For days the sun shone, and the weather was warm. There was no frost on the windows in the mornings. All day the icicles fell one by one from the eaves with soft smashing and crackling sounds in the snowbanks beneath. The trees shook their wet, black branches, and chunks of snow fell down.
When Mary and Laura pressed their noses against the cold windowpane, they could see the drip of water from the eaves and the bare branches of the trees. The snow did not glitter; it looked soft and tired. Under the trees it was pit- ted where the chunks of snow had fallen, and the banks beside the path were shrinking and settling. Then one day Laura saw a patch of bare ground in the yard. All day it grew bigger, and before night the whole yard was bare mud. Only the icy path was left, and the snowbanks along the path and the fence and beside the woodpile. “Can’t I go out to play, Ma?” Laura asked,
and Ma said: “‘May,’ Laura.”
“May I go out to play?” she asked. “You may tomorrow,” Ma promised.
That night Laura woke up, shivering. The bedcovers felt thin, and her nose was icy cold. Ma was tucking another quilt over her.
“Snuggle close to Mary,” Ma said, “and you’ll get warm.”
In the morning, the house was warm from the stove, but when Laura looked out of the window, she saw that the ground was covered with soft, thick snow. All along the branches of the trees the snow was piled like feathers, and it lay in mounds along the top of the rail fence, and stood up in great, white balls on top of the gateposts.
Pa came in, shaking the soft snow from his shoulders and stamping it from his boots.
“It’s a sugar snow,” he said.
Laura put her tongue quickly to a little bit of the white snow that lay in a fold of his sleeve. It was nothing but wet on her tongue, like any snow. She was glad that nobody had seen her taste it.
“Why is it a sugar snow, Pa?” she asked him, but he said he didn’t have time to explain now. He must hurry away; he was going to Grandpa’s. Grandpa lived far away in the Big Woods, where the trees were closer together and larger.
Laura stood at the window and watched Pa, big and swift and strong, walking away over the snow. His gun was on his shoulder, his hatchet and powder horn hung at his side, and his tall boots made great tracks in the soft snow. Laura watched him till he was out of sight in the woods.
It was late before he came home that night. Ma had already lighted the lamp when he came in. Under one arm he carried a large package, and in the other hand was a big, covered, wooden bucket.
“Here, Caroline,” he said, handing the pack- age and the bucket to Ma, and then he put the gun on its hooks over the door.
“If I’d met a bear,” he said, “I couldn’t have shot him without dropping my load.” Then he laughed. “And if I’d dropped that bucket and bundle, I wouldn’t have had to shoot him. I could have stood and watched him eat what’s in them and lick his chops.”
Ma unwrapped the package and there were two hard, brown cakes, each as large as a milk pan. She uncovered the bucket, and it was full of dark brown syrup.
“Here, Laura and Mary,” Pa said, and he gave them each a little round package out of his pocket.
They took off the paper wrappings, and each had a little, hard, brown cake, with beautifully crinkled edges.
“Bite it,” said Pa, and his blue eyes twinkled. Each bit off one little crinkle, and it was sweet. It crumbled in their mouths. It was better even than their Christmas candy. “Maple sugar,” said Pa.
Supper was ready, and Laura and Mary laid the little maple sugar cakes beside their plates, while they ate the maple syrup on their bread.
After supper, Pa took them on his knees as he sat before the fire, and told them about his day at Grandpa’s, and the sugar snow.
“All winter,” Pa said, “Grandpa has been making wooden buckets and little troughs. He made them of cedar and white ash, for those woods won’t give a bad taste to the maple syrup. “To make the troughs, he split out little sticks as long as my hand and as big as my two fingers. Near one end, Grandpa cut the stick half through, and split one half off. This left him a flat stick, with a square piece at one end. Then with a bit he bored a hole lengthwise through the square part, and with his knife he whittled the wood till it was only a thin shell around the round hole. The flat part of the stick he hollowed out with his knife till it was a little trough.
“He made dozens of them, and he made ten new wooden buckets. He had them all ready when the first warm weather came, and the sap began to move in the trees.
“Then he went into the maple woods and with the bit he bored a hole in each maple tree, and he hammered the round end of the little trough into the hole, and he set a cedar bucket on the ground under the flat end.
“The sap, you know, is the blood of a tree. It comes up from the roots, when warm weather be- gins in the spring, and it goes to the very tip of each branch and twig, to make the green leaves grow.
“Well, when the maple sap came to the hole in the tree, it ran out of the tree, down the little trough and into the bucket.”
“Oh, didn’t it hurt the poor tree?” Laura asked.
“No more than it hurts you when you prick your finger and it bleeds,” said Pa.
“Every day Grandpa puts on his boots and his warm coat and his fur cap and he goes out into the snowy woods and gathers the sap. With a barrel on a sled, he drives from tree to tree and empties the sap from the buckets into the barrel. Then he hauls it to a big iron kettle that hangs by a chain from a cross-timber between two trees.
“He empties the sap into the iron kettle. There is a big bonfire under the kettle, and the sap boils, and Grandpa watches it carefully. The fire must be hot enough to keep the sap boiling, but not hot enough to make it boil over.
“Every few minutes the sap must be skimmed. Grandpa skims it with a big, long- handled, wooden ladle that he made of basswood. When the sap gets too hot, Grandpa lifts ladlefuls of it high in the air and pours it back slowly. This cools the sap a little and keeps it from boiling too fast.
“When the sap has boiled down just enough, he fills the buckets with the syrup. After that, he boils the sap until it grains when he cools it in a saucer.
“The instant the sap is graining, Grandpa jumps to the fire and rakes it all out from beneath the kettle. Then as fast as he can, he ladles the thick syrup into the milk pans that are standing ready. In the pans the syrup turns to cakes of hard, brown maple sugar.”
“So that’s why it’s a sugar snow, because Grandpa is making sugar?” Laura asked.
“No,” Pa said. “It’s called a sugar snow, be- cause a snow this time of year means that men can make more sugar. You see, this little cold spell and the snow will hold back the leafing of the trees, and that makes a longer run of sap.
“When there’s a long run of sap, it means that Grandpa can make enough maple sugar to last all the year, for common every day. When he takes his furs to town, he will not need to trade for much store sugar. He will get only a little store sugar, to have on the table when company comes.”
“Grandpa must be glad there’s a sugar snow,” Laura said.
“Yes,” Pa said, “he’s very glad. He’s going to sugar off again next Monday, and he says we must all come.”
Pa’s blue eyes twinkled; he had been saving the best for the last, and he said to Ma:
“Hey, Caroline! There’ll be a dance!”
Ma smiled. She looked very happy, and she laid down her mending for a minute. “Oh, Charles!” she said.
Then she went on with her mending, but she kept on smiling. She said, “I’ll wear my delaine.”
Ma’s delaine dress was beautiful. It was a dark green, with a little pattern all over it that looked like ripe strawberries. A dressmaker had made it, in the East, in the place where Ma came from when she married Pa and moved out west to the Big Woods in Wisconsin. Ma had been very fashionable, before she married Pa, and a dress- maker had made her clothes.
The delaine was kept wrapped in paper and laid away. Laura and Mary had never seen Ma wear it, but she had shown it to them once. She had let them touch the beautiful dark red buttons that buttoned the basque up the front, and she had shown them how neatly the whalebones were put in the seams, inside, with hundreds of little crisscross stitches.
It showed how important a dance was, if Ma was going to wear the beautiful delaine dress. Laura and Mary were excited. They bounced up and down on Pa’s knee, and asked questions about the dance until at last he said:
“Now you girls run along to bed! You’ll know all about the dance when you see it. I have to put a new string on my fiddle.”
There were sticky fingers and sweet mouths to be washed. Then there were prayers to be said. By the time Laura and Mary were snug in their trundle bed, Pa and the fiddle were both singing, while he kept time with his foot on the floor:
“I’m Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines, I feed my horse on corn and beans,
And I often go beyond my means,
For I’m Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines,
I’m captain in the army!”