Almanzo was eating breakfast before he re- membered that this was the Fourth of July. He felt more cheerful.
It was like Sunday morning. After breakfast he scrubbed his face with soft-soap till it shone, and he parted his wet hair and combed it sleekly down. He put on his sheep’s-gray trousers and his shirt of French calico, and his vest and his short round coat.
Mother had made his new suit in the new style. The coat fastened at the throat with a little flap of cloth, then the two sides slanted back to show his vest, and they rounded off over his trousers’ pockets.
He put on his round straw hat, which Mother had made of braided oat-straws, and he was all dressed up for Independence Day. He felt very fine.
Father’s shining horses were hitched to the shining, red-wheeled buggy, and they all drove away in the cool sunshine. All the country had a holiday air. Nobody was working in the fields, and along the road the people in their Sunday clothes were driving to town.
Father’s swift horses passed them all. They passed by wagons and carts and buggies. They passed gray horses and black horses and dappled- gray horses. Almanzo waved his hat whenever he sailed past anyone he knew, and he would have been perfectly happy if only he had been driving that swift, beautiful team.
At the church sheds in Malone he helped Father unhitch. Mother and the girls and Royal hurried away. But Almanzo would rather help with the horses than do anything else. He couldn’t drive them, but he could tie their halters and buckle on their blankets and stroke their soft noses and give them hay.
Then he went out with Father and they walked on the crowded sidewalks. All the stores were closed, but ladies and gentlemen were walking up and down and talking. Ruffled little girls carried parasols, and all the boys were dressed up, like Almanzo. Flags were everywhere, and in the Square the band was playing “Yankee Doodle.” The fifes tooted and the flutes shrilled and the drums came in with rub-a-dub-dub.
Yankee Doodle went to town, Riding on a pony,
He stuck a feather in his hat And called it macaroni!
Even grown-ups had to keep time to it. And there, in the corner of the square, were the two brass cannons!
The Square was not really square. The rail- road made it three-cornered. But everybody called it the Square, anyway. It was fenced, and grass grew there. Benches stood in rows on the grass, and people were filing between the benches and sitting down as they did in church.
Almanzo went with Father to one of the best front seats. All the important men stopped to shake hands with Father. The crowd kept coming till all the seats were full, and still there were people outside the fence.
The band stopped playing, and the minister prayed. Then the band tuned up again and every- body rose. Men and boys took off their hats. The band played, and everybody sang.
“Oh, say, can you see by the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight,
O’er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming?”
From the top of the flagpole, up against the blue sky, the Stars and Stripes were fluttering. Everybody looked at the American flag, and Almanzo sang with all his might.
Then everyone sat down, and a Congressman stood up on a platform. Slowly and solemnly he read the Declaration of Independence.
“When in the course of human events it be- comes necessary for one people . . . to assume among the powers of the earth the separate and equal station . . . We hold these truths to be self- evident, that all men are created equal.”
Almanzo felt solemn and very proud.
Then two men made long political speeches. One believed in high tariffs, and one believed in free trade. All the grown-ups listened hard, but Almanzo did not understand the speeches very well and he began to be hungry. He was glad when the band played again.
The music was so gay; the bandsmen in their blue and red and their brass buttons tootled merrily, and the fat drummer beat rat-a-tat-tat on the drum. All the flags were fluttering, and everybody was happy, because they were free and independent, and this was Independence Day. And it was time to eat dinner.
Almanzo helped Father feed the horses while Mother and the girls spread the picnic lunch on the grass in the churchyard. Many others were picnicking there, too, and after he had eaten all he could Almanzo went back to the Square.
There was a lemonade-stand by the hitching- posts. A man sold pink lemonade, a nickel a glass, and a crowd of the town boys were standing around him. Cousin Frank was there. Almanzo had a drink at the town pump, but Frank said he was going to buy lemonade. He had a nickel. He walked up to the stand and bought a glass of the pink lemonade and drank it slowly. He smacked his lips and rubbed his stomach and said:
“Mmmm! Why don’t you buy some?” “Where’d you get the nickel?” Almanzo asked. He had never had a nickel. Father gave him a penny every Sunday to put in the collection-box in church; he had never had any other money.
“My father gave it to me,” Frank bragged. “My father gives me a nickel every time I ask him.”
“Well, so would my father if I asked him,” said Almanzo.
“Well, why don’t you ask him?” Frank did not believe that Father would give Almanzo a nickel.
Almanzo did not know whether Father would, or not.
“Because I don’t want to,” he said.
“He wouldn’t give you a nickel,” Frank said. “He would, too.”
“I dare you to ask him,” Frank said. The other boys were listening. Almanzo put his hands in his pockets and said:
“I’d just as life ask him if I wanted to.”
“Yah, you’re scared!” Frank jeered. “Double dare! Double dare!”
Father was a little way down the street, talking to Mr. Paddock, the wagon-maker. Almanzo walked slowly toward them. He was faint- hearted, but he had to go. The nearer he got to Father, the more he dreaded asking for a nickel. He had never before thought of doing such a thing. He was sure Father would not give it to him.
He waited till Father stopped talking and looked at him.
“What is it, son?” Father asked. Almanzo was scared. “Father,” he said.
“Father,” Almanzo said, “would you—would you give me—a nickel?”
He stood there while Father and Mr. Paddock looked at him, and he wished he could get away. Finally, Father asked:
Almanzo looked down at his moccasins and muttered:
“Frank had a nickel. He bought pink lemonade.”
“Well,” Father said, slowly, “if Frank treated you, it’s only right you should treat him.” Father put his hand in his pocket. Then he stopped and asked:
“Did Frank treat you to lemonade?”
Almanzo wanted so badly to get the nickel that he nodded. Then he squirmed and said:
Father looked at him a long time. Then he took out his wallet and opened it, and slowly he took out a round, big silver half-dollar. He asked: “Almanzo, do you know what this is?”
“Half a dollar,” Almanzo answered.
“Yes. But do you know what half a dollar is?”
Almanzo didn’t know it was anything but half a dollar.
“It’s work, son,” Father said. “That’s what money is; it’s hard work.”
Mr. Paddock chuckled. “The boy’s too young, Wilder,” he said. “You can’t make a youngster understand that.”
“Almanzo’s smarter than you think,” said Father.
Almanzo didn’t understand at all. He wished he could get away. But Mr. Paddock was looking at Father just as Frank looked at Almanzo when he double dared him, and Father had said that Almanzo was smart, so Almanzo tried to look like a smart boy. Father asked:
“You know how to raise potatoes, Almanzo?” “Yes,” Almanzo said.
“Say you have a seed potato in the spring, what do you do with it?”
“You cut it up,” Almanzo said. “Go on, son.”
“Then you harrow—first you manure the field and plow it. Then you harrow and mark the ground. And plant the potatoes, and plow them, and hoe them. You plow and hoe them twice.”
“That’s right, son. And then?”
“Then you dig them and put them down cellar.”
“Yes. Then you pick them over all winter; you throw out all the little ones and the rotten ones. Come spring, you load them up and haul them here to Malone, and you sell them. And if you get a good price son, how much do you get to show for all that work? How much do you get for half a bushel of potatoes?”
“Half a dollar,” Almanzo said.
“Yes,” said Father. “That’s what’s in this half- dollar, Almanzo. The work that raised half a bushel of potatoes is in it.”
Almanzo looked at the round piece of money that Father held up. It looked small, compared with all that work.
“You can have it, Almanzo,” Father said. Almanzo could hardly believe his ears. Father gave him the heavy half-dollar.
“It’s yours,” said Father. “You could buy a sucking pig with it, if you want to. You could raise it, and it would raise a litter of pigs, worth four, five dollars apiece. Or you can trade that half-dollar for lemonade and drink it up. You do as you want, it’s your money.”
Almanzo forgot to say thank you. He held the half-dollar a minute, then he put his hand in his pocket and went back to the boys by the lemonade-stand. The man was calling out:
“Step this way, step this way! Ice-cold lemonade, pink lemonade, only five cents a glass! Only half a dime, ice-cold pink lemonade! The twentieth part of a dollar!”
Frank asked Almanzo:
“Where’s the nickel?”
“He didn’t give me a nickel,” said Almanzo, and Frank yelled:
“Yah, yah! I told you he wouldn’t. I told you so!”
“He gave me half a dollar,” said Almanzo.
The boys wouldn’t believe it till he showed them. Then they crowded around, waiting for him to spend it. He showed it to them all and put it back in his pocket.
“I’m going to look around,” he said, “and buy me a good little sucking pig.”
The band came marching down the street, and they all ran along beside it. The flag was gloriously waving in front, then came the buglers blowing and the fifers tootling and the drummer rattling the drumsticks on the drum. Up the street and down the street went the band, with all the boys following it, and then it stopped in the Square by the brass cannons.
Hundreds of people were there, crowding to watch.
The cannons sat on their haunches, pointing their long barrels upward. The band kept on playing. Two men kept shouting, “Stand back! Stand back!” and other men were pouring black powder into the cannons’ muzzles and pushing it down with wads of cloth on long rods.
The iron rods had two handles, and two men pushed and pulled on them, driving the black powder down the brass barrels. Then all the boys ran to pull grass and weeds along the railroad tracks. They carried them by armfuls to the cannons, and the men crowded the weeds into the cannons’ muzzles and drove them down with the long rods.
A bonfire was burning by the railroad tracks, and long iron rods were heating in it.
When all the weeds and grass had been packed tight against the powder in the cannons, a man took a little more powder in his hand and carefully filled the two little touchholes in the barrels. Now everybody was shouting:
“Stand back! Stand back!”
Mother took hold of Almanzo’s arm and made him come away with her. He told her:
“Aw, Mother, they’re only loaded with powder and weeds. I won’t get hurt, Mother. I’ll be careful, honest.” But she made him come away from the cannons.
Two men took the long iron rods from the fire. Everybody was still, watching. Standing as far behind the cannons as they could, the two men stretched out the rods and touched their red-hot tips to the touchholes. A little flame like a candle- flame flickered up from the powder. The little flames stood there burning; nobody breathed. Then—BOOM!
The cannons leaped backward, the air was full of flying grass and weeds. Almanzo ran with all the other boys to feel the warm muzzles of the cannons. Everybody was exclaiming about what a loud noise they had made.
“That’s the noise that made the Redcoats run!” Mr. Paddock said to Father.
“Maybe,” Father said, tugging his beard. “But it was muskets that won the Revolution. And don’t forget it was axes and plows that made this country.”
“That’s so come to think of it,” Mr. Paddock said.
Independence Day was over. The cannons had been fired, and there was nothing more to do but hitch up the horses and drive home to do the chores.
That night when they were going to the house with milk, Almanzo asked Father:
“Father, how was it axes and plows that made this country? Didn’t we fight England for it?”
“We fought for Independence, son,” Father said. “But all the land our forefathers had was a little strip of country, here between the mountains and the ocean. All the way from here west was Indian country, and Spanish and French and English country. It was farmers that took all that country and made it America.”
“How?” Almanzo asked.
“Well, son, the Spaniards were soldiers, and high-and-mighty gentlemen that only wanted gold. And the French were fur-traders, wanting to make quick money. And England was busy fighting wars. But we were farmers, son; we wanted the land. It was farmers that went over the mountains, and cleared the land, and settled it, and farmed it, and hung on to their farms.
“This country goes three thousand miles west, now. It goes ’way out beyond Kansas, and beyond the Great American Desert, over mountains bigger than these mountains, and down to the Pacific Ocean. It’s the biggest country in the world, and it was farmers who took all that country and made it America, son. Don’t you ever for- get that.”