The air was still as ice and the twigs were snap- ping in the cold. A gray light came from the snow, but shadows were gathering in the woods. It was dusk when Almanzo trudged up the last long slope to the farmhouse.
He hurried behind Royal, who hurried behind Mr. Corse. Alice walked fast behind Eliza Jane in the other sled-track. They kept their mouths covered from the cold and did not say anything.
The roof of the tall red-painted house was rounded with snow, and from all the eaves hung a fringe of great icicles. The front of the house was dark, but a sled-track went to the big barns and a path had been shoveled to the side door, and candlelight shone in the kitchen windows.
Almanzo did not go into the house. He gave the dinner-pail to Alice, and he went to the barns with Royal.
There were three long, enormous barns, around three sides of the square barnyard. All together, they were the finest barns in all that country.
Almanzo went first into the Horse-Barn. It faced the house, and it was one hundred feet long. The horses’ row of box-stalls was in the middle; at one end was the calves’ shed, and beyond it the snug henhouse; at the other end was the Buggy- House. It was so large that two buggies and the sleigh could be driven into it, with plenty of room to unhitch the horses. The horses went from it in- to their stalls, without going out again into the cold.
The Big Barn began at the west end of the Horse-Barn and made the west side of the barn- yard. In the Big Barn’s middle was the Big-Barn Floor. Great doors opened onto it from the meadows, to let loaded hay-wagons in. On one side was the great hay-bay, fifty feet long and twenty feet wide, crammed full of hay to the peak of the roof far overhead.
Beyond the Big-Barn Floor were fourteen stalls for the cows and oxen. Beyond them was the machine-shed, and beyond it was the tool- shed. There you turned the corner into the South Barn.
In it was the feed-room, then the hog-pens, then the calf-pens, then the South-Barn Floor. That was the threshing-floor. It was even larger than the Big-Barn Floor, and the fanning-mill stood there.
Beyond the South-Barn Floor was a shed for the young cattle, and beyond it was the sheepfold. That was all of the South Barn.
A tight board fence twelve feet high stood along the east side of the barnyard. The three huge barns and the fence walled in the snug yard. Winds howled and snow beat against them, but could not get in. No matter how stormy the winter, there was hardly ever more than two feet of snow in the sheltered barnyard.
When Almanzo went into these great barns, he always went through the Horse-Barn’s little door. He loved horses. There they stood in their roomy box-stalls, clean and sleek and gleaming brown, with long black manes and tails. The wise, sedate workhorses placidly munched hay. The three-year-olds put their noses together across the bars, they seemed to whisper together. Then softly their nostrils whooshed along one an- other’s necks; one pretended to bite, and they squealed and whirled and kicked in play. The old horses turned their heads and looked like grand- mothers at the young ones. But the colts ran about excited, on their gangling legs, and stared and wondered.
They all knew Almanzo. Their ears pricked up and their eyes shone softly when they saw him. The three-year-olds came eagerly and thrust
their heads out to nuzzle at him. Their noses, prickled with a few stiff hairs, were soft as velvet, and on their foreheads the short, fine hair was silky smooth. Their necks arched proudly, firm and round, and the black manes fell over them like a heavy fringe. You could run your hand along those firm, curved necks, in the warmth un- der the mane.
But Almanzo hardly dared to do it. He was not allowed to touch the beautiful three-year- olds. He could not go into their stalls, not even to clean them. Father would not let him handle the young horses or the colts. Father didn’t trust him yet, because colts and young, unbroken horses are very easily spoiled.
A boy who didn’t know any better might scare a young horse, or tease it, or even strike it, and that would ruin it. It would learn to bite and kick and hate people, and then it would never be a good horse.
Almanzo did know better; he wouldn’t ever scare or hurt one of those beautiful colts. He would always be quiet, and gentle, and patient; he wouldn’t startle a colt, or shout at it, not even if it stepped on his foot. But Father wouldn’t believe this.
So Almanzo could only look longingly at the eager three-year-olds. He just touched their velvety noses, and then he went quickly away from them, and put on his barn frock over his good school-clothes.
Father had already watered all the stock, and he was beginning to give them their grain. Royal and Almanzo took pitchforks and went from stall to stall, cleaning out the soiled hay underfoot, and spreading fresh hay from the manger to make clean beds for the cows and the oxen and the calves and the sheep.
They did not have to make beds for the hogs, because hogs make their own beds and keep them clean.
In the South Barn, Almanzo’s own two little calves were in one stall. They came crowding each other at the bars when they saw him. Both calves were red, and one had a white spot on his forehead. Almanzo had named him Star. The other was a bright red all over, and Almanzo called him Bright.
Star and Bright were young calves, not yet a year old. Their little horns had only begun to grow hard in the soft hair by their ears. Almanzo scratched around the little horns, because calves like that. They pushed their moist, blunt noses between the bars, and licked with their rough tongues.
Almanzo took two carrots from the cows’ feed-box, and snapped little pieces off them, and fed the pieces one by one to Star and Bright.
Then he took his pitchfork again and climbed into the haymows overhead. It was dark there; only a little light came from the pierced tin sides of the lantern hung in the alleyway below. Royal and Almanzo were not allowed to take a lantern into the haymows, for fear of fire. But in a moment, they could see in the dusk.
They worked fast, pitching hay into the mangers below. Almanzo could hear the crunching of all the animals eating. The haymows were warm with the warmth of all the stock below, and the hay smelled dusty-sweet. There was a smell, too, of the horses and cows, and a woolly smell of sheep. And before the boys finished filling the mangers there was the good smell of warm milk foaming into Father’s milk-pail.
Almanzo took his own little milking-stool, and a pail, and sat in Blossom’s stall to milk her. His hands were not yet strong enough to milk a hard milker, but he could milk Blossom and Bossy. They were good old cows who gave down their milk easily, and hardly ever switched a stinging tail into his eyes or upset the pail with a hind foot.
He sat with the pail between his feet and milked steadily. Left, right! swish, swish! the streams of milk slanted into the pail, while the cows licked up their grain and crunched their car- rots.
The barn cats curved their bodies against the corners of the stall, loudly purring. They were sleek and fat from eating mice. Every barn cat had large ears and a long tail, sure signs of a good mouser. Day and night, they patrolled the barns, keeping mice and rats from the feed-bins, and at milking-time they lapped up pans of warm milk.
When Almanzo had finished milking, he filled the pans for the cats. His father went into Blossom’s stall with his own pail and stool, and sat down to strip the last, richest drops of milk from Blossom’s udder. But Almanzo had got it all. Then Father went into Bossy’s stall. He came out at once, and said:
“You’re a good milker, son.”
Almanzo just turned around and kicked at the straw on the floor. He was too pleased to say any- thing. Now he could milk cows by himself; Father needn’t strip them after him. Pretty soon he would be milking the hardest milkers.
Almanzo’s father had pleasant blue eyes that twinkled. He was a big man, with a long, soft brown beard and soft brown hair. His frock of brown wool hung to the tops of his tall boots. The two fronts of it were crossed on his broad chest and belted snug around his waist, then the skirt of it hung down over his trousers of good brown fullcloth.
Father was an important man. He had a good farm. He drove the best horses in that country. His word was as good as his bond, and every year he put money in the bank. When Father drove in- to Malone, all the townspeople spoke to him respectfully.
Royal came up with his milk-pail and the lantern. He said in a low voice:
“Father, Big Bill Ritchie came to school today.”
The holes in the tin lantern freckled everything with little lights and shadows. Almanzo could see that Father looked solemn; he stroked his beard and slowly shook his head. Almanzo waited anxiously, but Father only took the lantern and made a last round of the barns to see that everything was snug for the night. Then they went to the house.
The cold was cruel. The night was black and still, and the stars were tiny sparkles in the sky. Almanzo was glad to get into the big kitchen, warm with fire and candlelight. He was very hungry.
Soft water from the rain barrel was warming on the stove. First Father, then Royal, then Almanzo took his turn at the washbasin on the bench by the door. Almanzo wiped on the linen roller-towel, then standing before the little mirror on the wall he parted his wet hair and combed it smoothly down.
The kitchen was full of hoopskirts, balancing and swirling. Eliza Jane and Alice were hurrying to dish up supper. The salty brown smell of frying ham made Almanzo’s stomach gnaw inside him.
He stopped just a minute in the pantry door. Mother was straining the milk, at the far end of the long pantry; her back was toward him. The shelves on both sides were loaded with good things to eat. Big yellow cheeses were stacked there, and large brown cakes of maple sugar, and there were crusty loaves of fresh-baked bread, and four large cakes, and one whole shelf full of pies. One of the pies was cut, and a little piece of crust was temptingly broken off; it would never be missed.
Almanzo hadn’t even moved yet. But Eliza Jane cried out:
“Almanzo, you stop that! Mother!” Mother didn’t turn around. She said:
“Leave that be, Almanzo. You’ll spoil your supper.”
That was so senseless that it made Almanzo mad. One little bite couldn’t spoil a supper. He was starving, and they wouldn’t let him eat any- thing until they had put it on the table. There wasn’t any sense in it. But of course, he could not say this to Mother; he had to obey her without a word.
He stuck out his tongue at Eliza Jane. She couldn’t do anything; her hands were full. Then he went quickly into the dining-room.
The lamplight was dazzling. By the square heating-stove set into the wall, Father was talking politics to Mr. Corse. Father’s face was toward the supper table, and Almanzo dared not touch anything on it.
There were slabs of tempting cheese, there was a plate of quivering headcheese; there were glass dishes of jams and jellies and preserves, and a tall pitcher of milk, and a steaming pan of baked beans with a crisp bit of fat pork in the crumbling brown crust.
Almanzo looked at them all, and something twisted in his middle. He swallowed and went slowly away.
The dining-room was pretty. There were green stripes and rows of tiny red flowers on the chocolate-brown wall-paper, and Mother had woven the rag-carpet to match. She had dyed the rags green and chocolate-brown, and woven them in stripes, with a tiny stripe of red and white rags twisted together between them. The tall corner cupboards were full of fascinating things—sea- shells, and petrified wood, and curious rocks, and books. And over the center-table hung an air- castle. Alice had made it of clean yellow wheat-straws, set together airily, with bits of bright- colored cloth at the corners. It swayed and quivered in the slightest breath of air, and the lamplight ran gleaming along the golden straw.
But to Almanzo the most beautiful sight was his mother, bringing in the big willow-ware platter full of sizzling ham.
Mother was short and plump and pretty. Her eyes were blue, and her brown hair was like a bird’s smooth wings. A row of little red buttons ran down the front of her dress of wine-colored wool, from her flat white linen collar to the white apron tied round her waist. Her big sleeves hung like large red bells at either end of the blue platter. She came through the doorway with a little pause and a tug because her hoopskirts were wider than the door.
The smell of the ham was almost more than Almanzo could bear.
Mother set the platter on the table. She looked to see that everything was ready, and the table properly set. She took off her apron and hung it in the kitchen. She waited until Father had finished what he was saying to Mr. Corse. But at last she said:
“James, supper is ready.”
It seemed a long time before they were all in their places. Father sat at the head of the table, Mother at the foot. Then they must all bow their heads while Father asked God to bless the food. After that, there was a little pause before Father unfolded his napkin and tucked it in the neckband of his frock.
He began to fill the plates. First, he filled Mr. Corse’s plate. Then Mother’s. Then Royal’s and Eliza Jane’s and Alice’s. Then, at last, he filled Almanzo’s plate.
“Thank you,” Almanzo said. Those were the only words he was allowed to speak at table. Children must be seen and not heard. Father and Mother and Mr. Corse could talk, but Royal and Eliza Jane and Alice and Almanzo must not say a word.
Almanzo ate the sweet, mellow baked beans. He ate the bit of salt pork that melted like cream in his mouth. He ate mealy boiled potatoes, with brown ham-gravy. He ate the ham. He bit deep in- to velvety bread spread with sleek butter, and he ate the crisp golden crust. He demolished a tall heap of pale mashed turnips, and a hill of stewed yellow pumpkin. Then he sighed and tucked his napkin deeper into the neckband of his red waist. And he ate plum preserves and strawberry jam, and grape jelly, and spiced watermelon-rind pickles. He felt very comfortable inside. Slowly he ate a large piece of pumpkin pie.
He heard Father say to Mr. Corse:
“The Hardscrabble boys came to school today, Royal tells me.”
“Yes,” Mr. Corse said.
“I hear they’re saying they’ll throw you out.” Mr. Corse said, “I guess they’ll be trying it.”
Father blew on the tea in his saucer. He tasted it, then drained the saucer and poured a little more tea into it.
“They have driven out two teachers,” he said. “Last year they hurt Jonas Lane so bad he died of it later.”
“I know,” Mr. Corse said. “Jonas Lane and I went to school together. He was my friend.”
Father did not say any more.