Gateway to the Classics: Boy Life on the Prairie by Hamlin Garland
Boy Life on the Prairie by  Hamlin Garland

The Fall's Ploughing

Before he could get down from the roof the boy rider turned and rode up to the fence, and Lincoln went out to meet him.

"Hello. Didn't ketch 'em, did ye?"

The rider smiled. "Ladrone made a good try."

"Is that the name of your horse?"

"Yup. What's your name?"

"Lincoln Stewart. What's yours?"

"Rance Knapp."

"Where do you live?"

The boy pointed away to a big frame house which lifted over the tops of some small trees. "Right over there. Can you ride a horse?"

"You bet I can!" said Lincoln.

"Well, then, you come over and see me sometime."

"All right; I will. You come see me."

"All right," Rance replied and dashed away.

He was a fine-looking boy, and Lincoln and Owen liked him. He was about twelve years old and tall and slender, with brown eyes and light yellow hair. He sat high in his saddle like a man, and his manners were not at all boyish. It was plain he considered himself very nearly grown up. Lincoln made him his boy hero at once.

For a few days Lincoln and Owen had nothing to do but to keep the cattle from straying, and they seized the chance to become acquainted with the country round about. It burned deep into Lincoln's brain, this wide, sunny, windy country,—the sky was so big and the horizon line so low and so far away. The grasses and flowers were nearly all new to him. On the uplands the herbage was short and dry and the plants stiff and woody, but in the swales the wild oat shook its quivers of barbed and twisted arrows, and the crow's-foot, tall and willowy, bowed softly under the feet of the wind, while everywhere in the lowlands, as well as on the sedges, the bleaching white antlers of monstrous elk lay scattered to testify of the swarming millions of wild cattle which once fed there.

To the south the settlement thickened, for in that direction lay the country town, but to the north and west the unclaimed prairie rolled, the feeding ground of the cattle, but the boys had little opportunity to explore that far.

One day his father said:—

"Well, Lincoln, I guess you'll have to run the plough-team this fall. I've got so much to do around the house, and we can't afford to hire."

This seemed a very fine and manly commission, and the boy drove his team out into the field one morning with vast pride, there to crawl round and round his first "back furrow," which stretched from one side of the quarter section to another.


But the pride and elation did not last. The task soon became exceedingly tiresome and the field lonely. It meant moving toward and fro, hour after hour, with no one to talk to and nothing to break the monotony. It meant walking eight or nine miles in the forenoon and as many more in the afternoon, with less than an hour off at dinner. It meant care of the share,—holding it steadily and properly. It meant dragging the heavy implement around the corners, and it meant also many mishaps where thick stubble or wild buckwheat rolled up around the standard and threw the share completely out of the ground.

Lincoln, although strong and active, was rather short, and to reach the plough handles he was obliged to lift his hands above his shoulders. He made, indeed, a comical but rather pathetic figure, with the guiding lines crossed over his small back, plodding along the furrows, his worn straw hat bobbing just above the cross-brace. Nothing like him had been seen in the neighborhood; and the people on the roadway, looking across the field, laughed and said, "That's a little too young a boy to do work like that."

He was cheered and aided by his little brother Owen, who ran out occasionally to meet him as he turned the nearest corner. Sometimes he even went all the way around, chatting breathlessly as he trotted after. At other times he was prevailed upon to bring out a cooky and a glass of milk from the house. Notwithstanding all this, ploughing was lonesome, tiresome work.

The flies were savage, and the horses suffered from their attacks, especially in the middle of the day. They drove badly because of their suffering, their tails continually got over the lines, and in stopping to kick the flies off they got astride the traces, and in other ways were troublesome. Only in early morning or when the sun sank low at night, were the loyal brutes able to move quietly in their ways.

The soil was a smooth, dark, sandy loam, which made it possible for Lincoln to do the work expected of him. Often the plough went the entire mile "round" without striking a root or a pebble as big as a walnut, running steadily with a crisp, craunching, shearing sound, which was pleasant to hear. The work would have been thoroughly enjoyable to Lincoln had it not been so incessant.

He cheered himself in every imaginable way; he whistled, he sang, and he studied the clouds. He ate the beautiful red seed vessels upon the wild-rose bushes, and watched the prairie chickens as they came together in great swarms, running about in the stubble field seeking food. He stopped a moment to study the lizards he upturned. He observed the little granaries of wheat which the mice and gophers had deposited in the ground and which the plough threw out. His eye dwelt lovingly on the sailing hawk, on the passing of wild geese, and on the occasional shadowy presence of a prairie wolf.

There were days, however, when nothing could cheer him, when the wind blew cold from the north, when the sky was full of great, swiftly hurrying, ragged clouds, and the whole world was gloomy and dark; when the horses' tails streamed in the wind, and his own ragged coat flapped round his little legs and wearied him. There were worse mornings, when a coating of snow covered the earth, and yet the ploughing went on. These were the most distressing of all days, for as the sun rose the mud softened and "gummed" his boots and trouser legs, clogging his steps and making him weep and swear with discomfort and despair. He lost the sense of being a boy, and yet he was unable to prove himself a man by quietly quitting work.

Day after day, through the month of September and deep into October, Lincoln followed his team in the field, turning over two acres of stubble each day. At last it began to grow cold, so cold that in the early morning he was obliged to put one hand in his pocket to keep it warm, while holding the plough with the other. His hands grew red and chapped and sore by reason of the constant keen nipping of the air. His heart was sometimes very bitter and rebellious, because of the relentless drag of his daily toil. It seemed that the stubble land miraculously restored itself each night. His father did not intend to be cruel, but he was himself a hard-working man, an early riser, and a swift workman, and it seemed a natural and necessary thing to have his sons work. He himself had been bound out at nine years of age, and had never known a week's release from toil.

As it grew colder morning by morning, Lincoln observed that the ground broke into little flakes before the standing coulter. This gave him joy, for soon it would be frozen too hard to plough. At last there came a morning, when by striking his heel upon the ground, he convinced his father that it was too hard to break, and he was allowed to remain in the house. These were beautiful hours of respite. He had time to play about the barn or to read. He usually read, devouring anything he could lay his hands upon, newspapers, whether old or new, or pasted on the wall or piled up in the garret. His mother declared he would stand on his head to read a paper pasted on the wall. Books were scarce, but he borrowed remorselessly and so read "Franklin's Autobiography,"  "Life of P. T. Barnum," Scott's "Ivanhoe," and "The Female Spy."

But unfortunately the sun came out warm and bright, after these frosty nights, the ground softened up, and his father's imperious voice rang out, "Come, Lincoln, time to hitch up," and once more the boy returned to the toil of the field.

But at last there came a day when Lincoln shouted with joy as he stepped out of the house. The ground was frozen hard and rung under the feet of the horses like iron, and the bitter wind, raw and gusty, swept out of the northwest, with spiteful spitting of snowflakes. Winter had come, and ploughing was over at last. The plough was brought in, cleaned and greased to prevent its rusting, and upturned in the tool-shed, and Lincoln began to look forward to the opening day of school.



A lonely task it is to plough!

All day the black and clinging soil

Rolls like a ribbon from the mould-board's

Glistening curve. All day the horses toil

Battling with the flies—and strain

Their creaking collars. All day

The crickets jeer from wind-blown shocks of grain.

October brings the frosty dawn,

The still, warm noon, the cold, clear night,

When torpid crickets make no sound,

And wild-fowl in their southward flight

Go by in hosts—and still the boy

And tired team gnaw round by round,

At weather-beaten stubble, band by band,

Until at last, to their great joy,

The winter's snow seals up the unploughed land.

One day he was sent to borrow a sand-sieve of neighbor Jennings, and on his way he crossed a big pond in the creek. The ice, newly formed, was clear as glass, and looking down he saw hundreds of fish, pickerel, muskelunge, suckers, red-horse, mud-cats, sunfish—the water was boiling with them! Instantly the boy became greatly excited. Never had he seen so many fish, and he looked round to see the cause of it. The creek had fallen to a thin stream, over which these large fish could not move, and they were caught in a trap.

Hurrying on down to the Jennings place, he put his news into the most exciting words he could find. But Mr. Jennings, a large, jolly old fellow, only sucked his pipe and said, "They're no account, I guess, on account of the stagnant water."

Lincoln's face fell, and hearing a snicker behind him, he turned and saw Milton Jennings for the first time, and at the moment disliked him. He had a thin, fair, smiling, handsome face, and his curly, taffy-colored hair curled at the ends. His blue-gray eyes were full of mischievous lights, and his head was tipped on one side like a chicken's.

"You're the new boy, ain't ye?"

"Well, s'pose I be!"

"Think you're awful smart, don't you! S'pose I didn't see them fish?"

"Well, if you did, why didn't you catch 'em?"

" 'Cause they're all diseased."  He gave a dreadful emphasis to the word, and Lincoln knew he got it from his father.

In the silence that followed Lincoln remembered his errand. "Father wants to borrow your sand-sieve."

"All right. Go get it for him, Milton."

The two boys walked off, shoulder to shoulder. Milton was about a year older than Lincoln, and readier of speech. His profile was as fine as the image on a coin, but he was not so handsome and strong as Rance Knapp. He wore a suit of store clothes; true, they were old, but the fit of the coat and trousers made a deep impression upon Lincoln. He had heard that Mr. Jennings was one of the well-to-do farmers of the prairie, and the gleaming white paint on their house seemed to verify the rumor.

With the sieve on his head, he lingered to say good-by, for he was beginning to like the smiling boy.

"Come over and see me," said Milton.

"All right; you come over and see me."

"I've got a gun."

"So've I—anyhow, father lets me fire it off. I hunt gophers with it."

"So do I, and ducks. Say, s'pose we set together at school."

"All right. I'd like to."

"Begins a week from Monday. Well, good-by."


Lincoln went away feeling very light-hearted, for the last words of the boy were cordial and hearty. He loved to joke, but he was, after all, a good boy.

That night as they were all sitting round the lamp reading, Mr. Stewart said, "Well, wife, I suppose we've got to take these boys to town and fit 'em out ready for school."

"Oh, goody!" cried Owen. "Now I can spend my six centses."

He danced with joy all the evening and could hardly compose himself to sleep. At breakfast neither of them had any appetite, and their willingness to do chores would have amazed Mr. Stewart, only he had known such "spells" before.

As they rattled off down the road in the cold, clear morning, the boys were round-eyed with excitement, and studied every house and barn with such prolonged interest that their heads revolved on their necks like young owls. It was a plain prairie road which ran part of the way through lanes of rail fences, and part of the way diagonally across vacant quarter-sections, but it led toward timber land and the county town! It was all wonderful country to the boys.

Rock River had only one street of stores and blacksmith shops and taverns, but it was an imposing place to Lincoln, and Owen clung close to his father's legs like a scared puppy. Both stumbled over nail-kegs and grub-hoes, while their eyes devoured people, and jars of candy, and mittens hanging on a string. When they spoke they whispered, as if in church, pointing with stubby finger, "See there!" what time some new wonder broke on their sight.

Each had a few pennies to spend, and they were soon sucking sticks of candy, while they listened to the talk of the grocer. Owen's mouth was filled with a big striped "marble" while his father was putting caps on his head as if he were a hitching-post, and his hands were so sticky he could scarcely try on his new mittens.

The buying of boots was the crowning joy of the day, or would have been, if Mr. Stewart had not insisted on their taking those which were a size too large for them. No one wore shoes in those days. The war still dominated, and a sort of cavalry boot was the model. Lincoln's had red tops with a golden moon in the centre, while Owen's were blue, with a flag. They had a delicious smell, too, and the hearts of the youngsters glowed every time they looked at them. Lincoln was delighted to find that his did not have copper toes. He considered copper-toed shoes fit only for babies. A youth who had ploughed seventy acres of land couldn't reasonably be expected to wear copper-toed boots.

Then there were new books to be bought, also. A new geography, a new "Ray's Arithmetic," and a slate. These new books had a nice smell, also, and there was charm in the smooth surface of the unmarked slates. At last, with all their treasures under the seat, where they could look at them or feel of them, with their slates clutched in their hands, the boys jolted home in silence, dreaming of the new boots and mittens and scarfs which they would put on when the next snow-storm came. Lincoln was pensive and silent all the evening, for he was digesting the mass of new sights, sounds, and sensations which the day's outing had thrust upon him.

Meanwhile, he had made but few acquaintances, and looked forward to his first day at school with nervous dread. He knew something of the torment to which big boys subject little ones, and he felt very weak and diminutive as he thought of leading Owen up the road that first morning, when every face was strange. He knew but two boys, Milton Jennings and Rance Knapp. Rance was not easy to become acquainted with, but Lincoln felt a confidence in him which Milton did not inspire. He had seen but little of either of them, and had no feeling of comradeship with them. His battles, and those of Owen also, must be fought out alone.

As the cold winds arose, and the leaves of the popple trees and hazel bushes were stripped away, the prairie took on a wilder, fiercer look. The prairie chickens, in immense flocks, gathered in the corn-fields to feed, and the boys were fired with evil desires. They built a trap, and caught several, and when they were killed and dressed and fried they ate them with relish born of a salt pork diet. Aside from these splendid birds, innumerable chickadees, and a few owls, there was no other bird life. The prairies became silent, lone, wind-swept, and the cattle drew close around the snow-piles, and the people crowded into their small shacks, and waited for winter.


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