THE TURN OF THE YEAR
The days were growing longer, but the cold was more intense. Father said: “When the days begin to lengthen The cold begins to strengthen.”
At last the snow softened a little on the south and west slopes. At noon the icicles dripped. Sap was rising in the trees, and it was time to make sugar.
In the cold mornings just before sunrise, Almanzo and Father set out to the maple grove. Father had a big wooden yoke on his shoulders and Almanzo had a little yoke. From the ends of the yokes hung strips of moosewood bark, with large iron hooks on them, and a big wooden buck- et swung from each hook.
In every maple tree Father had bored a small hole and fitted a little wooden spout into it. Sweet maple sap was dripping from the spouts into small pails.
Going from tree to tree, Almanzo emptied the sap into his big buckets. The weight hung from his shoulders, but he steadied the buckets with his hands to keep them from swinging. When they were full, he went to the great caldron and emp- tied them into it.
The huge caldron hung from a pole set between two trees. Father kept a bonfire blazing under it, to boil the sap.
Almanzo loved trudging through the frozen wild woods. He walked on snow that had never been walked on before, and only his own tracks followed behind him. Busily he emptied the little pails into the buckets, and whenever he was thirsty he drank some of the thin, sweet, icy-cold sap.
He liked to go back to the roaring fire. He poked it and saw sparks fly. He warmed his face and hands in the scorching heat and smelled the sap boiling. Then he went into the woods again.
At noon all the sap was boiling in the caldron. Father opened the lunch-pail, and Almanzo sat on the log beside him. They ate and talked. Their feet were stretched out to the fire, and a pile of logs was at their backs. All around them were snow and ice and wild woods, but they were snug and cosy.
After they had eaten, Father stayed by the fire to watch the sap, but Almanzo hunted winter- green berries.
Under the snow on the south slopes the bright-red berries were ripe among their thick green leaves. Almanzo took off his mittens and pawed away the snow with his bare hands. He found the red clusters and filled his mouth full. The cold berries crunched between his teeth, gushing out their aromatic juice.
Nothing else was ever so good as wintergreen berries dug out of the snow.
Almanzo’s clothes were covered with snow, his fingers were stiff and red with cold, but he never left a south slope until he had pawed it all over.
When the sun was low behind the maple- trunks, Father threw snow on the fire and it died in sizzles and steam. Then Father dipped the hot syrup into the buckets. He and Almanzo set their shoulders under the yokes again and carried the buckets home.
They poured the syrup into Mother’s big brass kettle on the cook-stove. Then Almanzo began the chores while Father fetched the rest of the syrup from the woods.
After supper, the syrup was ready to sugar off. Mother ladled it into six-quart milk-pans and left it to cool. In the morning every pan held a big cake of solid maple-sugar. Mother dumped out the round, golden-brown cakes and stored them on the top pantry shelves.
Day after day the sap was running, and every morning Almanzo went with Father to gather and boil it; every night Mother sugared it off. They made all the sugar they could use next year. Then the last boiling of syrup was not sugared off; it was stored in jugs down cellar, and that was the year’s syrup.
When Alice came home from school, she smelled Almanzo, and she cried out, “Oh, you’ve been eating wintergreen berries!”
She thought it wasn’t fair that she had to go to school while Almanzo gathered sap and ate wintergreen berries. She said: “Boys have all the fun.”
She made Almanzo promise that he wouldn’t touch the south slopes along Trout River, beyond the sheep pasture.
So, on Saturdays they went together to paw over those slopes. When Almanzo found a red cluster he yelled, and when Alice found one, she squealed, and sometimes they divided, and some- times they didn’t. But they went on their hands and knees all over those south slopes, and they ate wintergreen berries all afternoon.
Almanzo brought home a painful of the thick, green leaves, and Alice crammed them into a big bottle. Mother filled the bottle with whisky and set it away. That was her wintergreen flavoring for cakes and cookies.
Every day the snow was melting a little. The cedars and spruces shook it off, and it fell in blobs from the bare branches of oaks and maples and beeches. All along the walls of barns and house the snow was pitted with water falling from the icicles, and finally the icicles fell crashing.
The earth showed in wet, dark patches here and there. The patches spread. Only the trodden paths were still white, and a little snow remained on the north sides of buildings and woodpiles. Then the winter term of school ended, and spring had come.
One morning Father drove to Malone. Before noon he came hurrying home and shouted the news from the buggy. The New York potato-buyers were in town!
Royal ran to help hitches the team to the wagon, Alice and Almanzo ran to get bushel baskets from the woodshed. They rolled them bumpity-bump down the cellar stairs and began filling them with potatoes as fast as they could. They filled two baskets before Father drove the wagon to the kitchen porch.
Then the race began. Father and Royal hurried the baskets upstairs and dumped them into the wagon, and Almanzo and Alice hurried to fill more baskets faster than they were carried away.
Almanzo tried to fill more baskets than Alice, but he couldn’t. She worked so fast that she was turning back to the bin while her hoopskirts were still whirling the other way. When she pushed back her curls, her hands left smudges on her cheeks. Almanzo laughed at her dirty face, and she laughed at him.
“Look at yourself in the glass! You’re dirtier than I be!”
They kept the baskets full; Father and Royal never had to wait. When the wagon was full, Father drove away in a hurry.
It was mid-afternoon before he came back, but Royal and Almanzo and Alice filled the wag- on again while he ate some cold dinner, and he hauled another load away. That night Alice helped Royal and Almanzo do the chores. Father was not there for supper; he did not come before bedtime. Royal sat up to wait for him. Late in the night Almanzo heard the wagon, and Royal went out to help Father curry and brush the tired horses who had done twenty miles of hauling that day.
The next morning, and the next, they all began loading by candlelight, and Father was gone with the first load before sunrise. On the third day the potato-train left for New York City. But all Father’s potatoes were on it.
“Five hundred bushels at a dollar a bushel,” he said to Mother at supper. “I told you when potatoes were cheap last fall that they’d be high in the spring.”
That was five hundred dollars in the bank. They were all proud of Father, who raised good potatoes and knew so well when to store them and when to sell them.
“That’s pretty good,” Mother said, beaming.
They all felt happy. But later Mother said:
“Well, now that’s off our hands, we’ll start house-cleaning tomorrow, bright and early.”
Almanzo hated house-cleaning. He had to pull up carpet tacks, all around the edges of miles of carpet. Then the carpets were hung on clotheslines outdoors, and he had to beat them with a long stick. When he was little, he had run under the carpets, playing they were tents. But now he was nine years old, he had to beat those carpets without stopping, till no more dust would come out of them.
Everything in the house was moved, everything was scrubbed and scoured and polished. All the curtains were down, all the feather- beds were outdoors, airing, all the blankets and quilts were washed. From dawn to dark Almanzo was running, pumping water, fetching wood, spreading clean straw on the scrubbed floors and then helping to stretch the carpets over it, and then tacking all those edges down again.
Days and days, he spent in the cellar. He helped Royal empty the vegetable-bins. They sorted out every spoiled apple and carrot and turnip and put back the good ones into a few bins that Mother had scrubbed. They took down the other bins and stored them in the woodshed. They carried out crocks and jars and jugs, till the cellar was almost empty. Then Mother scrubbed the walls and floor. Royal poured water into pails of lime, and Almanzo stirred the lime till it stopped boiling and was whitewash. Then they white- washed the whole cellar. That was fun.
“Mercy on us!” Mother said when they came upstairs. “Did you get as much whitewash on the cellar as you got on yourselves?”
The whole cellar was fresh and clean and snow-white when it dried. Mother moved her milk-pans down to the scrubbed shelves. The butter-tubs were scoured white with sand and dried in the sun, and Almanzo set them in a row on the clean cellar floor, to be filled with the summer’s butter.
Outdoors the lilacs and the snowball bushes were in bloom. Violets and buttercups were blossoming in the green pastures, birds were building their nests, and it was time to work in the fields.