Early in the frosty morning they all set out for the Fair. All of them were dressed up in their Sunday clothes except Mother. She wore her second-best and took an apron, for she was going to help with the church dinner.
Under the back buggy-seat was the box of jellies and pickles and preserves that Eliza Jane and Alice had made to show at the Fair. Alice was taking her woolwork embroidery, too. But Almanzo’s milk-fed pumpkin had gone the day be- fore.
It was too big to go in the buggy. Almanzo had polished it carefully, Father had lifted it into the wagon and rolled it onto a soft pile of hay, and they had taken it to the Fair Grounds and given it to Mr. Paddock. Mr. Paddock was in charge of such things.
This morning the roads were lively with people driving to the Fair, and in Malone the crowds were thicker than they had been on Independence Day. All around the Fair Grounds were acres of wagons and buggies, and people were clustered like flies. Flags were flying and the band was playing.
Mother and Royal and the girls got out of the buggy at the Fair Grounds, but Almanzo rode on with Father to the church sheds and helped unhitch the horses. The sheds were full, and all along the sidewalks streams of people in their best clothes were walking to the Fair, while buggies dashed up and down the streets in clouds of dust.
“Well, son,” Father asked him, “what shall we do first?”
“I want to see the horses,” Almanzo said. So, Father said they would look at the horses first.
The sun was high now, and the day was clear and pleasantly warm. Streams of people were pouring into the Fair Grounds, with a great noise of talking and walking, and the band was playing gaily. Buggies were coming and going; men stopped to speak to Father, and boys were every- where. Frank went by with some of the town boys, and Almanzo saw Miles Lewis and Aaron Webb. But he stayed with Father.
They went slowly past the tall back of the grand-stand, and past the low, long church building. This was not the church, but a church kitchen and dining-room at the Fair Grounds. A noise of dishes and rattling pans and a chatter of women’s voices came out of it. Mother and the girls were inside it somewhere.
Beyond it was a row of stands, and booths, and tents, all gay with flags and colored pictures, and men shouting:
“Step this way, step this way, only ten cents, one dime, the tenth part of a dollar!” “Oranges, oranges, sweet Florida oranges!” “Cures all ills of man and beast!” “Prizes for all! Prizes for all!” “Last call, boys, put down your money! Step back, don’t crowd!”
One stand was a forest of striped black-and- white canes. If you could throw a ring over a cane, the man would give it to you. There were piles of oranges, and trays of gingerbread, and tubs of pink lemonade. There was a man in a tailcoat and a tall shining hat, who put a pea under a shell and then paid money to any man who would tell him where the pea was.
“I know where it is, Father!” Almanzo said. “Be you sure?” Father asked.
“Yes,” said Almanzo, pointing. “Under that one.”
“Well, son, we’ll wait and see,” Father said.
Just then a man pushed through the crowd and laid down a five-dollar bill beside the shells. There were three shells. The man pointed to the same shell that Almanzo had pointed at.
The man in the tall hat picked up the shell. There was no pea under it. The next instant the five-dollar bill was in his tail-coat pocket, and he was showing the pea again and putting it under another shell.
Almanzo couldn’t understand it. He had seen the pea under that shell, and then it wasn’t there. He asked Father how the man had done it.
“I don’t know, Almanzo,” Father said. “But he knows. It’s his game. Never bet your money on another man’s game.”
They went on to the stock-sheds. The ground there was trodden into deep dust by the crowd of men and boys. It was quiet there.
Almanzo and Father looked for a long time at the beautiful bay and brown and chestnut Morgan horses, with their flat, slender legs and small, neat feet. The Morgans tossed their small heads and their eyes were soft and bright. Almanzo looked at them all carefully, and not one was a better horse than the colts Father had sold last fall.
Then he and Father looked at the thorough-breds, with their longer bodies and thinner necks
and slim haunches. The thoroughbreds were nervous; their ears quivered, and their eyes showed the whites. They looked faster than the Morgans, but not so steady.
Beyond them were three large, speckled gray horses. Their haunches were round and hard, their necks were thick, and their legs were heavy. Long, bushy hair hid their big feet. Their heads were massive, their eyes quiet and kind. Almanzo had never seen anything like them.
Father said they were Belgians. They came from a country called Belgium, in Europe. Belgium was next to France, and the French had brought such horses in ships to Canada. Now Belgian horses were coming from Canada into the United States. Father admired them very much. He said:
“Look at that muscle! They’d pull a barn, if hitched to it.”
Almanzo asked him: “What’s the good of a horse that can pull a barn? We don’t want to pull a barn. A Morgan has muscle enough to pull a wagon, and he’s fast enough to pull a buggy, too.”
“You’re right, son!” Father said. He looked regretfully at the big horses and shook his head. “It would be a waste to feed all that muscle, and we’ve got no use for it. You’re right.”
Almanzo felt important and grown-up, talking horses with Father.
Beyond the Belgians, a crowd of men and boys was so thick around a stall that not even Father could see what was in it. Almanzo left Father and wriggled and squeezed between the legs until he came to the bars of the stall.
Inside it were two black creatures. He had never seen anything like them. They were something like horses, but they were not horses. Their tails were bare, with only a bunch of hair at the tip. Their short, bristly manes stood up straight and stiff. Their ears were like rabbits’ ears. Those long ears stood up above their long, gaunt faces, and while Almanzo stared, one of those creatures pointed its ears at him and stretched out its neck.
Close to Almanzo’s bulging eyes, its nose wrinkled and its lips curled back from long, yellow teeth. Almanzo couldn’t move. Slowly the creature opened its long, fanged mouth, and out of its throat came a squawking roar.
“Eeeeeeeeee, aw! Heeeeeee, Haw!”
Almanzo yelled, and he turned and butted and clawed and fought through the crowd toward Father. The next thing he knew, he reached Father, and everybody was laughing at him. Only Father did not laugh.
“It’s only a half-breed horse, son,” Father said. “The first mule you ever saw. You’re not the only one that was scared, either” said Father, looking around at the crowd.
Almanzo felt better when he saw the colts. There were two-year-olds, and yearlings, and some little colts with their mothers. Almanzo looked at them carefully, and finally he said:
“Father, I wish—”
“What, son?” Father asked.
“Father, there’s not a colt here that can hold a candle to Starlight. Couldn’t you bring Starlight to the fair next year?”
“Well, well,” Father said. “We’ll see about that when next year comes.”
Then they looked at the cattle. There were fawn-colored Guernseys and Jerseys, that come from islands named Guernsey and Jersey, near the coast of France. They looked at the bright- red Devons and the gray Durhams that come from England. They looked at young steers and yearlings, and some were finer than Star and Bright. They looked at the sturdy, powerful yoke- oxen.
All the time Almanzo was thinking that if only Father would bring Starlight to the Fair, Starlight would be sure to take a prize.
Then they looked at the big Chester White hogs, and the smoother, smaller, black Berkshire hogs. Almanzo’s pig Lucy was a Chester White. But he decided that someday he would have a Berkshire, too.
They looked at Merino sheep, like Father’s, with their wrinkled skins and short, fine wool, and they looked at the larger Cotswold sheep, whose wool is longer, but coarse. Father was satisfied with his Merinos; he would rather raise less wool, of finer quality, for Mother to weave.
By this time, it was noon, and Almanzo had not seen his pumpkin yet. But he was hungry, so they went to dinner.
The church dining-room was already crowded. Every place at the long table was taken, and Eliza Jane and Alice were hurrying with the other girls who were bringing loaded plates from the kitchen. All the delicious smells made Almanzo’s mouth water.
Father went into the kitchen, and so did Almanzo. It was full of women, hurriedly slicing boiled hams and roasts of beef, and carving roast chickens and dishing up vegetables. Mother opened the oven of the huge cookstove and took out roasted turkeys and ducks.
Three barrels stood by the wall, and long iron pipes went into them from a cauldron of water boiling on the stove. Steam puffed from every crevice of the barrels. Father pried off the cover of one barrel, and clouds of steam came out. Almanzo looked into the barrel, and it was full of steaming potatoes, in their clean brown skins. The skins broke when the air struck them and curled back from the mealy insides.
All around Almanzo were cakes and pies of every kind, and he was so hungry he could have eaten them all. But he dared not touch even a crumb.
At last he and Father got places at the long table in the dining-room. Everyone was merry, talking and laughing, but Almanzo simply ate. He ate ham and chicken and turkey, and dressing and cranberry jelly; he ate potatoes and gravy, succotash, baked beans and boiled beans and onions, and white bread and rye’n’injun bread, and sweet pickles and jam and preserves. Then he drew a long breath, and he ate pie.
When he began to eat pie, he wished he had eaten nothing else. He ate a piece of pumpkin pie and a piece of custard pie, and he ate almost a piece of vinegar pie. He tried a piece of mince pie but could not finish it. He just couldn’t do it. There were berry pies and cream pies and vinegar pies and raisin pies, but he could not eat any more.
He was glad to sit down with Father in the grand stand. They watched the trotting-horses flashing by, warming up for the races. Little puffs of dust rose in the sunshine behind the fast sulkies. Royal was with the big boys, down at the edge of the track, with the men who were betting on the races.
Father said it was all right to bet on races, if you wanted to.
“You get a run for your money,” he said. “But I would rather get something more substantial for mine.”
The grand-stand filled up till people were packed in all the tiers of seats. The light sulkies were lined up in a row, and the horses tossed their heads and pawed the ground, eager to start. Almanzo was so excited he could hardly sit still. He picked the horse he thought would win, a slim, bright chestnut thoroughbred.
Somebody shouted. All at once the horses were flying down the track, the crowd was one roaring yell. Then suddenly everyone was still, in astonishment.
An Indian was running down the track behind the sulkies. He was running as fast as the horses.
Everybody began to shout. “He can’t do it!” “Two dollars he’ll keep up!” “The bay! The bay! Come on, come on!” “Three dollars on the Indi- an!” “Watch that chestnut!” “Look at the Indian!” The dust was blowing on the other side of the track. The horses were flying, stretched out above the ground. All the crowd was up on the benches, yelling. Almanzo yelled and yelled. Down the track the horses came pounding. “Come on! Come on! The bay! The bay!”
They flashed past too quickly to be seen. Be- hind came the Indian, running easily. In front of the grandstand he leaped high in the air, turned a handspring, and stood, saluting all the people with his right hand.
The grandstand shook with the noise of shouting and stamping. Even Father was shouting, “Hurrah! Hurrah!”
The Indian had run that mile in two minutes and forty seconds, as fast as the winning horse. He was not even panting. He saluted all the cheering people again and walked off the track.
The bay horse had won.
There were more races, but soon it was three o’clock, time to go home. Driving home was ex- citing that day, because there was so much to talk about. Royal had thrown a ring over one of the black-and-white-striped canes, and he had it. Alice had spent a nickel for peppermint candy. She broke the striped stick in two and each had a piece to suck slowly.
It seemed strange to be at home only long enough to do the chores and sleep. Early next morning they were driving away again. There were two more days of the Fair.
This morning Almanzo and Father went quickly past the stock-sheds to the display of vegetables and grains. Almanzo caught sight of the pumpkins at once. They shone out brightly, golden among all the duller things. And there was Almanzo’s pumpkin, the largest of them all.
“Don’t be too sure of getting the prize, son,” Father said. “It isn’t size that counts as much as quality.”
Almanzo tried not to care too much about the prize. He went away from the pumpkins with Father, though he couldn’t help looking back at his pumpkin now and then. He saw the fine potatoes, the beets, turnips, rutabagas, and onions. He fingered the brown, plump kernels of wheat, and the grooved, pale oats, the Canada peas and navy beans and speckled beans. He looked at ears of white corn and yellow corn, and red-white-and- blue corn. Father pointed out how closely the kernels grew on the best ears, how they covered even the tip of the cob.
People walked slowly up and down, looking. There were always some people looking at the pumpkins, and Almanzo wished they knew that the biggest pumpkin was his.
After dinner he hurried back to watch the judging. The crowds were larger now, and some- times he had to leave Father and squirm between people to see what the judges were doing. The three judges wore badges on their coats; they were solemn and talked together in low voices so that no one heard what they said.
They weighed the grains in their hands and looked at them closely. They chewed a few grains of wheat and of oats, to see how they tasted. They split open peas and beans, and they shelled a few kernels off each ear of corn to make sure how long the kernels were. With their jack-knives they cut the onions in two, and the potatoes. They cut very thin slices of the potatoes and held them up to the light. The best part of a potato is next to the skin, and you can see how thick the best part is, if you hold a very thin slice to the light and look through it.
The thickest crowd pressed around the table where the judges were, and watched without saying anything. There wasn’t a sound, when at last the tall, thin judge with the chin whiskers took a snip of red ribbon and a snip of blue ribbon out of his pocket. The red ribbon was second prize, the blue one was first prize. The judge put them on the vegetables that had won them, and the crowd breathed a long breath.
Then all at once everybody talked. Almanzo saw that people who didn’t get any prize, and the person who got second prize, all congratulated the winner. If his pumpkin didn’t get a prize, he would have to do that. He didn’t want to, but he guessed he must.
At last the judges came to the pumpkins. Almanzo tried to look as if he didn’t care much, but he felt hot all over.
The judges had to wait till Mr. Paddock brought them a big, sharp butcher knife. The biggest judge took it and thrust it with all his might into a pumpkin. He bore down hard on the handle and cut a thick slice out. He held it up, and all the judges looked at the thick, yellow flesh of the pumpkin. They looked at the thickness of the hard rind, and at the little hollow where the seeds were. They cut tiny slices and tasted them.
Then the big judge cut open another pumpkin. He had begun with the smallest. The crowd pressed tight against Almanzo. He had to open his mouth to get his breath.
At last the judge cut open Almanzo’s big pumpkin. Almanzo felt dizzy. The inside of his pumpkin had a big hollow for seeds, but it was a big pumpkin; it had lots of seeds. Its flesh was a little paler than the other pumpkins. Almanzo didn’t know whether that made any difference or not. The judges tasted it; he could not tell from their faces how it tasted.
Then they talked together for a long time. He could not hear what they said. The tall, thin judge shook his head and tugged his whiskers. He cut a thin slice from the yellowest pumpkin and a thin
slice from Almanzo’s pumpkin and tasted them. He gave them to the big judge, and he tasted them. The fat judge said something, and they all smiled.
Mr. Paddock leaned over the table and said: “Good afternoon, Wilder. You and the boy are
taking in the sight, I see. Having a good time, Almanzo?”
Almanzo could hardly speak. He managed to say: “Yes, sir.”
The tall judge had taken the red ribbon and the blue ribbon out of his pocket. The fat judge took hold of his sleeve, and all the judges put their heads together again.
The tall judge turned around slowly. Slowly he took a pin from his lapel and stuck it through the blue ribbon. He was not very near Almanzo’s big pumpkin. He was not near enough to reach it. He held out the blue ribbon, above another pump- kin. He leaned, and stretched out his arm slowly, and he thrust the pin into Almanzo’s pumpkin.
Father’s hand clapped on Almanzo’s shoulder. All at once Almanzo could breathe, and he was tingling all over. Mr. Paddock was shaking his hand. All the judges were smiling. Ever so many people said, “Well, well, Mr. Wilder, so your boy’s got first prize!”
Mr. Webb said, “That’s a fine pumpkin, Almanzo. Don’t know as I ever saw a finer.”
Mr. Paddock said:
“I never saw a pumpkin that beat it for size. How’d you raise such a big pumpkin, Almanzo?”
Suddenly everything seemed big and very still. Almanzo felt cold and small and scared. He hadn’t thought, before, that maybe it wasn’t fair to get a prize for a milk-fed pumpkin. Maybe the prize was for raising pumpkins in the ordinary way. Maybe, if he told, they’d take the prize away from him. They might think he had tried to cheat.
He looked at Father, but Father’s face didn’t tell him what to do.
“I—I just—I kept hoeing it, and—” he said. Then he knew he was telling a lie. Father was hearing him tell a lie. He looked up at Mr. Pad- dock and said: “I raised it on milk. It’s a milk-fed pumpkin. Is—is that all right?”
“Yes, that’s all right,” Mr. Paddock answered. Father laughed. “There’s tricks in all trades but ours, Paddock. And maybe a few tricks in farming and wagon-making, too, eh?”
Then Almanzo knew how foolish he had been. Father knew all about the pumpkin, and Father wouldn’t cheat.
Afterward he went walking with Father among the crowds. They saw the horses again, and the colt that won the prize was not so good as Starlight. Almanzo did hope that Father would bring Starlight to the Fair next year. Then they watched the foot-races, and the jumping contests, and the throwing contests. Malone boys were in them, but the farmer boys won, almost every time. Almanzo kept remembering his prize pumpkin and feeling good.
Driving home that night, they all felt good. Alice’s woolwork had won first prize, and Eliza Jane had a red ribbon and Alice had a blue ribbon for jellies. Father said the Wilder family had done itself proud, that day.
There was another day of the Fair, but it wasn’t so much fun. Almanzo was tired of having a good time. Three days of it were too much. It didn’t seem right to be dressed up again and leaving the farm. He felt unsettled, as he did at house- cleaning time. He was glad when the Fair was over and everything could go on as usual.