FALL OF THE YEAR
Wind’s in the north,” Father said at breakfast. “And clouds coming up. We better get the beech- nuts in before it snows.”
The beech trees grew in the timber lot, two miles away by the road, but only half a mile across the fields. Mr. Webb was a good neighbor and let Father drive across his land.
Almanzo and Royal put on their caps and warm coats, Alice put on her cloak and hood, and they rode away with Father in the wagon, to gather the beechnuts.
When they came to a stone fence Almanzo helped to take it down and let the wagon through. The pastures were empty now; all the stock was in the warm barns, so they could leave the fences down until the last trip home.
In the beech grove all the yellow leaves had fallen. They lay thick on the ground beneath the slim trunks and delicate bare limbs of the beeches. The beechnuts had fallen after the leaves and lay on top of them. Father and Royal lifted the matted leaves carefully on their pitchforks and put them, nuts and all, into the wagon. And Alice and Almanzo ran up and down in the wag- on, trampling down the rustling leaves to make room for more.
When the wagon was full, Royal drove away with Father to the barns, but Almanzo and Alice stayed to play till the wagon came back.
A chill wind was blowing, and the sunlight was hazy. Squirrels frisked about, storing away nuts for the winter. High in the sky the wild ducks were honking, hurrying south. It was a wonderful day for playing wild Indian, all among the trees.
When Almanzo was tired of playing Indian, he and Alice sat on a log and cracked beechnuts with their teeth. Beechnuts are three-cornered and shiny-brown and small, but every shell is solidly full of meat. They are so good that nobody could ever eat enough of them. At least, Almanzo never got tired of eating them before the wagon came back.
Then he and Alice trampled down leaves again, while the busy pitchforks made the patch of bare ground larger and larger.
It took almost all day to gather all the beech- nuts. In the cold twilight Almanzo helped to lay up the stone fences behind the last load. All the beechnuts in their leaves made a big pile on the South-Barn Floor, beside the fanning-mill.
That night Father said they’d seen the last of Indian summer.
“It will snow tonight,” he said. Sure enough, when Almanzo woke next morning the light had a snowy look, and from the window he saw the ground and barn roof white with snow.
Father was pleased. The soft snow was six inches deep, but the ground was not yet frozen.
“Poor man’s fertilizer,” Father called such a snow, and he set Royal to plowing it into all the fields. It carried something from the air into the ground, that would make the crops grow.
Meanwhile Almanzo helped Father. They tightened the barn’s wooden windows and nailed down every board that had loosened in the summer’s sun and rain. They banked the walls of the barn with straw from the stalls, and they banked the walls of the house with clean, bright straw. They laid stones on the straw to hold it snug against winds. They fitted storm doors and storm windows on the house, just in time. That week ended with the first hard freeze.
Bitter cold weather had come to stay, and now it was butchering-time.
In the cold dawn, before breakfast, Almanzo helped Royal set up the big iron caldron near the barn. They set it on stones, and filled it with water, and lighted a bonfire under it. It held three barrels of water.
Before they had finished, Lazy John and French Joe had come, and there was time to snatch only a bite of breakfast. Five hogs and a yearling beef were to be killed that day.
As soon as one was killed, Father and Joe and John dipped the carcass into the boiling caldron and heaved it out and laid it on boards. With butcher knives they scraped all the hair off it. Then they hung it up by the hind feet in a tree and cut it open and took all the insides out into a tub.
Almanzo and Royal carried the tub to the kitchen, and Mother and the girls washed the heart and liver and snipped off all the bits of fat from the hog’s insides, to make lard.
Father and Joe skinned the beef carefully. The hide came off in one big piece. Every year Father killed a beef and saved the hide to make shoes.
All that afternoon the men were cutting up the meat, and Almanzo and Royal were hurrying to put it all away. All the pieces of fat pork they packed in salt, in barrels down cellar. The hams and shoulders they slid carefully into barrels of brown pork-pickle, which Mother had made of salt, maple sugar, saltpeter, and water, boiled together. Pork-pickle had a stinging smell that felt like a sneeze.
Spareribs, backbones, hearts, livers, tongues, and all the sausage meat had to go into the wood- shed attic. Father and Joe hung the quarters of beef there, too. The meat would freeze in the at- tic and stay frozen all winter.
Butchering was finished that night. French Joe and Lazy John went whistling home, with fresh meat to pay for their work, and Mother baked spareribs for supper. Almanzo loved to gnaw the meat from the long, curved, flat bones. He liked the brown pork-gravy, too, on the creamy mashed potatoes.
All the next week Mother and the girls were hard at work, and Mother kept Almanzo in the kitchen to help. They cut up the pork fat and boiled it in big kettles on the stove. When it was done, Mother strained the clear hot lard through white cloths into big stone jars.
Crumbling brown cracklings were left inside the cloth after Mother squeezed it, and Almanzo sneaked a few and ate them whenever he could. Mother said they were too rich for him. She put them away to be used for seasoning cornbread.
Then she made the headcheese. She boiled the six heads till the meat came off the bones; she chopped it and seasoned it and mixed it with liquor from the boiling and poured it into six-quart pans. When it was cold it was like jelly, for a gelatine had come out of the bones.
Next Mother made mincemeat. She boiled the best bits of beef and pork and chopped them fine. She mixed in raisins and spices, sugar and vinegar, chopped apples and brandy, and she packed two big jars full of mincemeat. It smelled delicious, and she let Almanzo eat the scraps left in the mixing-bowl.
All this time he was grinding sausage meat. He poked thousands of pieces of meat into the grinder and turned the handle round and round, for hours and hours. He was glad when that was finished. Mother seasoned the meat and molded it into big balls, and Almanzo had to carry all those balls into the woodshed attic and pile them up on clean cloths. They would be there, frozen, all winter, and every morning Mother would mold one ball into little cakes and fry them for break- fast.
The end of butchering-time was candle-making.
Mother scrubbed the big lard-kettles and filled them with bits of beef fat. Beef fat doesn’t make lard; it melts into tallow. While it was melting, Almanzo helped string the candle-molds.
A candle-mold was two rows of tin tubes, fastened together and standing straight up on six feet. There were twelve tubes in a mold. They were open at the top, but tapered to a point at the bottom, and in each point, there was a tiny hole.
Mother cut a length of candle-wicking for each tube. She doubled the wicking across a small stick and twisted it into a cord. She licked her thumb and finger and rolled the end of the cord into a sharp point. When she had six cords on the stick, she dropped them into six tubes, and the stick lay on top of the tubes. The points of the cords came through the tiny holes in the points of the tubes, and Almanzo pulled each one tight, and held it tight by sticking a raw potato on the tube’s sharp point.
When every tube had its wick, held straight and tight down its middle, Mother carefully poured the hot tallow. She filled every tube to the top. Then Almanzo set the mold outdoors to cool. When the tallow was hard, he brought the mold in. He pulled off the potatoes. Mother dipped the whole mold quickly into the boiling water and lifted the sticks. Six candles came up on each stick.
Then Almanzo cut them off the stick. He trimmed the ends of wicking off the flat ends, and he left just enough wicking to light, on each pointed end. And he piled the smooth, straight candles in waxy-white piles.
All one-day Almanzo helped Mother make candles. That night they had made enough candles to last till butchering-time next year.