That was a cold, late spring. The dawns were chilly, and at noon the sunlight was cool. The trees unfolded their leaves slowly; the peas and beans, the carrots and corn, stood waiting for warmth and did not grow. When the rush of spring’s work was over, Almanzo had to go to school again. Only small children went to the spring term of school, and he wished he were old enough to stay home.
He didn’t like to sit and study a book when there were so many interesting things to do.
Father hauled the fleeces to the carding-ma- chine in Malone, and brought home the soft, long rolls of wool, combed out straight and fine. Mother didn’t card her own wool anymore, since there was a machine that did it on shares. But she dyed it.
Alice and Eliza Jane were gathering roots and barks in the woods, and Royal was building huge bonfires in the yard. They boiled the roots and the bark in big caldrons over the fires, and they dipped the long skeins of wool thread that Mother had spun, and lifted them out on sticks, all colored brown and red and blue. When Almanzo went home from school the clothes-lines were hanging full of colored skeins.
Mother was making soft-soap, too. All the winter’s ashes had been saved in a barrel; now water was poured over them, and lye was drip-ping out of a little hole in the bottom of the barrel. Mother measured the lye into a caldron, and added pork rinds and all the waste pork fat and beef fat that she had been saving all winter. The caldron boiled, and the lye and the fat made soap. Almanzo could have kept the bonfires burning, he could have dipped the brown, slimy soap out of the caldron and filled the tubs with it. But he had to go back to school.
He watched the moon anxiously, for in the dark of the moon in May he could stay out of school and plant pumpkins.
Then in the chill, early morning he tied a pouch full of pumpkin seeds around his waist and went to the cornfield. All the dark field had a thin green veil of weeds over it now. The small blades of corn were not growing well because of the cold.
At every second hill of corn, in every second row, Almanzo knelt down and took a thin, flat pumpkin seed between his thumb and finger. He pushed the seed, sharp point down, into the ground.
It was chill work at first, but pretty soon the sun was higher. The air and the earth smelled good, and it was fun to poke his finger and thumb into the soft soil and leave the seed there to grow. Day after day he worked, till all the pumpkins were planted, and then he begged to hoe and thin the carrots. He hoed all the weeds away from the long rows, and he pulled the little feathery carrot- tops, till those that were left stood two inches apart.
He didn’t hurry at all. No one had ever taken such pains with carrots as he did, because he didn’t want to go back to school. He made the work last till there were only three more days of school; then the spring term ended, and he could work all summer.
First, he helped hoe the cornfield. Father plowed between the rows, and Royal and Almanzo with hoes killed every weed that was left and hoed around each hill of corn. Slash, slash went the hoes all day, stirring the earth around the young shoots of corn and the first two flat leaves of the pumpkins.
Two acres of corn Almanzo hoed, and then he hoed two acres of potatoes. That finished the hoeing for a while, and now it was strawberry-time.
Wild strawberries were few that year, and late, because frost had killed the first blossoms. Almanzo had to go far through the woods to fill his pail full of small, sweet, fragrant berries.
When he found them clustered under their green leaves, he couldn’t help eating some. He skipped off the green twigs of wintergreen and ate them, too. And he nibbled with his teeth the sweet-sour woodsorrel’s stems, right up to their frail lavender blossoms. He stopped to shy stones at the frisking squirrels, and he left his pail on the banks of streams and went wading, chasing the minnows. But he never came home till his pail was full.
Then there were strawberries and cream for supper, and next day Mother would make straw- berry preserves.
“I never saw corn grow so slowly,” Father worried. He plowed the field again, and again Almanzo helped Royal to hoe the corn. But the little shoots stood still. On the first of July they were only four inches high. They seemed to feel that danger threatened them, and to be afraid to grow. It was three days to Independence Day, the fourth day of July. Then it was two days. Then it was one day, and that night Almanzo had to take a bath, though it wasn’t Saturday. Next morning, they were all going to the celebration in Malone. Almanzo could hardly wait till morning. There would be a band, and speeches, and the brass cannon would be fired.
The air was still and cold that night, and the stars had a wintry look. After supper Father went to the barns again. He shut the doors and little wooden windows of the horses’ stalls, and he put the ewes with lambs into the fold.
When he came in, Mother asked if it was any warmer. Father shook his head.
“I do believe it is going to freeze,” he said. “Pshaw! surely not!” Mother replied. But she looked worried.
Sometime in the night Almanzo felt cold, but he was too sleepy to do anything about it. Then he heard Mother calling:
“Royal! Almanzo!” He was too sleepy to open his eyes.
“Boys, get up! Hurry!” Mother called. “The corn’s frozen!”
He tumbled out of bed and pulled on his trousers. He couldn’t keep his eyes open; his hands were clumsy, and big yawns almost dis- located his jaw. He staggered downstairs behind Royal.
Mother and Eliza Jane and Alice were putting on their hoods and shawls. The kitchen was cold; the fire had not been lighted. Outdoors everything looked strange. The grass was white with frost, and a cold green streak was in the eastern sky, but the air was dark.
Father hitched Bess and Beauty to the wagon. Royal pumped the watering-trough full. Almanzo helped Mother and the girls bring tubs and pails, and Father set barrels in the wagon. They filled the tubs and barrels full of water, and then they walked behind the wagon to the cornfield.
All the corn was frozen. The little leaves were stiff, and broke if you touched them. Only cold water would save the life of the corn. Every hill must be watered before the sunshine touched it, or the little plants would die. There would be no corn-crop that year.
The wagon stopped at the edge of the field. Father and Mother and Royal and Eliza Jane and Alice and Almanzo filled their pails with water, and they all went to work, as fast as they could.
Almanzo tried to hurry, but the pail was heavy, and his legs were short. His wet fingers were cold, the water slopped against his legs and he was terribly sleepy. He stumbled along the rows, and at every hill of corn he poured a little water over the frozen leaves. The field seemed enormous. There were thousands and thousands of hills of corn. Almanzo began to be hungry. But he couldn’t stop to complain. He must hurry, hurry, hurry, to save the corn.
The green in the east turned pink. Every moment the light brightened. At first the dark had been like a mist over the endless field, now Almanzo could see to the end of the long rows. He tried to work faster.
In an instant the earth turned from black to gray. The sun was coming to kill the corn.
Almanzo ran to fill his pail; he ran back. He ran down the rows, splashing water on the hills of corn. His shoulders ached and his arm ached and there was a pain in his side. The soft earth hung on to his feet. He was terribly hungry. But every splash of water saved a hill of corn.
In the gray light the corn had faint shadows now. All at once pale sunshine came over the field.
“Keep on!” Father shouted. So, they all kept on; they didn’t stop.
But in a little while, Father gave up. “No use!” he called. Nothing would save the corn after the sunshine touched it.
Almanzo set down his pail and straightened up against the ache in his back. All the others stood and looked, too, and did not say anything. They had watered almost three acres. A quarter of an acre had not been watered. It was lost.
Almanzo trudged back to the wagon and climbed in. Father said: “Let’s be thankful we saved most of it.” They rode sleepily down to the barns. Almanzo was not quite awake yet, and he was tired and cold and hungry. His hands were clumsy, doing the chores. But most of the corn was saved.