plant the good seeds quickly.
Almanzo was a little soldier in this great battle. From dawn to dark he worked, from dark to dawn he slept, then he was up again and working.
He harrowed the potato field till the soil was smooth and mellow and every little sprouting weed was killed. Then he helped Royal take the seed potatoes from the bin in the cellar and cut them into pieces, leaving two or three eyes on each piece.
Potato plants have blossoms and seeds, but no one knows what kind of potato will grow from a potato seed. All the potatoes of one kind that have ever been grown have come from one potato. A potato is not a seed; it is part of a potato plant’s root. Cut it up and plant it, and it will always make more potatoes just like itself.
Every potato has several little dents in it, that look like eyes. From these eyes the little roots grow down into the soil, and little leaves push up toward the sun. They eat up the piece of potato while they are small, before they are strong enough to take their food from the earth and the air.
Father was marking the field. The marker was a log with a row of wooden pegs driven into it, three and a half feet apart. One horse drew the log crosswise behind him, and the pegs made little furrows. Father marked the field lengthwise and crosswise, so the furrows made little squares. Then the planting began.
Father and Royal took their hoes, and Alice and Almanzo carried pailsfull of pieces of potato. Almanzo went in front of Royal and Alice went in front of Father, down the rows.
At the corner of each square, where the furrows crossed, Almanzo dropped one piece of potato. He must drop it exactly in the corner, so that the rows would be straight and could be plowed. Royal covered it with dirt and patted it firm with the hoe. Behind Alice, Father covered the pieces of potato that she dropped.
Planting potatoes was fun. A good smell came from the fresh earth and from the clover fields. Alice was pretty and gay, with the breeze blowing her curls and setting her hoopskirts swaying. Father was jolly, and they all talked while they worked.
Almanzo and Alice tried to drop the potatoes so fast that they’d have a minute at the end of a row, to look for birds’ nests or chase a lizard into the stone fence. But Father and Royal were never far behind. Father said:
“Hustle along there, son, hustle along!”
So they hustled, and when they were far enough ahead Almanzo plucked a grass-stem and made it whistle between his thumbs. Alice tried, but she could not do that. She could pucker her mouth and whistle. Royal teased her.
“Whistling girls and crowing hens
Always come to some bad ends.”
Back and forth across the field they went, all morning, all afternoon, for three days. Then the potatoes were planted.
Then Father sowed the grain. He sowed a field of wheat for white bread, a field of rye for rye ’n’ injun bread, and a field of oats mixed with Canada peas, to feed the horses and cows next winter.
While Father sowed the grain, Almanzo followed him over the fields with Bess and Beauty, harrowing the seeds into the earth. Almanzo could not sow grain yet; he must practice a long time before he could spread the seeds evenly. That is hard to do.
The heavy sack of grain hung from a strap over Father’s left shoulder. As he walked, he took handfuls of grain from the sack. With a sweep of his arm and a bend of his wrist he let the little grains fly from his fingers. The sweep of his arm kept time with his steps, and when Father finished sowing a field every inch of ground had its evenly scattered seeds, nowhere too many or too few.
The seeds were too small to be seen on the ground, and you could not know how skillful a sower a man was, till the seeds came up. Father told Almanzo about a lazy, worthless boy who had been sent to sow a field. This boy did not want to work, so he poured the seeds out of his sack and went swimming. Nobody saw him. Afterward he harrowed the field, and no one knew what he had done. But the seeds knew, and the earth knew, and when even the boy had forgotten his wickedness, they told it. Weeds took that field.
When all the grain was sowed, Almanzo and Alice planted the carrots. They had sacks full of the little, red, round carrot seeds hanging from their shoulders, like Father’s big seed-sack. Father had marked the carrot field lengthwise, with a marker whose teeth were only eighteen inches apart.
Almanzo and Alice, with the carrot seeds, went up and down the long field, straddling the little furrows.
Now the weather was so warm that they could go barefooted. Their bare feet felt good in the air and the soft dirt. They dribbled the carrot seeds into the furrows, and with their feet they pushed the dirt over the seeds and pressed it down.
Almanzo could see his feet, but of course Alice’s were hidden under her skirts. Her hoops rounded out, and she had to pull them back and stoop to drop the seeds neatly into the furrow.
Almanzo asked her if she didn’t want to be a boy. She said yes, she did. Then she said no, she didn’t.
“Boys aren’t pretty like girls, and they can’t wear ribbons.”
“I don’t care how pretty I be,” Almanzo said. “And I wouldn’t wear ribbons anyhow.”
“Well, I like to make butter and I like to patch quilts. And cook, and sew, and spin. Boys can’t do that. But even if I be a girl, I can drop potatoes and sow carrots and drive horses as well as you can.”
“You can’t whistle on a grass stem,” Almanzo said.
At the end of the row he looked at the ash tree’s crumpled new leaves, and asked Alice if she knew when to plant corn. She didn’t, so he told her. Corn-planting time is when the ash leaves are as big as squirrel’s ears.
“How big a squirrel?” Alice asked.
“Just an ordinary squirrel.”
“Well, those leaves are as big as a baby squirrel’s ears. And it isn’t corn- planting time.”
For a minute Almanzo didn’t know what to think. Then he said:
“A baby squirrel isn’t a squirrel; it’s a kitten.”
“But it’s just as much a squirrel—”
“No it isn’t. It’s a kitten. Little cats are kittens, and little foxes are kittens, and little squirrels are kittens. A kitten isn’t a cat, and a kitten isn’t a squirrel, either.”
“Oh,” Alice said.
When the ash leaves were big enough, Almanzo helped to plant corn. The field had been marked with the potato marker, and Father and Royal and Almanzo planted it together.
They wore bags of seed corn tied around their waists like aprons, and they carried hoes. At the corner of each square, where the furrows crossed, they stirred up the soil with the hoe, and made a shallow hollow in it, dropped two grains of corn into the hollow, and covered them with dirt and patted the dirt firm.
Father and Royal worked fast. Their hands and their hoes made exactly the same movements every time. Three quick slashes and a dab with the hoe,
a flash of the hand, then a scoop and two pats with the hoe, and that hill of corn was planted. Then they made one quick stride forward, and did it again.
But Almanzo had never planted corn before. He did not handle the hoe so well. He had to trot two steps where Royal or Father took one, because his legs were shorter. Father and Royal were ahead of him all the time; he could not keep up. One of them finished out his row each time, so that he could start out even again. But he knew he would plant corn as fast as anybody, when his legs were longer.