"W HY do you suppose nuts and things have such dreadful coverings," Jack asked Ko one day, after he had spent half an hour scrubbing his hands with lemon and salt to get the walnut stains off, so he could go to town with mamma.
The barn floor was covered with butternuts and black walnuts and their "shucks," as the boys called the juicy outer covering.
They had made themselves each a flail such as farmers used to use to thresh out wheat and rye, and had been pounding away for a day or two to get the nuts out of their "shucks."
As threshing is generally done by machinery now, a good many boys and girls have never seen a flail. So I must tell you it is two strong sticks, the longest one as long as your arm, or longer. They are fastened together with a bit of rope or leather. You hold one end, and with the other pound the grain or whatever you wish to loosen from its husk.
Those who have gathered butternuts and black walnuts know what a thick, juicy hull the nuts are covered with, and how the juice from these hulls has a very bad taste and stains the fingers a deep, rich brown, which stays a long time.
It is very hard to remove even if one tries. Boys usually do not try,—they let it wear off.
Jack and Ko generally did not trouble themselves much about it, but this time Jack had an invitation to go to the city with his mother to a birthday dinner with half a dozen cousins about his own age. That is, he could go if he could get his hands clean.
He knew there would be fun,—games, and stories, and plenty of ice cream. So he was doing his best with a lemon and a saucer of salt, and Ko was helping him.
"I think," said Ko, "that I know why nuts are covered up this way. Ever since the almond scolded so when I said it was hard because it had to fall a good way, I've been thinking about it."
So you see it sometimes does children good to scold them.
"Well, out with it!" said Jack, who was much more interested just then in getting his hands clean than in hearing about nuts.
"Don't you remember," said Ko, "the almonds Uncle John sent us from California? those fresh ones? They had an outside covering a little like the butternuts, only not so much so. Well, you remember what the Madeira nut said about not coming out of its shell? It was so sweet it might get eaten. Now I believe that's why nuts have such a mean shuck."
"But hickory nuts don't, nor chestnuts," said Jack. "You pick them up as clean and shiny as you please. Ow!" he roared in the same breath, "don't rub all the skin off my fingers!"
"I guess that hand is about as clean as I can get it, and leave any skin on," said Ko, surveying the very red little paw which he had been scrubbing. "I think brown hands look about as well as red ones, but mother doesn't seem to."
"I should say hickory nuts do have bad-tasting shucks, until they get ripe and fall out," he went on, seizing Jack's other hand, and vigorously applying lemon and salt to the finger ends.
"Sometimes the shucks get dry and let the ripe nuts out, and sometimes they stay on the nuts and fall off with them."
"That's about it," said a walnut that had rolled across the barn floor, near where they were sitting. "You see our shells are quite soft at first, and our seeds, though not as sweet as when we are ripe, are still pretty good to eat. So we just cover the whole thing over with the bitterest, stingingest rind we can manage to make, and keep it until we are too hard for birds and most insects. Even then, we walnuts keep our hulls, but hickory nuts drop out of theirs, and so do chestnuts."
"Chestnut burrs don't need to taste very bad," said Jack, laughing. "Nothing would want to bite one again after it had once got a few stickers in its mouth."
"No indeed," said Ko; "come to think of it, all nuts have some sort of horrid outside to them. Remember how sour the hazel burr is?"
"The Madeira nut doesn't," said Jack.
"You can't say that," said Ko, "for you don't know how it grows. I shouldn't wonder if it has, for it is ever so much like a hickory nut."
"Well, Brazil nuts," persisted Jack.
"Goodness, boy! Don't you remember what they told you about the hard cups they grow in? That's for the same thing, only it is hard instead of tasting nasty."
"It's just this way," said the walnut, from its place in the corner. "All of us nuts have to be taken care of while we are growing. Now what do you keep your babies in?"
"In their mothers' arms," said Jack.
"I mean when they're asleep," said the nut.
"Cradles," answered Jack.
"Well, that's the way with us. These bad-tasting or hard husks are just the cradles to keep our babies safe until they are strong enough to help themselves a little."
"Goodness!" said Jack.
"Yes," said the walnut, "that's the way it is."
"I believe all seeds have cradles, come to think of
it," said Ko; "for the beans have their tough pods, and
the peas, too. Even the pigs won't eat
"How about apples?" demanded Jack.
"They taste bad until they're 'most ripe," said Ko; "but then it seems just as if they asked to be eaten."
"Yes,—and cherries, and peaches, and plums, and oh, lots of things!" added Jack.
"I can tell you about that," said the walnut, proud of
being able to tell the boys so many things. "You see,
almonds and plums are very much alike, only almonds
have big, sweet seeds and not very hard shells. Now,
"It is a good thing for the seeds to be carried away from the tree where they grow and thrown in a place where there is more room for them to live."
"There! don't you think that is done?" Jack demanded, pulling his hand away from Ko, and looking at it.
"Yes, I guess you'll do now," was the reply. "If they ask whether we took you for a lobster and tried to boil you, tell them it's scrubbing and not boiling that's made you so red."
"Good-by, Ko," said Jack; "I'll eat an extra plate of ice cream for you."
But Ko did not look very grateful for Jack's generous offer.
"I wish they'd invited me, too," he said.
"Oh, it's Tom's birthday soon, and he's your size, you know, and it will be your turn to go; then I'll have to stay home and think about it," said Jack, consolingly.
And off he went.