Farmer Boy (Chapter 17)
Laura Ingalls Wilder
The sunshine was hotter now, and all the green things grew quickly. The corn
thrust its rustling, narrow leaves waist- high; Father plowed it again, and Royal
and Almanzo hoed it again. Then the corn was laid by. It had gained so much advantage against the weeds that it could hold the field with no more help.
The bushy rows of potatoes almost touched, and their white blossoms were like foam on the field. The oats rippled gray-green, and the wheat’s thin heads were rough with young husks where the kernels would grow. The meadows were rosy-purple with the blossoms that the bees loved best.
Work was not so pressing now. Almanzo had time to weed the garden, and to hoe the row of potato plants he was raising from seed. He had planted a few potato seeds, just to see what they would do. And every morning he fed his pumpkin, that he was growing for the County Fair.
Father had shown him how to raise a milk-fed pumpkin. They had picked out the best vine in the field, and snipped off all the branches but one, and all the yellow pumpkin blossoms but one. Then between the root and the wee green pumpkin they carefully made a little slit on the underside of the vine.
Under the slit Almanzo made a hollow in the ground and set a bowl of milk in it. Then he put a candle wick in the milk, and the end of the candle wick he put carefully into the slit.
Every day the pumpkin vine drank up the bowlful of milk, through the candle wick, and the pumpkin was growing enormously. Already it was three times as big as any other pumpkin in the field.
Almanzo had his little pig now, too. He had bought her with his half- dollar, and she was so small that he fed her, at first, with a rag dipped in milk.
But she soon learned to drink. He kept her in a pen in the shade, because young pigs grow best in the shade, and he fed her all she could eat. She was growing fast, too.
So was Almanzo, but he was not growing fast enough. He drank all the milk he could hold, and at mealtimes he filled his plate so full that he could not eat it all. Father looked stern because he left food on his plate, and asked:
“What’s the matter, son? Your eyes bigger than your stomach?”
Then Almanzo tried to swallow a little more. He did not tell anyone he was trying to grow up faster so he could help break the colts.
Every day Father took the two-year-olds out, one by one on a long rope, and trained them to start and to stop when he spoke. He trained them to wear bridles and harness, and not to be afraid of anything. Pretty soon he would hitch each one up with a gentle old horse, and teach it to pull a light cart behind it without being scared. But he wouldn’t let Almanzo even go into the barnyard while he was training them.
Almanzo was sure he wouldn’t frighten them; he wouldn’t teach them to jump, or balk, or try to run away. But Father wouldn’t trust a nine-year-old.
That year Beauty had the prettiest colt Almanzo had ever seen. He had a perfect white star on his forehead, and Almanzo named him Starlight. He ran in the pasture with his mother, and once when Father was in town Almanzo went into the pasture.
Beauty lifted her head and watched him coming, and the little colt ran behind her. Almanzo stopped, and stood perfectly still. After a while Starlight peeked at him, under Beauty’s neck. Almanzo didn’t move. Little by little the colt stretched its neck toward Almanzo, looking at him with wondering, wide eyes. Beauty nuzzled his back and switched her tail; then she took a step and bit off a clump of grass. Starlight stood trembling, looking at Almanzo.
Beauty watched them both, chewing placidly. The colt made one step, then another. He was so near that Almanzo could almost have touched him, but he didn’t; he didn’t move. Starlight came a step nearer. Almanzo didn’t even breathe. Suddenly the colt turned and ran back to its mother. Almanzo heard Eliza Jane calling:
She had seen him. That night she told Father. Almanzo said he hadn’t done a thing, honest he hadn’t, but Father said:
“Let me catch you fooling with that colt again and I’ll tan your jacket. That’s too good a colt to be spoiled. I won’t have you teaching it tricks that I’ll have to train out of it.”
The summer days were long and hot now, and Mother said this was good growing weather. But Almanzo felt that everything was growing but him. Day after day went by, and nothing seemed to change. Almanzo weeded and hoed he garden, he helped mend the stone fences, he chopped wood and did the chores. In the hot afternoons when there wasn’t much to do, he went swimming.
Sometimes he woke in the morning and heard rain drumming on the roof. That meant he and Father might go fishing.
He didn’t dare speak to Father about fishing, because it was wrong to waste time in idleness. Even on rainy days there was plenty to do. Father might mend harness, or sharpen tools, or shave shingles. Silently Almanzo ate breakfast, knowing that Father was struggling against temptation. He was afraid Father’s conscience would win.
“Well, what are you going to do today?” Mother would ask. Father might answer, slowly:
“I did lay out to cultivate the carrots and mend fence.”
“You can’t do that, in this rain.”
“No,” father would say. After breakfast he would stand looking at the falling rain, till at last he would say:
“Well! It’s too wet to work outdoors. What say we go fishing, Almanzo?”
Then Almanzo ran to get the hoe and the bait-can, and he dug worms for bait. The rain drummed on his old straw hat, it ran down his arms and back, and the mud squeezed cool between his toes. He was already sopping wet when he and Father took their rods and went down across the pasture to Trout River.
Nothing ever smelled so good as the rain on clover. Nothing ever felt so good as raindrops on Almanzo’s face, and the wet grass swishing around his legs. Nothing ever sounded so pleasant as the drops pattering on the bushes along Trout River, and the rush of the water over the rocks.
They stole quietly along the bank, not making a sound, and they dropped their hooks into the pool. Father stood under a hemlock tree, and Almanzo sat under a tent of cedar boughs, and watched the raindrops dimpling the water.
Suddenly he saw a silver flash in the air. Father had hooked a trout! It slithered and gleamed through the falling rain as Father flipped it to the grassy bank. Almanzo jumped up, and remembered just in time not to shout.
Then he felt a tug at his line, the tip of his rod bent almost to the water, and he jerked it upward with all his might. A shimmering big fish came up on the end of his line! It struggled and slipped in his hands, but he got it off the hook—a beautiful speckled trout, even larger than Father’s. He held it up for Father to see. Then he baited his hook and flung out his line again.
Fish always bite well when raindrops are falling on the river. Father got another one, then Almanzo got two; then Father pulled out two more, and Almanzo got another one even bigger than the first. In no time at all they had two strings of good trout. Father admired Almanzo’s, and Almanzo admired Father’s, and they tramped home through the clover in the rain.
They were so wet they couldn’t be wetter, and their skins were glowing warm. Out in the rain, by the chopping-block at the woodpile, they cut off the heads of the fish and they scraped off the silvery scales, and they cut the fish open and stripped out their insides. The big milk-pan was full of trout, and Mother dipped them in cornmeal and fried them for dinner.
“Now this afternoon, Almanzo can help me churn,” said Mother.
The cows were giving so much milk that churning must be done twice a week. Mother and the girls were tired of churning, and on rainy days Almanzo had to do it.
In the whitewashed cellar the big wooden barrel churn stood on its wooden legs, half full of cream. Almanzo turned the handle, and the churn rocked. Inside it the cream went chug! splash, chug! splash. Almanzo had to keep rocking the churn till the chugging broke the cream into grains of butter swimming in buttermilk.
Then Almanzo drank a mug of acid-creamy buttermilk and ate cookies, while Mother skimmed out the grainy butter and washed it in the round wooden butter-bowl. She washed every bit of buttermilk out of it, then she salted it, and packed the firm golden butter in her butter-tubs.
Fishing wasn’t the only summer fun. Some July evening Father would say:
“All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. Tomorrow we’ll go berrying.”
Almanzo didn’t say anything, but inside he was all one joyful yell.
Before dawn next day they were all riding away in the lumber-wagon, wearing their oldest clothes and taking pails and bushel baskets and a big picnic lunch. They drove far into the mountains near Lake Chateaugay, where the wild huckleberries and blueberries grew.
The woods were full of other wagons, and other families berrying. They laughed and sang, and all among the trees you could hear their talking. Every year they all met friends here, that they didn’t see at any other time. But all of them were busily picking berries; they talked while they worked.
The leafy low bushes covered the ground in open spaces among the trees. Blue-black berries clustered thickly under the leaves, and there was a syrupy smell in the hot, still sunshine.
Birds had come to feast in the berry-patches; the air was aflutter with wings, and angry blue jays flew scolding at the heads of the pickers. Once two blue jays attacked Alice’s sunbonnet, and Almanzo had to beat them off.
And once he was picking by himself, and behind a cedar tree he met a black
The bear was standing on his hind legs, stuffing berries into his mouth with both furry paws. Almanzo stood stock still, and so did the bear. Almazo stared, and the bear stared back at him with little, scared eyes above his motionless paws. Then the bear dropped on all fours and ran waddling away into the woods.
At noon the picnic baskets were opened by a spring, and all around in the cool shade people ate and talked. Then they drank at the spring and went back to the berry-patches.
Early in the afternoon the bushel baskets and all the pails were full, and Father drove home. They were all a little sleepy, soaked in sunshine and breathing the fruity smell of berries.
For days Mother and the girls made jellies and jams and preserves, and for every meal there was huckleberry pie or blueberry pudding.
Then one evening at supper Father said:
“It’s time Mother and I had a vacation. We’re thinking of spending a week at Uncle Andrew’s. Can you children take care of things and behave yourselves while we’re gone?”
“I’m sure Eliza Jane and Royal can look after the place for a week,”
Mother said, “with Alice and Almanzo to help them.”
Almanzo looked at Alice, and then they both looked at Eliza Jane. Then they all looked at Father and said: