Farmer Boy (Chapter 20)
Laura Ingalls Wilder
Now the harvest moon shone round and yellow over the fields at night, and there was a frosty chill in the air. All the corn was cut and stood in tall shocks.
The moon cast their black shadows on the ground where the pumpkins lay naked above their withered leaves.
Almanzo’s milk-fed pumpkin was enormous. He cut it carefully from the vine, but he could not lift it; he could not even roll it over. Father lifted it into the wagon and carefully hauled it to the barn and laid it on some hay to wait till County Fair time.
All the other pumpkins Almanzo rolled into piles, and Father hauled them to the barn. The best ones were put in the cellar to make pumpkin pies, and the rest were piled on the South-Barn Floor. Every night Almanzo cut up some of them with a hatchet, and fed them to the cows and calves and oxen.
The apples were ripe. Almanzo and Royal and Father set ladders against the trees, and climbed into the leafy tops. They picked every perfect apple carefully, and laid it in a basket. Father drove the wagonful of baskets slowly to the house, and Almanzo helped carry the baskets down cellar and lay the apples carefully in the apple-bins. They didn’t bruise one apple, for a bruised apple will rot, and one rotten apple will spoil a whole bin.
The cellar began to have its winter smell of apples and preserves. Mother’s milk-pans had been moved upstairs to the pantry, till spring came again.
After the perfect apples had all been picked, Almanzo and Royal could shake the trees. That was fun. They shook the trees with all their might, and the apples came rattling down like hail. They picked them up and threw them into the wagon; they were only cider-apples. Almanzo took a bite out of one whenever he wanted to.
Now it was time to gather the garden-stuff. Father hauled the apples away to the cider-mill, but Almanzo had to stay at home, pulling beets and turnips and parsnips and carrying them down cellar. He pulled the onions and Alice braided their dry tops in long braids. The round onions hung thick on both sides of the braids, and Mother hung them in the attic. Almanzo pulled the pepper-plants, while Alice threaded her darning-needle and strung red peppers like beads on a string. They were hung up beside the onions.
Father came back that night with two big hogsheads of cider. He rolled them down cellar. There was plenty of cider to last till next apple-harvest.
Next morning a cold wind was blowing, and storm clouds were rolling up against a gray sky. Father looked worried. The carrots and potatoes must be dug, quickly.
Almanzo put on his socks and moccasins, his cap and coat and mittens, and Alice put on her hood and shawl. She was going to help.
Father hitched Bess and Beauty to the plow, and turned a furrow away from each side of the long rows of carrots. That left the carrots standing in a thin ridge of earth, so they were easy to pull. Almanzo and Alice pulled them as fast as they could, and Royal cut off the feathery tops and threw the carrots in the wagon. Father hauled them to the house and shoveled them down a chute into the carrot-bins in the cellar.
The little red seeds that Almanzo and Alice planted had grown into two hundred bushels of carrots. Mother could cook all she wanted, and the horses and cows could eat raw carrots all winter.
Lazy John came to help with the potato-digging. Father and John dug the potatoes with hoes, while Alice and Almanzo picked them up, and put them in baskets, and emptied the baskets into a wagon. Royal left an empty wagon in the field while he hauled the full one to the house and shoveled the potatoes through the cellar window into the potato bins. Almanzo and Alice hurried to fill the empty wagon while he was gone.
They hardly stopped at noon to eat. They worked at night until it was too dark to see. If they didn’t get the potatoes into the cellar before the ground froze, all the year’s work in the potato-field would be lost. Father would have to buy potatoes.
“I never saw such weather for the time of year,” Father said.
Early in the morning, before the sun rose, they were hard at work again. The sun did not rise at all. Thick gray clouds hung low overhead. The ground was cold and the potatoes were cold, and a sharp, cold wind blew gritty dust into Almanzo’s eyes. He and Alice were sleepy. They tried to hurry, but their fingers were so cold that they fumbled and dropped potatoes. Alice said:
“My nose is so cold. We have ear-muffs. Why can’t we have nose- muffs?”
Almanzo told Father that they were cold, and Father told him:
“Get a hustle on, son. Exercise’ll keep you warm.”
They tried, but they were too cold to hustle very fast. The next time Father came digging near them, he said:
“Make a bonfire of the dry potato-tops, Almanzo. That will warm you.”
So Alice and Almanzo gathered an enormous pile of potato-tops. Father gave Almanzo a match, and he lighted the bonfire. The little flame grabbed a dry leaf, then it ran eagerly up a stem, and it crackled and spread and rushed roaring into the air. It seemed to make the whole field warmer.
For a long time they all worked busily. Whenever Almanzo was too cold, he ran and piled more potato tops on the fire. Alice held out her grubby hands to warm them, and the fire shone on her face like sunshine.
“I’m hungry,” Almanzo said.
“So be I,” said Alice. “It must be almost dinner-time.”
Almanzo couldn’t tell by the shadows, because there was no sunshine. They worked and they worked, and still they did not hear the dinner horn.
Almanzo was all hollow inside. He said to Alice:
“Before we get to the end of this row, we’ll hear it.” But they didn’t. Almanzo decided something must have happened to the horn. He said to Father:
“I guess it’s dinner-time.”
John laughed at him, and Father said:
“It’s hardly the middle of the morning, son.”
Almanzo went on picking potatoes. Then Father called, “Put a potato in the ashes, Almanzo. That’ll take the edge off your appetite.”
Almanzo put two big potatoes in the hot ashes, one for him and one for Alice. He piled hot ashes over them, and he piled more potato tops on the fire.
He knew he should go back to work, but he stood in the pleasant heat, waiting for the potatoes to bake. He did not feel comfortable in his mind, but he felt warm outside, and he said to himself:
“I have to stay here to roast the potatoes.”
He felt bad because he was letting Alice work all alone, but he thought:
“I’m busy roasting a potato for her.”
Suddenly he heard a soft, hissing puff, and something hit his face. It stuck on his face, scalding hot. He yelled and yelled. The pain was terrible and he could not see.
He heard shouts, and running. Big hands snatched his hands from his face, and Father’s hands tipped back his head. Lazy John was talking French and Alice was crying, “Oh, Father! Oh, Father!”
“Open your eyes, son,” Father said.
Almanzo tried, but he could get only one open. Father’s thumb pushed up the other eyelid, and it hurt. Father said:
“It’s all right. The eye’s not hurt.”
One of the roasting potatoes had exploded, and the scalding-hot inside of it had hit Almanzo. But the eyelid had closed in time. Only the eyelid and his cheek burned.
Father tied his handkerchief over the eye, and he and Lazy John went back to work.
Almanzo hadn’t known that anything could hurt like that burn. But he told Alice that it didn’t hurt—much. He took a stick and dug the other potato out of the ashes.
“I guess it’s your potato,” he snuffled. He was not crying; only tears kept running out of his eyes and down inside his nose.
“No, it’s yours,” Alice said. “It was my potato that exploded.”
“How do you know which it was?” Almanzo asked.
“This one’s yours because you’re hurt, and I’m not hungry, anyway not very hungry,” said Alice.
“You’re as hungry as I be!” Almanzo said. He could not bear to be selfish anymore. “You eat half,” he told Alice, “and I’ll eat half.”
The potato was burned black outside, but the inside was white and mealy and a most delicious baked-potato smell steamed out of it. They let it cool a little, and then they gnawed the inside out of the black crust, and it was the best potato they had ever eaten. They felt better and went back to work.
Almanzo’s face was blistered and his eye was swelled shut. But Mother,put a poultice on it at noon, and another at night, and next day it did not hurt so much.
Just after dark on the third day, he and Alice followed the last load of potatoes to the house. The weather was growing colder every minute. Father shoveled the potatoes into the cellar by lantern-light, while Royal and Almanzo did all the chores.
They had barely saved the potatoes. That very night the ground froze.
“A miss is as good as a mile,” Mother said, but Father shook his head.
“Too close to suit me,” he said. “Next thing will be snow. We’ll have to hustle to get the beans and corn under cover.”
He put the hay-rack on the wagon, and Royal and Almanzo helped him haul the beans. They pulled up the bean-stakes and laid them in the wagon, beans and all. They worked carefully, for a jar would shake the beans out of the dry pods and waste them.
When they had piled all the beans on the South-Barn Floor, they hauled in the shocks of corn. The crops had been so good that even Father’s great barn-roofs would not shelter all the harvest. Several loads of corn-shocks had to be put in the barnyard, and Father made a fence around them to keep them safe from the young cattle.
All the harvest was in, now. Cellar and attic and the barns were stuffed to bursting. Plenty of food, and plenty of feed for all the stock, was stored away for the winter.
Everyone could stop working for a while, and have a good time at the County Fair.