Farmer Boy (Chapter 27)
Laura Ingalls Wilder
When school opened as usual, that January, Almanzo did not have to go. He
was hauling wood from the timber.
In the frosty cold mornings before the sun was up, Father hitched the big
oxen to the big bobsled and Almanzo hitched the yearlings to his bobsled. Star and Bright were now too big for the little yoke, and the larger yoke was too heavy for Almanzo to handle alone.
Pierre had to help him lift it onto Star’s neck, and Louis helped him push Bright under the other end of it.
The yearlings had been idle all summer in the pastures, and now they did not like to work. They shook their heads and pulled and backed. It was hard to get the bows in place and put the bowpins in.
Almanzo had to be patient and gentle. He petted the yearlings (when sometimes he wanted to hit them) and he fed them carrots and talked to them soothingly. But before he could get them yoked and hitched to his sled, Father was already going to the timber lot.
Almanzo followed. The yearlings obeyed him when he shouted “Giddap!” and they turned to the right or left when he cracked his whip and shouted “Gee!” or “Haw!” They trudged along the road, up the hills and down the hills, and Almanzo rode on his bobsled with Pierre and Louis behind him.
He was ten years old now, and he was driving his own oxen on his own sled, and going to the timber to haul wood.
In the woods the snow was drifted high against the trees. The lowest branches of pines and cedars were buried behind it. There was no road; there were no marks on the snow but the featherstitching tracks of birds and the blurry spots where rabbits had hopped. Deep in the still woods axes were chopping with a ringing sound.
Father’s big oxen wallowed on, breaking a road, and Almanzo’s yearlings struggled behind them. Farther and farther into the woods they went, till they came to the clearing where French Joe and Lazy John were chopping down the trees.
Logs lay all around, half-buried in snow. John and Joe had sawed them into fifteen-foot lengths, and some of them were two feet through. The huge logs were so heavy that six men couldn’t lift them, but Father had to load them on the bobsled.
He stopped the sled beside one of them, and John and Joe came to help him. They had three stout poles, called skids. They stuck these under the log, and let them slant up to the bobsled. Then they took their cant-poles. Cant- poles have sharp ends, with big iron hooks swinging loose under them.
John and Joe stood near the ends of the log. They put the sharp ends of their cant-poles against it, and when they raised the poles up, the cant-hooks bit into the log and rolled it a little. Then Father caught hold of the middle of the log with his cant-pole and hook, and he held it from rolling back, while John and Joe quickly let their cant-hooks slip down and take another bite.
They rolled the log a little more, and again Father held it, and again they rolled it.
They rolled the log little by little, up the slanting skids and onto the bobsled.
But Almanzo had no cant-hooks, and he had to load his sled.
He found three straight poles to use for skids. Then with shorter poles he started to load some of the smallest logs. They were eight or nine inches through and about ten feet long and they were crooked and hard to handle.
Almanzo put Pierre and Louis near the ends of a log and he stood in the middle, like Father. They pushed and pried and lifted and gasped, pushing the log up the skids. It was hard to do, because their poles had no cant-hooks and could not take hold of the log.
They managed to load six logs; then they had to put more logs on top of those, and this made the skids slant upward more steeply. Father’s bobsled was loaded already, and Almanzo hurried. He cracked his whip and urged Star and Bright quickly to the nearest log.
One end of this log was bigger than the other, so it would not roll evenly. Almanzo put Louis at the smaller end, and told him not to roll it too fast.
Pierre and Louis rolled the log an inch, then Almanzo stuck his pole under it and held it, while Pierre and Louis rolled it again. They got the log high up on the steep skids.
Almanzo was holding it up with all his might. His legs were braced and his teeth were clenched and his neck strained and his eyes felt bulging out, when suddenly the whole log slipped.
The pole jerked out of his hands and hit his head. The log was falling on him. He tried to get away, but it smashed him down Into the snow.
Pierre and Louis screamed and kept screaming. Almanzo couldn’t get up. The log was on top of him. Father and John lifted it, and Almanzo crawled out. He managed to get up on his feet.
“Hurt, son?” Father asked him.
Almanzo was afraid he was going to be sick at his stomach. He managed to say, “No, Father.”
Father felt his shoulders and arms.
“Well, well, no bones broken!” Father said cheerfully.
“Lucky the snow’s deep,” said John. “Or he might have been hurt bad.”
“Accidents will happen, son,” Father said. “Take more care next time. Men must look out for themselves in the timber.”
Almanzo wanted to lie down. His head hurt and his stomach hurt and his right foot hurt dreadfully. But he helped Pierre and Louis straighten the log, and he did not try to hurry this time. They got the log on the sled all right, but not before Father was gone with his load.
Almanzo decided not to load any more logs now. He climbed onto the load and cracked his whip and shouted:
Star and Bright pulled, but the sled did not move. Then Star tried to pull, and quit trying. Bright tried, and gave up just as Star tried again. They both stopped, discouraged.
“Giddap! Giddap!” Almanzo kept shouting, cracking his whip.
Star tried again, then Bright, then Star. The sled did not move. Star and Bright stood still, puffing out the breath from their noses. Almanzo felt like crying and swearing. He shouted: “Giddap! Giddap!”
John and Joe stopped sawing, and Joe came over to the sled.
“You’re too heavy loaded,” he said. “You boys get down and walk. And Almanzo, you talk to your team and gentle them along. You’ll make them steers balky if you don’t be careful.”
Almanzo climbed down. He rubbed the yearlings’ throats and scratched around their horns. He lifted the yoke a little and ran his hand under it, and settled it gently in place. All the time he talked to the little steers. Then he stood beside Star and cracked his whip and shouted:
Star and Bright pulled together, and the sled moved. Almanzo trudged all the way home. Pierre and Louis walked in the smooth tracks behind the runners, but Almanzo had to struggle through the soft, deep snow beside Star.
When he reached the woodpile at home, Father said he had done well to get out of the timber.
“Next time, son, you’ll know better than to put on such a heavy load before the road’s broken,” Father said. “You spoil a team if you let them seesaw. They get the idea they can’t pull the load, and they quit trying. After that, they’re no good.”
Almanzo could not eat dinner. He felt sick, and his foot ached. Mother thought perhaps he should stop work, but Almanzo would not let a little accident stop him.
Still, he was slow. Before he reached the timber he met Father coming back with a load. He knew that an empty sled must always give the road to a loaded sled, so he cracked his whip and shouted:
Star and Bright swerved to the right, and before Almanzo could even yell they were sinking in the deep snow in the ditch. They did not know how to break road like big oxen. They snorted and floundered and plunged, and the sled was sinking under the snow. The little steers tried to turn around; the twisted yoke was almost choking them.
Almanzo struggled in the snow, trying to reach the yearlings’ heads. Father turned and watched, while he went by. Then he faced forward againand drove on toward home.
Almanzo got hold of Star’s head and spoke to him gently. Pierre and Louis had hold of Bright, and the yearlings stopped plunging. Only their heads and their backs showed above the snow. Almanzo swore:
“Gol ding it!”
They had to dig out the steers and the sled. They had no shovel. They had to move all that snow with their hands and feet. There was nothing else they could do.
It took them a long time. But they kicked and pawed all the snow away from in front of the sled and the steers. They tramped it hard and smooth in front of the runners. Almanzo straightened the tongue and the chain and the yoke.
He had to sit down and rest a minute. But he got up, and he petted Star and Bright and spoke to them encouragingly. He took an apple away from Pierre and broke it in two and gave it to the little steers. When they had eaten it, he cracked his whip and cheerfully shouted:
Pierre and Louis pushed the sled with all their might. The sled started. Almanzo shouted and cracked his whip. Star and Bright hunched their backs and pulled. Up they went out of the ditch, and up went the sled with a lurch. That was one trouble Almanzo had got out of, all by himself.
The road in the woods was fairly well broken now, and this time Almanzo did not put so many logs on the sled. So he rode homeward on the load, with Pierre and Louis sitting behind him.
Down the long road he saw Father coming, and he said to himself that this time Father must turn to let him go by.
Star and Bright walked briskly and the sled was sliding easily down the white road. Almanzo’s whip cracked loudly in the frosty air. Nearer and nearer came Father’s big oxen, and Father riding on the big sled.
Now of course the big oxen should have made way for Almanzo’s load.
Or perhaps Star and Bright remembered that they had turned out before. Or perhaps they knew they must be polite to older, bigger oxen. Nobody expected them to turn out of the road, but suddenly they did. One sled-runner dropped into soft snow. And over went the sled and the load and the boys, topsy-turvy, pell-mell.
Almanzo went sprawling through the air and headfirst into snow.
He wallowed and scrambled and came up. His sled stood on edge. The logs were scattered and up-ended in the drifts. There was a pile of red-brown legs and sides deep in the snow. Father’s big oxen were going calmly by. Pierre and Louis rose out of the snow, swearing in French. Father stopped his oxen and got off his sled.
“Well, well, well, son,” he said. “Seems we’ve met again.”
Almanzo and Father looked at the yearlings. Bright lay on Star; their legs and the chain and the tongue were all mixed up, and the yoke was over Star’s ears. The yearlings lay still, too sensible to try and move. Father helped untangle them and get them on their feet. They were not hurt.
Father helped set Almanzo’s sled on its runners. With his sled-stakes for skids, and Almanzo’s sled-stakes for poles, he loaded the logs again. Then he stood back and said nothing while Almanzo yoked up Star and Bright, and petted and encouraged them, and made them haul the tilted load along the edge of the ditch and safely into the road.
“That’s the way, son!” Father said. “Down again, up again!”
He drove on to the timber, and Almanzo drove on to the woodpile at home.
All that week and all the next week he went on hauling wood from the timber. He was learning to be a pretty good ox-driver and wood-hauler. Every day his foot ached a little less, and at last he hardly limped at all.
He helped Father haul a huge pile of logs, ready to be sawed and split and corded in the woodshed.
Then one evening Father said they had hauled that year’s supply of wood, and Mother said it was high time Almanzo went to school, if he was going to get any schooling that winter.
Almanzo said there was threshing to do, and the young calves needed breaking. He asked: “What do I have to go to school for? I can read and write and spell, and I don’t want to be a school-teacher or a storekeeper.”
“You can read and write and spell,” Father said slowly. “But can you figure?”
“Yes, Father,” Almanzo said. “Yes, I can figure—some.”
“A farmer must know more figuring than that, son. You better go to school.”
Almanzo did not say any more; he knew it would be no use. Next morning he took his dinner-pail and went to school.
This year his seat was farther back in the room, so he had a desk for his books and slate. And he studied hard to learn the whole arithmetic, because the sooner he knew it all, the sooner he would not have to go to school any more.