Next morning while Almanzo was eating his oat- meal, Father said this was his birthday. Almanzo had forgotten it. He was nine years old, that cold winter morning.
“There’s something for you in the woodshed,” Father said.
Almanzo wanted to see it right away. But Mother said if he did not eat his breakfast, he was sick, and must take medicine. Then he ate as fast as he could, and she said:
“Don’t take such big mouthfuls.”
Mothers always fuss about the way you eat.
You can hardly eat any way that pleases them.
But at last breakfast was over and Almanzo got to the woodshed. There was a little calf-yoke! Father had made it of red cedar, so it was strong and yet light. It was Almanzo’s very own, and Father said:
“Yes, son, you are old enough now to break the calves.”
Almanzo did not go to school that day. He did not have to go to school when there were more important things to do. He carried the little yoke to the barn, and Father went with him. Almanzo thought that if he handled the calves perfectly, perhaps Father might let him help with the colts next year.
Star and Bright were in their warm stall in the South Barn. Their little red sides were sleek and silky from all the curryings Almanzo had given them. They crowded against him when he went into the stall, and licked at him with their wet, rough tongues. They thought he had brought them carrots. They did not know he was going to teach them how to behave like big oxen.
Father showed him how to fit the yoke care- fully to their soft necks. He must scrape its inside curves with a bit of broken glass, till the yoke fitted perfectly and the wood was silky-smooth. Then Almanzo let down the bars of the stall, and the wondering calves followed him into the dazzling, cold, snowy barnyard.
Father held up one end of the yoke while Almanzo laid the other end on Bright’s neck. Then Almanzo lifted up the bow under Bright’s throat and pushed its ends through the holes made for them in the yoke. He slipped a wooden bow-pin through one end of the bow, above the yoke, and it held the bow in place.
Bright kept twisting his head and trying to see the strange thing on his neck. But Almanzo had made him so gentle that he stood quietly, and Almanzo gave him a piece of carrot.
Star heard him crunching it and came to get his share. Father pushed him around beside Bright, under the other end of the yoke, and Almanzo pushed the other bow up under his throat and fastened it with its bow-pin. There, already, he had his little yoke of oxen.
Then Father tied a rope around Star’s nubs of horns and Almanzo took the rope. He stood in front of the calves and shouted: “Giddap!”
Star’s neck stretched out longer and longer. Almanzo pulled, till finally Star stepped forward.
Bright snorted and pulled back. The yoke twisted Star’s head around and stopped him, and the two calves stood wondering what it was all about.
Father helped Almanzo push them, till they stood properly side by side again. Then he said:
“Well, son, I’ll leave you to figure it out.” And he went into the barn.
Then Almanzo knew that he was really old enough to do important things all by himself.
He stood in the snow and looked at the calves, and they stared innocently at him. He wondered how to teach them what “Giddap!” meant. There wasn’t any way to tell them. But he must find some way to tell them:
“When I say, ‘Giddap!’ you must walk straight ahead.”
Almanzo thought awhile, and then he left the calves and went to the cows’ feed-box and filled his pockets with carrots. He came back and stood as far in front of the calves as he could, holding the rope in his left hand. He put his right hand in- to the pocket of his barn jumper. Then he shouted, “Giddap!” and he showed Star and Bright a carrot in his hand.
They came eagerly.
“Whoa!” Almanzo shouted when they reached him, and they stopped for the carrot. He gave each of them a piece, and when they had eaten it he backed away again, and putting his hand in his pocket he shouted: “Giddap!”
It was astonishing how quickly they learned that “Giddap!” meant to start forward, and “Whoa!” meant to stop. They were behaving as well as grown-up oxen when Father came to the barn door and said:
“That’s enough, son.”
Almanzo did not think it was enough, but of course he could not contradict Father.
“Calves will get sullen and stop minding you if you work them too long at first,” Father said. “Besides, it’s dinner-time.”
Almanzo could hardly believe it. The whole morning had gone in a minute.
He took out the bow-pins, let the bows down, and lifted the yoke off the calves’ necks. He put Star and Bright in their warm stall. Then Father showed him how to wipe the bows and yoke with wisps of clean hay and hang them on their pegs. He must always clean them and keep them dry, or the calves would have sore necks.
In the Horse-Barn he stopped just a minute to look at the colts. He liked Star and Bright, but calves were clumsy and awkward compared with the slender, fine, quick colts. Their nostrils fluttered when they breathed, their ears moved as swiftly as birds. They tossed their heads with a flutter of manes, and daintily pawed with their slender legs and little hoofs, and their eyes were full of spirit.
“I’d like to help break a colt,” Almanzo ventured to say.
“It’s a man’s job, son,” Father said. “One little mistake will ruin a fine colt.”
Almanzo did not say any more. He went soberly into the house.
It was strange to be eating all alone with Father and Mother. They ate at the table in the kitchen, because there was no company today. The kitchen was bright with the glitter of snow out- side. The floor and the tables were scrubbed bone white with lye and sand. The tin saucepans glittered silver, and the copper pots gleamed gold on the walls, the teakettle hummed, and the geraniums on the window-sill were redder than Mother’s red dress.
Almanzo was very hungry. He ate in silence, busily filling the big emptiness inside him, while Father and Mother talked. When they finished eating, Mother jumped up and began putting the dishes into the dishpan.
“You fill the wood-box, Almanzo,” she said. “And then there’s other things you can do.”
Almanzo opened the woodshed door by the stove. There, right before him, was a new hand- sled!
He could hardly believe it was for him. The calf-yoke was his birthday present. He asked:
“Whose sled is that, Father? Is it—it isn’t for me?”
Mother laughed and Father twinkled his eyes and asked, “Do you know any other nine-year-old that wants it?”
It was a beautiful sled. Father had made it of hickory. It was long and slim and swift-looking; the hickory runners had been soaked and bent in- to long, clean curves that seemed ready to fly. Almanzo stroked the shiny-smooth wood. It was polished so perfectly that he could not feel even the tops of the wooden pegs that held it together. There was a bar between the runners, for his feet. “Get along with you!” Mother said, laughing.
“Take that sled outdoors where it belongs.”
The cold stood steadily at forty below zero, but the sun was shining, and all afternoon Almanzo played with his sled. Of course, it would not slide in the soft, deep snow, but in the road the bobsled’s runners had made two sleek, hard tracks. At the top of the hill, Almanzo started the sled and flung himself on it, and away he went.
Only the track was curving and narrow, so sooner or later he spilled into the drifts. End over end went the flying sled, and headlong went Almanzo. But he floundered out and climbed the hill again.
Several times he went into the house for apples and doughnuts and cookies. Downstairs was still warm and empty. Upstairs there was the thud-thud of Mother’s loom and the clickety- clack of the flying shuttle. Almanzo opened the woodshed door and heard the slithery, soft sound of a shaving-knife, and the flap of a turned shingle.
He climbed the stairs to Father’s attic work- room. His snowy mittens hung by their string around his neck; in his right hand he held a doughnut, and in his left hand two cookies. He took a bite of doughnut and then a bite of cookie. Father sat astraddle on the end of the shaving-bench, by the window. The bench slanted upward toward him, and at the top of the slant two pegs stood up. At his right hand was a pile of rough shingles which he had split with his ax from short lengths of oak logs.
He picked up a shingle, laid its end against the pegs, and then drew the shaving-knife up its side. One stroke smoothed it; another stroke shaved the upper end thinner than the lower end. Father flipped the shingle over. Two strokes on that side, and it was done. Father laid it on the pile of finished shingles and set another rough one against the pegs.
His hands moved smoothly and quickly. They did not stop even when he looked up and twinkled at Almanzo.
“Be you having a good time, son?” he asked. “Father, can I do that?” said Almanzo.
Father slid back on the bench to make room in front of him. Almanzo straddled it and crammed the rest of the doughnut into his mouth. He took the handles of the long knife in his hands and shaved carefully up the shingle. It wasn’t as easy as it looked. So, Father put his big hands over Almanzo’s, and together they shaved the shingle smooth.
Then Almanzo turned it over, and they shaved the other side. That was all he wanted to do. He got off the bench and went in to see Mother.
Her hands were flying, and her right foot was tapping on the treadle of the loom. Back and forth the shuttle flew from her right hand to her left and back again, between the even threads of warp, and swiftly the threads of warp criss-crossed each other, catching fast the thread that the shuttle left behind it.
Thud! said the treadle. Clackety-clack! said the shuttle. Thump! said the hand-bar, and back flew the shuttle.
Mother’s workroom was large and bright, and warm from the heating-stove’s chimney. Mother’s little rocking-chair was by one window, and beside it a basket of carpet-rags, torn for sewing. In a corner stood the idle spinning-wheel. All along one wall were shelves full of hanks of red and brown and blue and yellow yarn, which Mother had dyed last summer.
But the cloth on the loom was sheep’s gray. Mother was weaving undyed wool from a white sheep and wool from a black sheep, twisted together.
“What’s that for?” said Almanzo.
“Don’t point, Almanzo,” Mother said. “That’s not good manners.” She spoke loudly, above the noise of the loom.
“Who is it for?” asked Almanzo, not pointing this time.
“Royal. It’s his Academy suit,” said Mother.
Royal was going to the Academy in Malone next winter, and Mother was weaving the cloth for his new suit.
So, everything was snug and comfortable in the house, and Almanzo went downstairs and took two more doughnuts from the doughnut-jar, and then he played outdoors again with his sled.
Too soon the shadows slanted down the east- ward slopes, and he had to put his sled away and help water the stock, for it was chore-time.
The well was quite a long way from the barns. A little house stood over the pump, and the water ran down a trough through the wall and into the big watering-trough outside. The troughs were coated with ice, and the pump handle was so cold that it burned like fire if you touched it with a bare finger.
Boys sometimes dared other boys to lick a pump handle in cold weather. Almanzo knew better than to take the dare. Your tongue would freeze to the iron, and you must either starve to death or pull away and leave part of your tongue there.
Almanzo stood in the icy pumphouse and he pumped with all his might while Father led the horses to the trough outside. First Father led out the teams, with the young colts following their mothers. Then he led out the older colts, one at a time. They were not yet well broken, and they pranced and jumped and jerked at the halter-rope, because of the cold. But Father hung on and did not let them get away.
All the time Almanzo was pumping as fast as he could. The water gushed from the pump with a chilly sound, and the horses thrust their shivering noses into it and drank it up quickly.
Then Father took the pump handle. He pumped the big trough full, and he went to the barns and turned out all the cattle.
Cattle did not have to be led to water. They came eagerly to the trough and drank while Almanzo pumped, then they hurried back to the warm barns, and each went to its own place. Each cow turned into her own stall and put her head between her own stanchions. They never made a mistake.
Whether this was because they had more sense than horses, or because they had so little sense that they did everything by habit, Father did not know.
Now Almanzo took the pitchfork and began to clean the stalls, while Father measured oats and peas into the feed-boxes. Royal came from school, and they all finished chores together as usual. Almanzo’s birthday was over.
He thought he must go to school next day. But that night Father said it was time to cut ice. Almanzo could stay at home to help, and so could Royal.