Farmer Boy (Chapter 28)
Laura Ingalls Wilder
MR. THOMPSON’S POCKETBOOK
Father had so much hay that year that the stock could not eat it all, so he decided to sell some of it in town. He went to the woods and brought back a straight, smooth ash log. He hewed the bark from it, and then with a wooden maul he beat the log, turning it and pounding it until he softened the layer of wood that had grown last summer, and loosened the thin layer of wood underneath it, which had grown the summer before.
Then with his knife he cut long gashes from end to end, about an inch and a half apart. And he peeled off that thin, tough layer of wood in strips about an inch and a half wide. Those were ash withes.
When Almanzo saw them piled on the Big-Barn Floor, he guessed that Father was going to bale hay, and he asked:
“Be you going to need help?”
Father’s eyes twinkled. “Yes, son,” he said. “You can stay home from school. You won’t learn hay-baling any younger.”
Early next morning Mr. Weed, the hay-baler, came with his press and Almanzo helped to set it up on the Big-Barn Floor. It was a stout wooden box, as long and wide as a bale of hay, but ten feet high. Its cover could be fastened on tightly, and its bottom was loose. Two iron levers were hinged to the loose bottom, and the levers ran on little wheels on iron tracks going out from each end of the box.
The tracks were like small railroad tracks, and the press was called a railroad press. It was a new, fine machine for baling hay.
In the barnyard Father and Mr. Webb set up a capstan, with a long sweep on it. A rope from the capstan went through a ring under the hay-press, and was tied to another rope that went to the wheels at the end of the levers.
When everything was ready, Almanzo hitched Bess to the sweep. Father pitched hay into the box, and Mr. Weed stood in the box and trampled it down, till the box would hold no more. Then he fastened the cover on the box, and Father called: “All right, Almanzo!”
Almanzo slapped Bess with the lines and shouted: “Giddap, Bess!”
Bess began to walk around the capstan, and the capstan began to wind up the rope. The rope pulled the ends of the levers toward the press, and the inner ends of the levers pushed its loose bottom upward. The bottom slowly rose, squeezing the hay. The rope creaked and the box groaned, till the hay was,pressed so tight it couldn’t be pressed tighter. Then Father shouted, “Whoa!”
And Almanzo shouted, “Whoa, Bess!”
Father climbed up the hay-press and ran ash withes through narrow cracks in the box. He pulled them tight around the bale of hay, and knotted them firmly.
Mr. Weed unfastened the cover, and up popped the bale of hay, bulging between tight ash-withes. It weighed 250 pounds, but Father lifted it easily.
Then Father and Mr. Weed re-set the press, Almanzo unwound the rope from the capstan, and they began again to make another bale of hay. All day they worked, and that night Father said they had baled enough.
Almanzo sat at the supper table, wishing he did not have to go back to school. He thought about figuring, and he was thinking so hard that words came out of his mouth before he knew it. “Thirty bales to a load, at two dollars a bale,” he said. “That’s sixty dollars a lo—”
He stopped, scared. He knew better than to speak at the table, when he wasn’t spoken to. “Mercy on us, listen to the boy!” Mother said.
“Well, well, son!” said Father. “I see you’ve been studying to some purpose.” He drank the tea out of his saucer, set it down, and looked again at Almanzo. “Learning is best put into practice. What say you ride to town with me tomorrow, and sell that load of hay?”
“Oh yes! Please, Father!” Almanzo almost shouted.
He did not have to go to school next morning. He climbed high up on top of the load of hay, and lay there on his stomach and kicked up his heels.
Father’s hat was down below him, and beyond were the plump backs of the horses. He was as high up as if he were in a tree.
The load swayed a little, and the wagon creaked, and the horses’ feet made dull sounds on the hard snow. The air was clear and cold, the sky was very blue, and all the snowy fields were sparkling.
Just beyond the bridge over Trout River, Almanzo saw a small black thing lying beside the road. When the wagon passed, he leaned over the edge of the hay and saw that it was a pocketbook. He yelled, and Father stopped the horses to let him climb down and pick it up. It was a fat, black wallet.
Almanzo shinnied up the bales of hay and the horses went on. He looked at the pocketbook. He opened it, and it was full of banknotes. There was nothing to show who owned them.
He handed it down to Father, and Father gave him the reins. The team seemed far below, with the lines slanting down to the hames, and Almanzo felt very small. But he liked to drive. He held the lines carefully and the horses went steadily along. Father was looking at the pocketbook and the money.
“There’s fifteen hundred dollars here,” Father said. “Now who does it belong to? He’s a man who’s afraid of banks, or he wouldn’t carry so much money around. You can see by the creases in the bills, he’s carried them for some time. They’re big bills, and folded together, so likely he got them all at once. Now who’s suspicious, and stingy, and sold something valuable lately?”
Almanzo didn’t know, but Father didn’t expect him to answer. The horses went around a curve in the road as well as if Father had been driving them.
“Thompson!” Father exclaimed. “He sold some land last fall. He’s afraid of banks, and he’s suspicious, and so stingy he’d skin a flea for its hide and tallow. Thompson’s the man!”
He put the pocketbook in his pocket and took the lines from Almanzo.
“We’ll see if we can find him in town,” he said.
Father drove first to the Livery, Sale and Feed Stable. The liveryman came out, and sure enough Father let Almanzo sell the hay. He stood back and did not say anything, while Almanzo showed the liveryman that the hay was good timothy and clover, clean and bright, and every bale solid and full weight.
“How much do you want for it?” the liveryman asked.
“Two dollars and a quarter a bale,” Almanzo said.
“I won’t pay that price,” said the liveryman. “It isn’t worth it.”
“What would you call a fair price?” Almanzo asked him.
“Not a penny over two dollars,” the liveryman said.
“All right, I’ll take two dollars,” said Almanzo, quickly.
The liveryman looked at Father, and then he pushed back his hat and asked Almanzo why he priced the hay at two dollars and a quarter in the first place.
“Are you taking it at two dollars?” Almanzo asked. The liveryman said he was. “Well,” Almanzo said, “I asked two and a quarter because if I’d asked two, you wouldn’t have paid but one seventy-five.”
The liveryman laughed, and said to Father, “That’s a smart boy of yours.”
“Time will show,” Father said. “Many a good beginning makes a bad ending. It remains to be seen how he turns out in the long run.”
Father did not take the money for the hay; he let Almanzo take it and count it to make sure it was sixty dollars.
Then they went to Mr. Case’s store. This store was always crowded, but Father always did his trading there, because Mr. Case sold his goods cheaper than other merchants. Mr. Case said, “I’d rather have a nimble sixpence than a slow shilling.”
Almanzo stood in the crowd with Father, waiting while Mr. Case served first-comers. Mr. Case was polite and friendly to everybody alike; he had to be, because they were all customers. Father was polite to everybody, too, but he was not as friendly to some as he was to others.
After a while Father gave Almanzo the pocketbook and told him to look for Mr. Thompson. Father must stay in the store to wait his turn; he could not lose time if they were to get home by chore-time.
No other boys were on the street; they were all in school. Almanzo liked to be walking down the street, carrying all that money, and he thought how glad Mr. Thompson would be to see it again. He looked in the stores, and the barber shop, and the bank. Then he saw Mr. Thompson’s team standing on a side street, in front of Mr. Paddock’s wagon-shop. He opened the door of the long, low building, and went in.
Mr. Paddock and Mr. Thompson were standing by the round-bellied stove, looking at a piece of hickory and talking about it. Almanzo waited, because he could not interrupt them.
It was warm in the building, and there was a good smell of shavings and leather and paint. Beyond the stove two workmen were making a wagon, and another was painting thin red lines on the red spokes of a new buggy. The buggy glistened proudly in black paint. Long curls of shavings lay in heaps, and the whole place was as pleasant as a barn on a rainy day. The workmen whistled while they measured and marked and sawed and planed the clean- smelling wood.
Mr. Thompson was arguing about the price of a new wagon. Almanzo decided that Mr. Paddock did not like Mr. Thompson, but he was trying to sell the wagon. He figured the cost with his big carpenter’s pencil, and soothingly tried to persuade Mr. Thompson.
“You see, I can’t cut the price any further and pay my men,” he said. “I’m doing the best I can for you. I guarantee we’ll make a wagon to please you, or you don’t have to take it.”
“Well, maybe I’ll come back to you, if I can’t do better elsewhere,” Mr. Thompson said, suspiciously.
“Glad to serve you any time,” said Mr. Paddock. Then he saw Almanzo, and asked him how the pig was getting along. Almanzo liked big, jolly Mr. Paddock; he always asked about Lucy.
“She’ll weigh around a hundred and fifty now,” Almanzo told him, then he turned to Mr. Thompson and asked, “Did you lose a pocketbook?”
Mr. Thompson jumped. He clapped a hand to his pocket, and fairly shouted.
“Yes, I have! Fifteen hundred dollars in it, too. What about it? What do you know about it?”
“Is this it?” Almanzo asked.
“Yes, yes, yes, that’s it!” Mr. Thompson said, snatching the pocketbook.
He opened it and hurriedly counted the money. He counted all the bills over twice, and he looked exactly like a man skinning a flea for its hide and tallow.
Then he breathed a long sigh of relief, and said, “Well, this durn boy didn’t steal any of it.” Almanzo’s face was hot as fire. He wanted to hit Mr. Thompson.
Mr. Thompson thrust his skinny hand into his pants pocket and hunted around. He took out something.
“Here,” he said, putting it into Almanzo’s hand. It was a nickel.
Almanzo was so angry he couldn’t see. He hated Mr. Thompson; he wanted to hurt him. Mr. Thompson called him a durn boy, and as good as called him a thief. Almanzo didn’t want his old nickel. Suddenly he thought what to say. “Here,” he said, handing the nickel back. “Keep your nickel. I can’t change it.”
Mr. Thompson’s tight, mean face turned red. One of the workmen laughed a short, jeering laugh. But Mr. Paddock stepped up to Mr. Thompson, angry.
“Don’t you call this boy a thief, Thompson!” he said. “And he’s not a
beggar, either! That’s how you treat him, is it? When he brings you back your fifteen hundred dollars! Gall him a thief and hand him a nickel, will you?”
Mr. Thompson stepped back, but Mr. Paddock stepped right after him.
Mr. Paddock shook his fist under Mr. Thompson’s nose.
“You measly skinflint!” Mr. Paddock said. “Not if I know it, you won’t. Not in my place! A good, honest, decent little chap, and you— For a cent I’ll — No! You hand him a hundred of that money, and do it quick! No, two hundred! Two hundred dollars, I say, or take the consequences!”
Mr. Thompson tried to say something, and so did Almanzo. But Mr. Paddock’s fists clenched and the muscles of his arms bulged. “Two hundred!” he shouted. “Hand it over, quick! Or I’ll see you do!”
Mr. Thompson shrank down small, watching Mr. Paddock, and he licked his thumb and hurriedly counted off some bills. He held them out to Almanzo.
Almanzo said, “Mr. Paddock—”
“Now get out of here, if you know what’s healthy! Get out!” Mr. Paddock said, and before Almanzo could blink he was standing there with the bills in his hand, and Mr. Thompson slammed the door behind himself.
Almanzo was so excited he stammered. He said he didn’t think Father would like it. Almanzo felt queer about taking all that money, and yet he did want to keep it. Mr. Paddock said he would talk to Father; he rolled down his shirt sleeves and put on his coat and asked:
“Where is he?”
Almanzo almost ran, to keep up with Mr. Paddock’s long strides. The bills were clutched tight in his hand. Father was putting packages into the wagon, and Mr. Paddock told him what had happened.
“For a cent I’d have smashed his sneering face,” Mr. Paddock said. “But it struck me that giving up cash is what hurts him most. And I figure the boy’s entitled to it.”
“I don’t know as anyone’s entitled to anything for common honesty,”
Father objected. “Though I must say I appreciate the spirit you showed, Paddock.”
“I don’t say he deserved more than decent gratitude for giving Thompson his own money,” Mr. Paddock said. “But it’s too much to ask him to stand and take insults, on top of that. I say Almanzo’s entitled to that two hundred.”
“Well, there’s something in what you say,” said Father. Finally he decided, “All right, son, you can keep that money.”
Almanzo smoothed out the bills and looked at them; two hundred dollars. That was as much as the horse-buyer paid for one of Father’s four-year-olds.
“And I’m much obliged to you, Paddock, standing up for the boy the way you did,” Father said. “Well, I can afford to lose a customer now and then, in a good cause,” said Mr. Paddock. He asked Almanzo, “What are you going to do with all that money?”
Almanzo looked at Father. “Could I put it in the bank?” he asked.
“That’s the place to put money,” said Father. “Well, well, well, two hundred dollars! I was twice your age before I had so much.”
“So was I. Yes, and older than that,” Mr. Paddock said.
Father and Almanzo went to the bank. Almanzo could just look over the ledge at the cashier sitting on his high stool with a pen behind his ear. The cashier craned to look down at Almanzo and asked Father: “Hadn’t I better put this down to your account, sir?”
“No,” said Father. “It’s the boy’s money; let him handle it himself. He won’t learn any younger.”
“Yes, sir,” the cashier said. Almanzo had to write his name twice. Then the cashier carefully counted the bills, and wrote Almanzo’s name in a little book. He wrote the figures, $200, in the book, and he gave the book to Almanzo.
Almanzo went out of the bank with Father, and asked him:
“How do I get the money out again?”
“You ask for it, and they’ll give it to you. But remember this, son; as long as that money’s in the bank, it’s working for you. Every dollar in the bank is making you four cents a year. That’s a sight easier than you can earn money any other way. Any time you want to spend a nickel, you stop and think how much work it takes to earn a dollar.”
“Yes, Father,” Almanzo said. He was thinking that he had more than enough money to buy a little colt. He could break a little colt of his own; he could teach it everything. Father would never let him break one of his colts. But this was not the end of that exciting day.