FILLING THE ICE-HOUSE
The weather was so cold that the snow was like sand underfoot. A little water thrown into the air came down as tiny balls of ice. Even on the south side of the house at noon the snow did not soften. This was perfect weather for cutting ice, because when the blocks were lifted from the pond, no water would drip; it would instantly freeze.
The sun was rising, and all the eastern slopes of the snowdrifts were rosy in its light, when Almanzo snuggled under the fur robes between Father and Royal in the big bobsled, and they set out to the pond on Trout River.
The horses trotted briskly, shaking jingles from their bells. Their breaths steamed from their nostrils, and the bobsled’s runners squeaked on the hard snow. The cold air crinkled inside Almanzo’s tingling nose, but every minute the sun shone more brightly, striking tiny glitters of red and green light from the snow, and all through the woods there were sparkles of sharp white lights in icicles.
It was a mile to the pond in the woods, and once Father got out to put his hands over the horses’ noses. Their breaths had frozen over their nostrils, making it hard for them to breathe. Father’s hands melted the frost, and they went on briskly.
French Joe and Lazy John were waiting on the pond when the bobsled drove up. They were Frenchmen who lived in little log houses in the woods. They had no farms. They hunted and trapped and fished, they sang and joked and danced, and they drank red wine instead of cider. When Father needed a hired man, they worked for him and he paid them with salt pork from the barrels down cellar.
They stood on the snowy pond, in their tall boots and plaid jackets and fur caps with fur ear- muffs, and the frost of their breaths was on their long mustaches. Each had an ax on his shoulder, and they carried cross-cut saws.
A cross-cut saw has a long, narrow blade, with wooden handles at the ends. Two men must pull it back and forth across the edge of whatever they want to saw in two. But they could not saw ice that way, because the ice was solid underfoot, like a floor. It had no edge to saw across.
When Father saw them, he laughed and called out: “You flipped that penny yet?”
Everybody laughed but Almanzo. He did not know the joke. So French Joe told him:
“Once two Irishmen were sent out to saw ice with a cross-cut saw. They had never sawed ice before. They looked at the ice and they looked at the saw, till at last Pat took a penny out of his pocket and he says, says he:
“‘Now Jamie, be fair. Heads or tails, who goes below?’”
Then Almanzo laughed, to think of anyone going down into the dark, cold water under the ice, to pull one end of the cross-cut saw. It was funny that there were people who didn’t know how to saw ice.
He trudged with the others across the ice to the middle of the pond. A sharp wind blew there, driving wisps of snow before it. Above the deep water the ice was smooth and dark, swept almost bare of snow. Almanzo watched while Joe and John chopped a big, three-cornered hole in it. They lifted out the broken pieces of ice and carried them away, leaving the hole full of open water.
“She’s about twenty inches thick,” Lazy John said.
“Then saw the ice twenty inches,” said Father.
Lazy John and French Joe knelt at the edge
of the hole. They lowered their cross-cut saws in- to the water and began to saw. Nobody pulled the ends of the saws under the water.
Side by side, they sawed two straight cracks through the ice, twenty inches apart, and twenty feet long. Then with the ax John broke the ice across, and a slab twenty inches wide, twenty inches thick, and twenty feet long rose a little and floated free.
With a pole John pushed the slab toward the three-cornered hole, and as the end was thrust out, crackling the thin ice freezing on the water, Joe sawed off twenty-inch lengths of it. Father picked up the cubes with the big iron ice-tongs and loaded them on the bobsleds.
Almanzo ran to the edge of the hole, watching the saw. Suddenly, right on the very edge, he slipped.
He felt himself falling headlong into the dark water. His hands couldn’t catch hold of anything. He knew he would sink and be drawn under the solid ice. The swift current would pull him under the ice, where nobody could find him. He’d drown, held down by the ice in the dark.
French Joe grabbed him just in time. He heard a shout and felt a rough hand jerk him by one leg, he felt a terrific crash, and then he was lying on his stomach on the good, solid ice. He got up on his feet. Father was coming, running.
Father stood over him, big and terrible.
“You ought to have the worst whipping of your life,” Father said.
“Yes, Father,” Almanzo whispered. He knew it. He knew he should have been more careful. A boy nine years old is too big to do foolish things because he doesn’t stop to think. Almanzo knew that, and felt ashamed. He shrank up small inside his clothes and his legs shivered, afraid of the whipping. Father’s whippings hurt. But he knew he deserved to be whipped. The whip was on the bobsled.
“I won’t thrash you this time,” Father decided. “But see to it you stay away from that edge.”
“Yes, Father,” Almanzo whispered. He went away from the hole and did not go near it again.
Father finished loading the bobsled. Then he spread the lap robes on top of the ice, and Almanzo rode on them with Father and Royal, back to the icehouse near the barns.
The icehouse was built of boards with wide cracks between. It was set high from the ground on wooden blocks and looked like a big cage. Only the floor and the roof were solid. On the floor was a huge mound of sawdust, which Father had hauled from the lumber-mill.
With a shovel Father spread the sawdust three inches thick on the floor. On this he laid the cubes of ice, three inches apart. Then he drove back to the pond, and Almanzo went to work with Royal in the icehouse.
They filled every crack between the cubes with sawdust and tamped it down tightly with sticks. Then they shoveled the whole mound of sawdust on top of the ice, in a corner, and where it had been, they covered the floor with cubes of ice and packed them in sawdust. Then they covered it all with sawdust three inches thick.
They worked as fast as they could, but before they finished, Father came with another load of ice. He laid down another layer of ice cubes three inches apart, and drove away, leaving them to fill every crevice tightly with sawdust, and spread sawdust over the top, and shovel the rest of the mound of sawdust up again.
They worked so hard that the exercise kept them warm, but long before noon Almanzo was hungrier than wolves. He couldn’t stop work long enough to run into the house for a doughnut. All of his middle was hollow, with a gnawing inside it.
He knelt on the ice, pushing sawdust into the cracks with his mittened hands, and pounding it down with a stick as fast as he could, and he asked Royal:
“What would you like best to eat?”
They talked about spareribs, and turkey with dressing, and baked beans, and crackling corn- bread, and other good things. But Almanzo said that what he liked most in the world was fried apples’n’onions.
When, at last, they went into dinner, there on the table was a big dish of them! Mother knew what he liked best, and she had cooked it for him. Almanzo ate four large helpings of apples’n’onions fried together. He ate roast beef and brown gravy, and mashed potatoes and creamed carrots and boiled turnips, and countless slices of buttered bread with crab-apple jelly.
“It takes a great deal to feed a growing boy,” Mother said. And she put a thick slice of birds’- nest pudding on his bare plate and handed him the pitcher of sweetened cream speckled with nutmeg.
Almanzo poured the heavy cream over the apples nested in the fluffy crust. The syrupy brown juice curled up around the edges of the cream. Almanzo took up his spoon and ate every bit.
Then until chore-time he and Royal worked in the icehouse. All next day they worked, and all the next day. Just at dusk on the third day, Father helped them spread the last layer of sawdust over the topmost cubes of ice, in the peak of the ice-house roof. And that job was done.
Buried in sawdust, the blocks of ice would not melt in the hottest summer weather. One at a time they would be dug out, and Mother would make ice-cream and lemonade and cold egg-nog.