Mr. Paddock met Almanzo and Father outside the bank. He told Father that he had something in mind.
“I’ve been meaning to speak about it for some little time,” he said. “About this boy of yours.”
Almanzo was surprised.
“You ever think of making a wheelwright out of him?” Mr. Paddock asked.
“Well, no,” Father answered slowly, “I can’t say as I ever did.”
“Well, think it over now,” said Mr. Paddock. “It’s a growing business, Wilder. The country’s growing, population getting bigger all the time, and folks have got to have wagons and buggies. They’ve got to travel back and forth. The rail- roads don’t hurt us. We’re getting more customers all the time. It’s a good opening for a smart young fellow.”
“Yes,” Father said.
“I’ve got no sons of my own, and you’ve got two,” said Mr. Paddock. “You’ll have to think about starting Almanzo out in life, before long. Apprentice him to me, and I’ll treat the boy right. If he turns out the way I expect, no reason he shouldn’t have the business, in time. He’d be a rich man, with maybe half a hundred workmen under him. It’s worth thinking about.”
“Yes,” Father said. “Yes, it’s worth thinking about. I appreciate what you’ve said, Paddock.”
Father did not talk on the way home. Almanzo sat beside him on the wagon seat and did not say anything, either. So much had happened that he thought about it all together, all mixed up.
He thought of the cashier’s inky fingers, and of Mr. Thompson’s thin mouth screwed down at the corners, and of Mr. Paddock’s fists, and the busy, warm, cheerful wagon-shop. He thought, if he was Mr. Paddock’s apprentice, he wouldn’t have to go to school.
He had often envied Mr. Paddock’s workmen. Their work was fascinating. The thin, long shavings curled away from the keen edges of the planes. They stroked the smooth wood with their fingers. Almanzo liked to do that, too. He would like to spread on paint with the wide paintbrush, and he would like to make fine, straight lines with the tiny pointed brush.
When the buggy was done, all shining in its new paint, or when a wagon was finished, every piece good sound hickory or oak, with the wheels painted red and the box painted green, and a little picture painted on the tailboard, the workmen were proud. They made wagons as sturdy as Father’s bobsleds, and far more beautiful.
Then Almanzo felt the small, stiff bankbook in his pocket, and he thought about a colt. He wanted a colt with slender legs and large, gentle, wondering eyes, like Starlight’s. He wanted to teach the little colt everything, as he had taught Star and Bright.
So, Father and Almanzo rode all the way home, not saying anything. The air was still and cold and all the trees were like black lines drawn on the snow and the sky.
It was chore-time when they got home. Almanzo helped do the chores, but he wasted some time looking at Starlight. He stroked the soft velvety nose, and he ran his hand along the firm curve of Starlight’s little neck, under the mane. Starlight nibbled with soft lips along his sleeve.
“Son, where be you?” Father called, and Almanzo ran guiltily to his milking.
At suppertime he sat steadily eating, while Mother talked about what had happened. She said that never in her life—! She said you could have knocked her over with a feather, and she didn’t know why it was so hard to get it all out of Father. Father answered her questions, but like Almanzo, he was busy eating. At last Mother asked him: “James, what’s on your mind?”
Then Father told her that Mr. Paddock wanted to take Almanzo as an apprentice.
Mother’s brown eyes snapped, and her cheeks turned as red as her red wool dress. She laid down her knife and fork.
“I never heard of such a thing!” she said. “Well, the sooner Mr. Paddock gets that out of his head, the better! I hope you gave him a piece of your mind! Why on earth, I’d like to know, should Almanzo live in town at the beck and call of every Tom, Dick, and Harry?”
“Paddock makes good money,” said Father. “I guess if truth were told, he banks more money every year than I do. He looks on it as a good opening for the boy.”
“Well!” Mother snapped. She was all ruffled, like an angry hen. “A pretty pass the world’s coming to, if any man thinks it’s a step up in the world to leave a good farm and go to town! How does Mr. Paddock make his money if it isn’t catering to us? I guess if he didn’t make wagons to suit farmers, he wouldn’t last long!”
“That’s true enough,” said Father. “But—” “There’s no ‘but’ about it!” Mother said. “Oh, it’s bad enough to see Royal come down to being nothing but a storekeeper! Maybe he’ll make money, but he’ll never be the man you are. Truck- ling to other people for his living, all his days— He’ll never be able to call his soul his own.”
For a minute Almanzo wondered if Mother was going to cry.
“There, there,” Father said, sadly. “Don’t take it too much to heart. Maybe it’s all for the best, somehow.”
“I won’t have Almanzo going the same way!” Mother cried. “I won’t have it, you hear me?”
“I feel the same way you do,” said Father. “But the boy will have to decide. We can keep him here on the farm by law till he’s twenty-one, but it won’t do any good if he’s wanting to go. No. If Almanzo feels the way Royal does, we better apprentice him to Paddock while he’s young enough.”
Almanzo went on eating. He was listening, but he was tasting the good taste of roast pork and apple sauce in every corner of his mouth. He took a long, cold drink of milk, and then he sighed and tucked his napkin farther in, and he reached for his pumpkin pie.
He cut off the quivering point of golden- brown pumpkin, dark with spices and sugar. It melted on his tongue, and all his mouth and nose were spicy.
“He’s too young to know his own mind,” Mother objected.
Almanzo took another big mouthful of pie. He could not speak till he was spoken to, but he thought to himself that he was old enough to know he’d rather be like Father than like anybody else. He did not want to be like Mr. Paddock, even. Mr. Paddock had to please a mean man like Mr. Thompson or lose the sale of a wagon. Father was free and independent; if he went out of his way to please anybody, it was because he wanted to.
Suddenly he realized that Father had spoken to him. He swallowed, and almost choked on pie. “Yes, Father,” he said.
Father was looking solemn. “Son,” he said, “you heard what Paddock said about you being apprenticed to him?”
“What do you say about it?”
Almanzo didn’t exactly know what to say. He hadn’t supposed he could say anything. He would have to do whatever Father said.
“Well, son, you think about it,” said Father. “I want you should make up your own mind. With Paddock, you’d have an easy life, in some ways. You wouldn’t be out in all kinds of weather. Cold winter nights, you could lie snug, in bed and not worry about young stock freezing. Rain or shine, wind, or snow, you’d be under shelter. You’d be shut up, inside walls. Likely you’d always have plenty to eat and wear and money in the bank.”
“James!” Mother said.
“That’s the truth, and we must be fair about it,” Father answered. “But there’s the other side, too, Almanzo. You’d have to depend on other folks, son, in town. Everything you got; you’d get from other folks.
“A farmer depends on himself, and the land and the weather. If you’re a farmer, you raise what you eat, you raise what you wear, and you keep warm with wood out of your own timber.
You work hard, but you work as you please, and no man can tell you to go or come. You’ll be free and independent, son, on a farm.”
Almanzo squirmed. Father was looking at him too hard, and so was Mother. Almanzo did not want to live inside walls and please people he didn’t like, and never have horses and cows and fields. He wanted to be just like Father. But he didn’t want to say so.
“You take your time, son. Think it over,” Father said. “You make up your mind what you want.”
“Father!” Almanzo exclaimed. “Yes, son?”
“Can I? Can I really tell you what I want?” “Yes, son,” Father encouraged him.
“I want a colt,” Almanzo said. “Could I buy a colt all my own with some of that two hundred dollars, and would you let me break him?”
Father’s beard slowly widened with a smile. He put down his napkin and leaned back in his chair and looked at Mother. Then he turned to Almanzo and said:
“Son, you leave that money in the bank.”
Almanzo felt everything sinking down inside him. And then, suddenly, the whole world was a great, shining, expanding glow of warm light. For Father went on:
“If it’s a colt you want, I’ll give you Star- light.”
“Father!” Almanzo gasped. “For my very own?”
“Yes, son. You can break him, and drive him, and when he’s a four-year-old you can sell him or keep him, just as you want to. We’ll take him out on a rope, first thing tomorrow morning, and you can begin to gentle him.”