The wind howled and the snow whirled, and a mournful sound came from the cedars. The skeleton apple trees rattled their branches together like bones. All outdoors was dark and wild and noisy.
But the solid, strong barns were quiet. The howling storm beat upon them, but the barns stood undisturbed. They kept their own warmth inside themselves.
When Almanzo latched the door behind him, the noise of the storm was not so loud as the warm stillness of the barns. The air was quiet. The horses turned in their box-stalls and whinnied softly; the colts tossed their heads and pawed. The cows stood in a row, placidly swinging their tasseled tails; you could hear them chewing their cuds.
Almanzo stroked the soft noses of the horses and looked longingly at the bright-eyed colts. Then he went to the toolshed where Father was mending a flail.
The flail had come off its handle and Father had put them together again. The flail was an ironwood stick, three feet long and as big around as a broom-handle. It had a hole through one end. Its handle was five feet long, and one end was a round knob.
Father put a strip of cowhide through the hole in the flail and riveted the ends together to make a leather loop. He took another strip of cowhide and cut a slit in each end of it. He put it through the leather loop on the flail, then he pushed the slits over the knobbed end of the handle.
The flail and its handle were loosely held together by the two leather loops, and the flail could swing easily in any direction.
Almanzo’s flail was just like Father’s, but it was new and did not need mending. When Father’s flail was ready, they went to the South-Barn Floor.
There was still a faint smell of pumpkins, though the stock had eaten them all. A woodsy smell came from the pile of beech leaves, and a dry, strawy smell came from the wheat. Outside the wind was screeching and the snow was whirling, but the South-Barn Floor was warm and quiet.
Father and Almanzo unbound several sheaves of wheat and spread them on the clean wooden floor.
Almanzo asked Father why he did not hire the machine that did threshing. Three men had brought it into the country last fall, and Father had gone to see it. It would thresh a man’s whole grain crop in a few days.
“That’s a lazy man’s way to thresh,” Father said. “Haste makes waste, but a lazy man’d rather get his work done fast than do it himself. That machine chews up the straw till it’s not fit to feed stock, and it scatters grain around and wastes it.
“All it saves is time, son. And what good is time, with nothing to do? You want to sit and twiddle your thumbs, all these stormy winter days?”
“No!” said Almanzo. He had enough of that, on Sundays.
They spread the wheat two or three inches thick on the floor. Then they faced each other, and they took the handles of their flails in both hands; they swung the flails above their heads and brought them down on the wheat.
Father’s struck, then Almanzo’s; then Father’s, then Almanzo’s. THUD! Thud! THUD! Thud!
It was like marching to the music on Independence Day. It was like beating the drum. THUD! Thud! THUD! Thud!
The grains of wheat were shelling from their little husks and sifting down through the straw. A faint, good smell came from the beaten straw like the smell of the ripe fields in the sun.
Before Almanzo tired of swinging the flail, it was time to use the pitchforks. He lifted the straw lightly, shaking it, then pitched it aside. The brown wheat-grains lay scattered on the floor. Almanzo and Father spread more sheaves over it, then took up their flails again.
When the shelled grain was thick on the floor, Almanzo scraped it aside with a big wooden scraper.
All that day the pile of wheat grew higher. Just before chore-time Almanzo swept the floor in front of the fanning-mill. Then Father shoveled wheat into the hopper, while Almanzo turned the fanning-mill’s handle.
The fans whirred inside the mill, a cloud of chaff blew out its front, and the kernels of clean wheat poured out of its side and went sliding down the rising heap on the floor. Almanzo put a handful into his mouth; they were sweet to chew and lasted a long time.
He chewed while he held the grain-sacks and Father shoveled the wheat into them. Father stood the full sacks in a row against the wall—a good day’s work had been done.
“What say we run some beechnuts through?” Father asked. So, they pitched beech leaves into the hopper, and now the whirring fans blew away the leaves, and the three-cornered brown nuts poured out. Almanzo filled a peck-measure with them, to eat that evening by the heater.
Then he went whistling to do the chores.
All winter long, on stormy nights, there would be threshing to do. When the wheat was threshed, there would be the oats, the beans, the Canada peas. There was plenty of grain to feed the stock, plenty of wheat and rye to take to the mill for flour. Almanzo had harrowed the fields, he had helped in the harvest, and now he was threshing.
He helped to feed the patient cows, and the horses eagerly whinnying over the bars of their stalls, and the hungrily bleating sheep, and the grunting pigs. And he felt like saying to them all: “You can depend on me. I’m big enough to take care of you all.”
Then he shut the door snugly behind him, leaving them all fed and warm and comfortable for the night, and he went trudging through the storm to the good supper waiting in the kitchen.