Book 3, 19. EARLY HARVEST | Little House On The Prairie By Laura Ingalls Wilder

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Now it was haying-time. Father brought out the scythes, and Almanzo turned the grindstone with one hand and poured a little stream of water on it with the other hand, while Father held the steel edges delicately against the whirring stone. The water kept the scythes from getting too hot, while the stone ground their edges thin and sharp.

Then Almanzo went through the woods to the little French cabins and told French Joe and Lazy John to come to work next morning.

As soon as the sun dried the dew on the meadows, Father and Joe and John began cutting the hay. They walked side by side, swinging their scythes into the tall grass, and the plumed timothy fell in great swathes.

Swish! swish! swish! went the scythes, while Almanzo and Pierre and Louis followed behind them, spreading out the heavy swathes with pitchforks so that they would dry evenly in the sunshine. The stubble was soft and cool under their bare feet. Birds flew up before the mowers, now and then a rabbit jumped and bounded away. High up in the air the meadowlarks sang.

The sun grew hotter. The smell of the hay grew stronger and sweeter. Then waves of heat began to come up from the ground. Almanzo’s brown arms burned browner and sweat trickled on his forehead. The men stopped to put green leaves in the crowns of their hats, and so did the boys. For a little while the leaves were cool on top of their heads.

In the middle of the morning, Mother blew the dinner horn. Almanzo knew what that meant. He stuck his pitchfork in the ground and went running and skipping down across the meadows to the house. Mother met him on the back porch with the milk-pail, brimming full of cold egg-nog.

The egg-nog was made of milk and cream, with plenty of eggs and sugar. Its foamy top was freckled with spices, and pieces of ice floated in it. The sides of the pail were misty with cold.

Almanzo trudged slowly toward the hayfield with the heavy pail and a dipper. He thought to himself that the pail was too full, he might spill some of the egg-nog. Mother said waste was sinful. He was sure it would be sinful to waste a drop of that egg-nog. He should do something to save it. So, he set down the pail, he dipped the dipper full, and he drank. The cold egg-nog slid smoothly down his throat, and it made him cool inside.

When he reached the hayfield, everyone stopped work. They stood in the shade of an oak and pushed back their hats and passed the dipper from hand to hand till all the egg-nog was gone. Almanzo drank his full share. The breeze seemed cool now, and Lazy John said, wiping the foam from his mustache:

“Ah! That puts heart into a man!”

Now the men whetted their scythes, making the whetstones ring gaily on the steel blades. And they went back to work with a will. Father always maintained that a man could do more work in his twelve hours, if he had a rest and all the egg-nog he could drink, morning and afternoon.

They all worked in the hayfield as long as there was light enough to see what they were doing, and the chores were done by lantern-light.

Next morning the swathes had dried, and the boys raked them into windrows, with big, light, wooden rakes that Father had made. Then Joe and John went on cutting hay, and Pierre and Louis spread the swathes behind them. But Almanzo worked on the hay-rack.

Father drove it up from the barns, and Father and Royal pitched the windrows into it, while Almanzo trampled them down. Back and forth he ran, on the sweet-smelling hay, packing it down as fast as Father and Royal pitched it into the rack.

When the rack would hold no more, he was high in the air, on top of the load. There he lay on his stomach and kicked up his heels, while Father drove down to the Big Barn. The load of hay barely squeezed under the top of the tall doorway, and it was a long slide to the ground.

Father and Royal pitched the hay into the hay- mow, while Almanzo took the water-jug to the well. He pumped, then jumped and caught the gushing cold water in his hand and drank. He carried water to Father and Royal, and he filled the jug again. Then he rode back in the empty hayrack and trampled down another load.

Almanzo liked haying-time. From dawn till long after dark every day he was busy, always doing different things. It was like play, and morning and afternoon there was the cold egg-nog. But after three weeks of making hay, all the haymows were crammed to bursting and the meadows were bare. Then the rush of harvest-time came.

The oats were ripe, standing thick and tall and yellow. The wheat was golden, darker than the oats. The beans were ripe, and pumpkins and car- rots and turnips and potatoes were ready to gather.

There was no rest and no play for anyone now. They all worked from candlelight to candlelight. Mother and the girls were making cucumber pickles, green-tomato pickles, and watermelon-rind pickles; they were drying corn and apples and making preserves. Everything must be saved, nothing wasted of all the summer’s bounty. Even the apple cores were saved for making vinegar, and a bundle of oat-straw was soaking in a tub on the back porch. Whenever Mother had one minute to spare, she braided an inch or two of oat-straw braid for making next summer’s hats.

The oats were not cut with scythes, but with cradles. Cradles had blades like scythes, but they also had long wooden teeth that caught the cut stalks and held them. When they had cut enough for a bundle, Joe and John slid the stalks off in neat piles. Father and Royal and Almanzo followed behind, binding them into sheaves.

Almanzo had never bound oats before. Father showed him how to knot two handfuls of stalks into a long band, then how to gather up an armful of grain, pull the band tightly around the middle, twist its ends together, and tuck them in tightly.

In a little while he could bind a sheaf pretty well, but not very fast. Father and Royal could bind oats as fast as the reapers cut them.

Just before sunset the reapers stopped reaping, and they all began shocking the sheaves. All the cut oats must be shocked before dark, because they would spoil if they lay on the ground in the dew overnight.

Almanzo could shock oats as well as any- body. He stood ten sheaves up on their stem ends, close together with all the heads of grain upward. Then he set two more sheaves on top and spread out their stems to make a roof over the ten sheaves. The shocks looked like little Indian wigwams, dotted all over the field of pale stubble.

The wheat-field was waiting; there was no time to lose. As soon as all  the  oats  were in the shock, everyone hurried to cut and bind and shock the wheat. It was harder to handle because it was heavier than the oats, but Almanzo man- fully did his best. Then there was the field of oats and Canada peas. The pea vines were tangled all through the oats, so they could not be shocked. Almanzo raked them into long windrows.

Already it was high time to pull the navy beans. Alice had to help with them. Father hauled the bean-stakes to the field and set them up, driving them into the ground with a maul. Then Father and Royal hauled the shocked grain to the barns, while Almanzo and Alice pulled the beans. First, they laid rocks all around the bean- stakes, to keep the beans off the ground. Then they pulled up the beans. With both hands they pulled till their hands could hold no more. They carried the beans to the stakes and laid the roots against them, spreading the long vines out on the rocks.

Layer after layer of beans they piled around each stake. The roots were bigger than the vines, so the pile grew higher and higher in the middle. The tangled vines, full of rattling bean-pods, hung down all around.

When the roots were piled to the tops of the stakes, Almanzo and Alice laid vines over the top, making a little roof to shed rain. Then that bean-stake was done, and they began another one.

The stakes were as tall as Almanzo, and the vines stood out around them like Alice’s hoopskirts.

One day when Almanzo and Alice came to dinner, the butter-buyer was there. He came every year from New York City. He wore fine city clothes, with a gold watch and chain, and he drove a good team. Everybody liked the butter- buyer, and dinnertime was exciting when he was there. He brought all the news of politics and fashions and prices in New York City.

After dinner Almanzo went back to work, but Alice stayed to watch Mother sell the butter.

The butter-buyer went down cellar, where the butter-tubs stood covered with clean white cloths. Mother took off the cloths, and the butter-buyer pushed his long steel butter-tester down through the butter, to the bottom of the tub.

The butter-tester was hollow, with a slit in one side. When he pulled it out, there in the slit was the long sample of butter.

Mother did not do any bargaining at all. She said, proudly: “My butter speaks for itself.”

Not one sample from all her tubs had a streak in it. From top to bottom of every tub, Mother’s butter was all the same golden, firm, sweet butter. Almanzo saw the butter-buyer drive away, and Alice came skipping to the beanfield, swinging her sunbonnet by its strings. She called out:

“Guess what he did!” “What?” Almanzo asked.

“He said Mother’s butter is the best butter he ever saw anywhere! And he paid her— Guess what he paid her! Fifty—cents—a—pound!”

Almanzo was amazed. He had never heard of such a price for butter.

“She had five hundred pounds!” Alice said. “That’s two hundred and fifty dollars! He paid her all that money, and she’s hitching up right now, to take it to the bank.”

In a little while Mother drove away, in her second-best bonnet and her black bombazine. She was going to town in the afternoon, on a week- day in harvest-time. She had never done such a thing before. But Father was busy in the fields, and she would not keep all that money in the house overnight.

Almanzo was proud. His mother was prob- ably the best butter-maker in the whole of New York State. People in New York City would eat it, and say to one another how good it was, and wonder who made it. 

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