Farmer Boy (Chapter 18)
Laura Ingalls Wilder
Uncle Andrew lived ten miles away. For a week Father and Mother were getting ready to go, and all the time they were thinking of things that must be done while
they were away.
Even when Mother was climbing into the buggy, she was talking.
“Be sure to gather the eggs every night,” she said, “and I depend on you,
Eliza Jane, to take care of the churning. Don’t salt the butter too much, pack it in the small tub and be sure you cover it. Remember not to pick the beans and peas I’m saving for seed. Now you all be good while we’re gone—”
She was tucking her hoops down between the seat and the dashboard. Father spread the lap robe.
“—and mind, Eliza Jane. Be careful of fires; don’t you leave the house while there’s fire in the cookstove, and don’t get to scuffling with lighted candles, whatever you do, and—”
Father tightened the reins and the horses started.
“—don’t eat all the sugar!” Mother called back.
The buggy turned into the road. The horses began to trot, rapidly taking Father and Mother away. In a little while the sound of the buggy wheels ceased. Father and Mother were gone.
Nobody said anything. Even Eliza Jane looked a little scared. The house and the barns and the fields seemed very big and empty. For a whole week Father and Mother would be ten miles away.
Suddenly Almanzo threw his hat into the air and yelled. Alice hugged herself and cried:
“What’ll we do first?”
They could do anything they liked. There was nobody to stop them.
“We’ll do the dishes and make the beds,” Eliza Jane said, bossy.
“Let’s make ice-cream!” Royal shouted.
Eliza Jane loved ice-cream. She hesitated, and said, “Well—”
Almanzo ran after Royal to the ice-house. They dug a block of ice out of the sawdust and put it in a grain sack. They laid the sack on the back porch and pounded it with hatchets till the ice was crushed. Alice came out to watch them while she whipped egg-whites on a platter. She beat them with a fork, till they were too stiff to slip when she tilted the platter.
Eliza Jane measured milk and cream, and dipped up sugar from the barrel in the pantry. It was not common maple sugar, but white sugar bought from the store. Mother used it only when company came. Eliza Jane dipped six cupfuls, then she smoothed the sugar that was left, and you would hardly have missed any.
She made a big milk-pail full of yellow custard. They set the pail in a tub and packed the snowy crushed ice around it, with salt, and they covered it all with a blanket. Every few minutes they took off the blanket and uncovered the pail, and stirred the freezing ice-cream.
When it was frozen, Alice brought saucers and spoons, and Almanzo brought out a cake and the butcher knife. He cut enormous pieces of cake, while Eliza Jane heaped the saucers. They could eat all the ice-cream and cake they wanted to; no one would stop them.
At noon they had eaten the whole cake, and almost all the ice-cream. Eliza Jane said it was time to get dinner, but the others didn’t want any dinner. Almanzo said:
“All I want is a watermelon.”
Alice jumped up. “Goody! Let’s go get one!”
“Alice!” Eliza Jane cried. “You come right back here and do the breakfast dishes!”
“I will,” Alice called out, “when I come back.”
Alice and Almanzo went into the hot melon field, where the melons lay round above their wilting flat leaves. Almanzo snapped his finger against the green rinds, and listened. When a melon sounded ripe, it was ripe, and when it sounded green, it was green. But when Almanzo said a melon sounded ripe,
Alice thought it sounded green. There wasn’t really any way to know, though Almanzo was sure he knew more about melons than any girl. So in the end they picked six of the biggest melons, and they lugged them one by one to the ice-house and put them on the damp, cold sawdust.
Then Alice went to the house to do the dishes. Almanzo said he wasn’t going to do anything; maybe he’d go swimming. But as soon as Alice was out of sight, he skipped through the barns and stole into the pasture where the colts were.
The pasture was big and the sun was very hot. The air shimmered and wavered with heat, and little insects made a shrill sound. Bess and Beauty were lying down in the shade of a tree, and their little colts stood near them, waggling their small bushy tails and straddling a little on their long, gangling legs. The yearlings and the two-year-olds and the three-year-olds were grazing. All of them lifted their heads and stared at Almanzo.
He went slowly toward them, holding out his hand. There wasn’t anything in his hand, but they didn’t know that. He didn’t mean to do anything, he only wanted to get near enough to pet them. Starlight and the other little colt ran wabbling to their mothers, and Bess and Beauty lifted up their heads and looked, then laid them down again. The big colts all pricked up their ears.
One big colt stepped toward Almanzo, then another. The six big colts were all coming. Almanzo wished he had brought carrots for them. They were so beautiful and free and big, tossing their manes and showing the whites of their eyes. The sunshine glistened on their strong, arched necks and on the muscles of their chests. Suddenly one of them said:
One of them kicked, one of them squealed, and all at once their heads went up, their tails went up, and their hoofs thundered on the ground. All their brown haunches and high black tails were turned to Almanzo. Like a thundering whirlwind those six colts went around the tree, and Almanzo heard them behind him.
He whirled around. He saw their pounding hoofs and big chests coming straight at him. They were running too fast to stop. There wasn’t time to get out of the way. Almanzo’s eyes shut; he yelled:
The air and the ground shook. His eyes opened. He saw brown knees rising up in the air, a round belly and hind legs rushed overhead. Brown sides went by him like thunder. His hat flew off. He felt stunned. One of the three- year-olds had jumped over him. The colts were thundering down across the
pasture, and Almanzo saw Royal coming.
“Leave those colts be!” Royal shouted. He came up and said that for a
cent he’d give Almanzo a licking he’d remember.
“You know better than to fool with those colts,” Royal said. He took Almanzo by the ear. Almanzo trotted, but his ear was pulled all the way to the barns. He said he hadn’t done anything; Royal wouldn’t listen.
“Let me catch you in that pasture again and I’ll whale the hide off you,”
Royal said. “I’ll tell Father, too.”
Almanzo went away, rubbing his ear. He went down to Trout River and swam in the swimming-hole till he felt better. But he thought it wasn’t fair that he was the youngest in the family.
That afternoon the melons were cold, and Almanzo carried them to the grass under the balsam tree in the yard. Royal stuck the butcher knife into the dewy green rinds, and every melon was so ripe that the rinds cracked open.
Almanzo and Alice and Eliza Jane and Royal bit deep into the juicy, cold slices, and they ate till they could eat no more. Almanzo pinched the sleek black seeds, popping them at Eliza Jane until she made him quit. Then he slowly ate the last slice of melon, and he said:
“I’m going to fetch Lucy to eat up the rinds.”
“You will not do any such thing!” Eliza Jane said. “The idea! A dirty old pig in the front yard!”
“She is not, either, a dirty old pig!” said Almanzo. “Lucy’s a little, young, clean pig, and pigs are the cleanest animals there are! You just ought to see the way Lucy keeps her bed clean, and turns it and airs it and makes it up every day. Horses won’t do that, nor cows, nor sheep, nor anything. Pigs—”
“I guess I know that! I guess I know as much about pigs as you do!” Eliza Jane said.
“Then don’t you call Lucy dirty! She’s just as clean as you be!”
“Well, Mother told you to obey me,” Eliza Jane answered. “And I’m not going to waste melon rinds on any pig! I’m going to make watermelon-rind preserves.”
“I guess they’re as much my rinds as they are yours,” Almanzo began, but Royal got up and said:
“Come along, ’Manzo. It’s chore-time.”
Almanzo said no more, but when the chores were done he let Lucy out of her pen. The little pig was as white as a lamb, and she liked Almanzo; her little curled tail quirked whenever she saw him. She followed him to the house, grunting happily, and she squealed for him at the door till Eliza Jane said she couldn’t hear herself think.
After supper Almanzo took a plate of scraps and fed them to Lucy. He sat on the back steps and scratched her prickly back. Pigs enjoy that. In the kitchen Eliza Jane and Royal were arguing about candy. Royal wanted some, but Eliza Jane said that candy-pulls were only for winter evenings. Royal said he didn’t see why candy wouldn’t be just as good in the summer. Almanzo thought so, too, and he went in and sided with Royal.
Alice said she knew how to make candy. Eliza Jane wouldn’t do it, but Alice mixed sugar and molasses and water, and boiled them; then she poured the candy on buttered platters and set it on the porch to cool. They rolled up their sleeves and buttered their hands, ready to pull it, and Eliza Jane buttered her hands, too.
All the time, Lucy was squealing for Almanzo. He went out to see if the candy was cool enough, and he thought his little pig should have some. The candy was cool. No one was watching, so he took a big wad of the soft, brown candy and dropped it over the edge of the porch into Lucy’s wide-open mouth.
Then they all pulled candy. They pulled it into long strands, and doubled the strands, and pulled again. Every time they doubled it, they took a bite.
It was very sticky. It stuck to their teeth and their fingers and their faces, somehow it got in their hair and stuck there. It should have become hard and brittle, but it didn’t. They pulled and they pulled; still it was soft and sticky. Long past bedtime, they gave it up and went to bed.
Next morning when Almanzo started to do chores, Lucy was standing in the yard. Her tail hung limp and her head hung down. She did not squeal when she saw him. She shook her head sadly and wrinkled her nose.
Where her white teeth should have been, there was a smooth, brown streak.
Lucy’s teeth were stuck together with candy! She could not eat, she could not drink, she could not even squeal. She could not grunt. But when she saw Almanzo coming, she ran.
Almanzo yelled for Royal. They chased Lucy all around the house, under the snowball bushes and the lilacs. They chased her all over the garden. Lucy whirled and dodged and ducked and ran like anything. All the time she didn’t make a sound; she couldn’t. Her mouth was full of candy.
She ran between Royal’s legs and upset him. Almanzo almost grabbed her, and went sprawling on his nose. She tore through the peas, and squashed the ripe tomatoes, and uprooted the green round cabbages. Eliza Jane kept telling Royal and Almanzo to catch her. Alice ran after her.
At last they cornered her. She dashed around Alice’s skirts. Almanzo fell on her and grabbed. She kicked, and tore a long hole down the front of his blouse.
Almanzo held her down. Alice held her kicking hind legs. Royal pried her mouth open and scraped out the candy. Then how Lucy squealed! She squealed all the squeals that had been in her all night and all the squeals she couldn’t squeal while they were chasing her, and she ran screaming to her pen.
“Almanzo James Wilder, just look at yourself!” Eliza Jane scolded. He couldn’t, and he didn’t want to.
Even Alice was horrified because he had wasted candy on a pig. And his blouse was ruined; it could be patched, but the patch would show.
“I don’t care,” Almanzo said. He was glad it was a whole week before Mother would know.
That day they made ice-cream again, and they ate the last cake. Alice said she knew how to make a pound-cake. She said she’d make one, and then she was going to go sit in the parlor.
Almanzo thought that wouldn’t be any fun. But Eliza Jane said:
“You’ll do no such thing, Alice. You know very well the parlor’s just for company.”
It was not Eliza Jane’s parlor, and Mother hadn’t said she couldn’t sit in it. Almanzo thought that Alice could sit in the parlor if she wanted to.
That afternoon he came into the kitchen to see if the pound-cake was done. Alice was taking it out of the oven. It smelled so good that he broke a little piece off the corner. Then Alice cut a slice to hide the broken place, and then they ate two more slices with the last of the ice-cream.
“I can make more ice-cream,” Alice said. Eliza Jane was upstairs, and Almanzo said:
“Let’s go into the parlor.”
They tiptoed in, without making a sound. The light was dim because the blinds were down, but the parlor was beautiful. The wall-paper was white and gold and the carpet was of Mother’s best weaving, almost too fine to step on.
The center-table was marble-topped, and it held the tall parlor lamp, all white- and-gold china and pink painted roses. Beside it lay the photograph album, with covers of red velvet and mother-of-pearl.
All around the walls stood solemn horsehair chairs, and George Washington’s picture looked sternly from its frame between the windows.
Alice hitched up her hoops behind, and sat on the sofa. The slipper haircloth slid her right off onto the floor. She didn’t dare laugh out loud, for fear Eliza Jane would hear. She sat on the sofa again, and slid off again. Then Almanzo slid off a chairWhen company came and they had to sit in the parlor, they kept
themselves on the slippery chairs by pushing their toes against the floor. But
now they could let go and slide. They slid off the sofa and the chairs till Alice
was giggling so hard they didn’t dare slide any more.
Then they looked at the shells and the coral and the little china figures on
the what-not. They didn’t touch anything. They looked till they heard Eliza
Jane coming downstairs; then they ran tiptoe out of the parlor and shut the
door without a sound. Eliza Jane didn’t catch them.
It seemed that a week would last forever, but suddenly it was gone. One
morning at breakfast Eliza Jane said:
“Father and Mother will be here tomorrow.”
They all stopped eating. The garden had not been weeded. The peas and beans had not been picked, so the vines were ripening too soon. The henhouse had not been whitewashed.
“This house is a sight,” Eliza Jane said. “And we must churn today. But what am I going to tell Mother? The sugar is all gone.”
Nobody ate any more. They looked into the sugar-barrel, and they could see the bottom of it.
Only Alice tried to be cheerful.
“We must hope for the best,” she said, like Mother. “There’s some sugar left. Mother said, ‘Don’t eat all the sugar,” and we didn’t. There’s some around the edges.”
This was only the beginning of that awful day. They all went to work as hard as they could. Royal and Almanzo hoed the garden, they whitewashed the henhouse, they cleaned the cows’ stalls and swept the South-Barn Floor.
The girls were sweeping and scrubbing in the house. Eliza Jane made Almanzo churn till the butter came, and then her hands flew while she washed and salted it and packed it in the tub. There was only bread and butter and jam for dinner, though Almanzo was starved.
“Now, Almanzo, you polish the heater,” Eliza Jane said.
He hated to polish stoves, but he hoped Eliza Jane would not tell that he had wasted candy on his pig. He went to work with the stove-blacking and the brush. Eliza Jane was hurrying and nagging.
“Be careful you don’t spill the polish,” she said, busily dusting. Almanzo guessed he knew enough not to spill stove polish. But he didn’t say anything…
“Use less water, Almanzo. And, mercy! rub harder than that!” He didn’t say anything.
Eliza Jane went into the parlor to dust it. She called: “Almanzo, that stove done now?”
“No,” said Almanzo.
“Goodness! don’t dawdle so!”
Almanzo muttered, “Whose boss are you?”
Eliza Jane asked, “What’s that you say?”
“Nothing,” Almanzo said.
Eliza Jane came to the door. ‘You did so say something.”
Almanzo straightened up and shouted:
“I say, WHOSE BOSS ARE YOU?”
Eliza Jane gasped. Then she cried out:
“You just wait, Almanzo James Wilder! You just wait till I tell Moth—”
Almanzo didn’t mean to throw the blacking-brush. It flew right out of his hand. It sailed past Eliza Jane’s head. Smack! it hit the parlor wall.
A great splash and smear of blacking appeared on the white-and-gold wall-paper.
Alice screamed. Almanzo turned around and ran all the way to the barn. He climbed into the haymow and crawled far back in the hay. He did not cry, but he would have cried if he hadn’t been almost ten years old.
Mother would come home and find he had ruined her beautiful parlor. Father would take him into the woodshed and whip him with the blacksnake whip. He didn’t want ever to come out of the haymow. He wished he could stay there forever.
After a long while Royal came into the haymow and called him. He crawled out of the hay, and he saw that Royal knew.
“Mannie, you’ll get an awful whipping,” Royal said. Royal was sorry, but he couldn’t do anything. They both knew that Almanzo deserved whipping, and there was no way to keep Father from knowing it. So Almanzo said:
“I don’t care.”
He helped do the chores, and he ate supper. He wasn’t hungry, but he ate to show Eliza Jane he didn’t care. Then he went to bed. The parlor door was shut, but he knew how the black splotch looked on the white-and-gold wall.
Next day Father and Mother came driving into the yard. Almanzo had to go out to meet them with the others. Alice whispered to him:
“Don’t feel bad. Maybe they won’t care.” But she looked anxious, too.
Father said, cheerfully: “Well, here we are. Been getting along all right?”
“Yes, Father,” Royal answered. Almanzo didn’t go to help unhitch the driving-horses; he stayed in the house.
Mother hurried about, looking at everything while she untied her bonnet strings.
“I declare, Eliza Jane and Alice,” she said, “you’ve kept the house as well as I’d have done myself.”
“Mother,” Alice said, in a small voice. “Mother—”
“Well, child, what is it?”
“Mother,” Alice said, bravely, “you told us not to eat all the sugar.
Mother, we—we ate almost all of it.”
Mother laughed. “You’ve all been so good,” she said, “I won’t scold about the sugar.”
She did not know that the black splotch was on the parlor wall. The parlor door was shut. She did not know it that day, nor all the next day.
Almanzo could hardly choke down his food at mealtimes, and Mother looked worried. She took him to the pantry and made him swallow a big spoonful of horrible black medicine she had made of roots and herbs.
He did not want her to know about the black splotch, and yet he wished she did know. When the worst was over he could stop dreading it.
That second evening they heard a buggy driving into the yard. Mr. and Mrs. Webb were in it. Father and Mother went out to meet them and in a minute they all came into the dining-room. Almanzo heard Mother saying:
“Come right into the parlor!”
He couldn’t move. He could not speak. This was worse than anything he had thought of. Mother was so proud of her beautiful parlor. She was so proud of keeping it always nice. She didn’t know he had ruined it, and now she was taking company in. They would see that big black splotch on the wall.
Mother opened the parlor door and went in. Mrs. Webb went in, and Mr. Webb and Father. Almanzo saw only their backs, but he heard the window-
shades going up. He saw that the parlor was full of light. It seemed to him a long time before anybody said anything.
Then Mother said:
“Take this big chair, Mr. Webb, and make yourself comfortable. Sit right here on the sofa, Mrs. Webb.”
Almanzo couldn’t believe his ears. Mrs. Webb said:
“You have such a beautiful parlor, I declare it’s almost too fine to sit in.”
Now Almanzo could see where the blacking-brush had hit the wall, and he could not believe his eyes. The wall-paper was pure white and gold. There was no black splotch.
Mother caught sight of him and said:
“Come in, Almanzo.”
Almanzo went in. He sat up straight on a haircloth chair and pushed his toes against the floor to keep from sliding off. Father and Mother were telling all about the visit to Uncle Andrew’s.
There was no black splotch anywhere on the wall.
“Didn’t you worry, leaving the children alone here and you so far away?”
Mrs. Webb asked.
“No,” Mother said, proudly. “I knew the children would take care of everything as well as if James and I were home.”
Almanzo minded his manners and did not say a word. Next day, when no one was looking, he stole into the parlor. He looked carefully at the place where the black splotch had been. The wallpaper was patched. The patch had been cut out carefully around the gold scrolls, and the pattern was fitted perfectly and the edges of the patch scraped so thin that he could hardly find them.
He waited until he could speak to Eliza Jane alone, and then he asked:
“Eliza Jane, did you patch the parlor wall-paper for me?”
“Yes,” she said. “I got the scraps of wall-paper that were saved in the attic, and cut out the patch and put it on with flour-paste.”
Almanzo said, gruffly: “I’m sorry I threw that brush at you. Honest, I didn’t mean to, Eliza Jane.”
“I guess I was aggravating,” she said. “But I didn’t mean to be. You’re the only little brother I’ve got.”
Almanzo had never known before how much he liked Eliza Jane. They never, never told about the black splotch on the parlor wall, and Mother never knew.