Now the meadows and pastures were velvety with thick grass, and the weather was warm. It was time to shear sheep.
On a sunny morning Pierre and Louis went with Almanzo into the pasture and they drove the sheep down to the washing-pens. The long pen ran from the grassy pasture into the clear, deep water of Trout River. It had two gates opening into the pasture, and between the gates a short fence ran to the water’s edge.
Pierre and Louis kept the flock from running away, while Almanzo took hold of a woolly sheep and pushed it through one gate. In the pen Father and Lazy John caught hold of it. Then Almanzo pushed another one through, and Royal and French Joe caught it. The other sheep stared and bleated, and the two sheep struggled and kicked and yelled. But the men rubbed their wool full of brown soft-soap and dragged them into the deep water.
There the sheep had to swim. The men stood waist-deep in the swift water and held on to the sheep and scrubbed them well. All the dirt came out of their wool and floated downstream with the soap suds.
When the other sheep saw this, every one of them cried, “Baa-aa-aa, baa-aa-aa!” and they all tried to run away. But Almanzo and Pierre and Louis ran yelling around the flock and brought it back again to the gate.
As soon as a sheep was clean, the men made it swim around to the end of the dividing fence, and they boosted it up the bank into the outer side of the pen. The poor sheep came out bleating and dripping wet, but the sun soon dried it fluffy and white.
As fast as the men let go of one sheep, Almanzo pushed another into the pen, and they caught it and soaped it and dragged it into the river.
Washing sheep was fun for everybody but the sheep. The men splashed and shouted and laughed in the water, and the boys ran and shouted in the pasture. The sun was warm on their backs and the grass was cool under bare feet, and all their laughter was small in the wide, pleasant stillness of the green fields and meadows.
One sheep butted John; he sat down in the river and the water went over his head. Joe shouted:
“Now if you had soap in your wool, John, you’d be ready for shearing!”
When evening came, all the sheep were washed. Clean and fluffy-white, they scattered up the slope, nibbling the grass, and the pasture looked like a snowball bush in bloom.
Next morning John came before breakfast, and Father hurried Almanzo from the table. He took a wedge of apple pie and went out to the pasture, smelling the clover and eating the spicy apples and flaky crust in big mouthfuls. He licked his fingers, and then he rounded up the sheep and drove them across the dewy grass, into the sheep- fold in the South Barn.
Father had cleaned the sheepfold and built a platform across one end of it. He and Lazy John each caught a sheep, set it up on the platform, and began cutting off its wool with long shears. The thick white mat of wool peeled back, all in one piece, and the sheep was left in bare pink skin.
With the last snick of the shears the whole fleece fell on the platform, and the naked sheep jumped off it, yelling, “Baa-aa-aa!” All the other sheep yelled back at the sight, but already Father and John were shearing two more.
Royal rolled the fleece tightly and tied it with twine, and Almanzo carried it upstairs and laid it on the loft floor. He ran upstairs and down again as fast as he could, but another fleece was always ready for him.
Father and Lazy John were good sheep-shear-ers. Their long shears snipped through the thick wool like lightning; they cut close to the sheep, but never cut its pink skin. This was a hard thing to do, because Father’s sheep were prize Merinos. Merinos have the finest wool, but their skin lies in deep wrinkles, and it is hard to get all the wool without cutting them.
Almanzo was working fast, running upstairs with the fleeces. They were so heavy that he could carry only one at a time. He didn’t mean to idle, but when he saw the tabby barn-cat hurrying past with a mouse, he knew she was taking it to her new kittens.
He ran after her, and far up under the eaves of the Big Barn he found the little nest in the hay, with four kittens in it. The tabby cat curled her- self around them, loudly purring, and the black slits in her eyes widened and narrowed and widened again. The kittens’ tiny pink mouths uttered tiny meows, their naked little paws had wee white claws, and their eyes were shut.
When Almanzo came back to the sheepfold, six fleeces were waiting, and Father spoke to him sternly.
“Son,” he said, “see to it you keep up with us after this.”
“Yes, Father,” Almanzo answered, hurrying.
But he heard Lazy John say: “He can’t do it. We’ll be through before he is.”
Then Father laughed and said: “That’s so, John. He can’t keep up with us.” Almanzo made up his mind that he’d show them. If he hurried fast enough, he could keep up. Before noon he had caught up with Royal and had to wait while a fleece was tied. So, he said: “You see I can keep up with you!”
“Oh no, you can’t!” said John. “We’ll beat you. We’ll be through before you are. Wait and see.”
Then they all laughed at Almanzo.
They were laughing when they heard the dinner horn. Father and John finished the sheep they were shearing and went to the house. Royal tied the last fleece and left it, and Almanzo still had to carry it upstairs. Now he understood what they meant. But he thought: “I won’t let them beat me.”
He found a short rope and tied it around the neck of a sheep that wasn’t sheared. He led the sheep to the stairs, and then step by step he tugged and boosted her upward. She bleated all the way, but he got her into the loft. He tied her near the fleeces and gave her some hay to keep her quiet. Then he went to dinner.
All that afternoon Lazy John and Royal kept telling him to hurry or they’d beat him. Almanzo answered:
“No, you won’t. I can keep up with you.” Then they laughed at him.
He snatched up every fleece as soon as Royal tied it and hurried upstairs and ran down again. They laughed to see him hurrying and they kept saying:
“Oh no, you won’t beat us! We’ll be through first!”
Just before chore-time, Father and John raced to shear the last two sheep. Father beat. Almanzo ran with the fleece and was back before the last one was ready. Royal tied it, and then he said:
“We’re all through! Almanzo, we beat you! We beat you!” Royal and John burst into a great roar of laughter, and even Father laughed.
Then Almanzo said: “No, you haven’t beat me. I’ve got a fleece upstairs that you haven’t sheared yet.”
They stopped laughing, surprised. At that very minute the sheep in the loft, hearing all the other sheep let out to pasture, cried, “Baa-aa-aa!” Almanzo shouted: “There’s the fleece! I’ve got it upstairs and you haven’t sheared it! I beat you! I beat you!”
John and Royal looked so funny that he couldn’t stop laughing. Father roared with laughter.
“The joke’s on you, John!” Father shouted. “He laughs best who laughs last!”