Authors: Lois Lenski
This time Dick spoke up. “But Uncle Henry, he might have killed somebody.”
Dad added, “He might even have killed himself.”
Wilma stalked off, disgusted. “Now Denny will be more spoiled than ever,” she said.
The women and girls took Denny and went back in the grove to clear up the picnic. The men and boys stayed at the scene of the accident. Raymond backed the tractor out and they found that only one fender was bent. The chief damage was the big hole in the side of the barn. Uncle Henry said he would bring lumber to repair it the next time he came out from town.
“Dad,” said Dick, “how about a game of horseshoes?”
“Fine,” said Dad. “It wouldn't be Fourth of July without horseshoes. A fine old American custom.”
“There's only one better,” added Uncle Henry, “and that's firing firecrackers, the way we did when we were boys. But they won't let us do that any more.”
“Dick,” said Dad, “run and bring the horseshoes.”
Dick went in the barn. Across a two-by-four beam hung a collection of old horseshoes of all sizes. On pegs at one side hung many sets of harness, now dust-covered, mute symbols of the past. Dad refused to throw any away. Dick still remembered the time about six years before when Dad sold his last team of horses. Dad refused to lead them out to the truck at the end of the lane. The man had to come in and get them. Dad went into the house so he would not have to watch them go.
Dick stopped and fingered the harness. If he could only have lived in the days of horses, he would not mind being forbidden the tractor. A horse was something alive. A person could love a horse far more than a machine. A horse had as much intelligence as a dog, a lot more than a hog. Machines had no personality at all, no understanding, no intelligence. They were dangerous.
Dick remembered the time when “the iron man” came to get the old horse-drawn machinery that was not used any more but was all lined up and rusting in the grove. Dick and Raymond had watched while the iron man tore it all down. He drove off with two big truckloads. Dad did not watch that go either.
But the men were waiting for him. Dick took the horseshoes out and the game began. The cheerful
of the iron horseshoes against the iron stake, the dull thud as they hit the soft ground and bounced in the dust satisfied the boy. He could play almost as well as Dad could. But Earl, his cousin, could never hit the stake at all.
That night they ate supper indoors. Afterward, the cousins went with Wilma and Dick to get the cows. Raymond and Dad did the hog chores and Earl and Margy the chicken chores.
As the children made their way to the pasture, Buster and Popcorn frisked and jumped beside them. Dick brought a handful of red apples from the kitchen. The Hasses had a tree and Mrs. Hass had sent some over. The children munched apples and threw away the cores. Then the girls began to sing and Dick to whistle. The air was cooler now as the sun began to sink lower in the west.
The cattle were waiting at the gate. Buster ran and brought up one from a distant corner. Popcorn dashed off in another direction. Dick opened the gate and they started driving the cows through. Their path led along by the creek. Wilma looked around. Behind her, the grass was tall and she saw it waving. She did not think much of it. Then she stopped to see if it was Popcorn coming. She saw a dark bushy tail waving over the grass. It was not Buster's, for Buster was in plain sight, still over in the field.
“Look!” Wilma said to Patsy. “There comes one of the cats. See its tail? It's following us.”
“How many cats have you?” asked Betsy.
“Oh, about fourteen, I think,” said Wilma.
“Where do you keep them?” asked Patsy.
“Bob-bob stays up at the house,” said Wilma. “The others are just barn cats. They live in the barn and corncrib. They live off rats and mice.”
Wilma looked around again. The tail was coming closer. It was big and bushy. Suddenly she knew.
” screamed Wilma. “It's a
” echoed Patsy and Betsy. Even the two city girls knew the menace of that dread word. Their eyes opened in terror.
“Run, girls, run!” cried Wilma. “It's a skunk! Dick! It's coming right
Dick's first thought was to look for a weapon, but there was none handy. No rock, no stone or stick to pick up. The animal was moving fast. Dick had to think quickly. He knew there was something wrong with the skunk or it would not be chasing them. A well skunk, if left alone, would be frightened of people and go the other way. Dick had only his feet, his shoes, to use as weapons.
Buster returned, barking noisily and sniffing. The dog started after the skunk, then backed up, then started after it again. Each time the dog ducked back, afraid of being bitten. The skunk dodged back. When the dog received a heavy dose of skunk spray, he ran away yelping. Patsy and Betsy ran screaming toward the cows. But the cows were excited, too. The girls were afraid of the cows, so they came screaming back. They huddled together, not knowing which way to go.
Dick kicked the animal when it came near. It turned again. Dick knocked it in the creek, but the blow only stunned it. It started coming after the children. Wilma, who had stood by ready to help, took off her shoe and threw it to Dick. The boy caught the shoe and hit the animal on the head with it as hard as he could. At last it was dead.
But it had done its work. All the children had been sprayed and one of the cows. Dick and Wilma got the worst of it. The children stood around and looked at the dead animal. Then they looked at themselves. Patsy and Betsy fell into each other's arms sobbing.
Wilma said, “Heavenly days! That's nothing. Things like this happen all the time on a farm. It was
Dick took a deep breath. “Never saw a skunk behave like that in my life before.”
a skunk!” sobbed Betsy. “Just
at us!” She lifted up her ruffled, flowered skirt. “And
us!” sobbed Patsy. “I hate your old farm, and I'm never coming out here again as long as I live.”
Wilma looked down at her old shirt and ragged jeans. She was glad now she had changed. But she was too genuinely sorry for her cousins to brag about her own good luck.
“We'll have to bury all our clothes,” she said quietly.
our clothes?” said Patsy. “What do you mean?”
“Why, these dresses are just new,” sobbed Betsy. “We just bought them for the Fourth of July picnic. Can't we wash them to get the smell out?”
“Skunk smell will never come out,” said Wilma.
“If we bury our clothes, what will we wear?” wailed Patsy.
“Oh!” said Wilma. “We'll dig up some old rags for you to wear back to town.”
“That smell is on my hands and arms too,” cried Patsy.
“And all over my legs and shoes and socks,” added Betsy.
“We all have to take baths,” said Wilma flatly.
“And have a good long soak,” said Dick. “We know what to do. This has happened to us plenty of times. Mom has some special soap to use and a disinfectant. But even then, it takes a lot of soaking.” Dick turned the animal over with his foot. “Old Skunky, you know how to protect yourself from people all right, don't you? We wouldn't have made trouble for you if you hadn't chased us.”
The cow that had been sprayed ran to the far end of the pasture. Buster could not bring her in. Dick called him and the children followed the cows. Dick picked up the skunk and carried it by the tail.
“Why do you bring that nasty old thing?” asked Patsy.
“I want Dad and Raymond to see it,” said Dick. “It must have had the rabies. A good thing Buster is such a coward and wouldn't come near. If the skunk had bit him, he'd get the rabies too, and have to be killed.”
“I heard Dad say the Ludwigs killed a rabid skunk last week,” said Wilma. “Where's Popcorn?”
“Gone back to the house,” said Dick. “I'm glad he didn't stay with us.”
Dad and Raymond and Uncle Henry and Margy met the children halfway back to the barn. Dick threw the dead animal at Raymond's feet.
“What's this?” laughed Raymond. “A new pet?”
“DON'T COME NEAR US!” warned Dad.
Uncle Henry began to joke and hold his nose and tease his daughters. But they did not think it funny at all. Margy ran back to tell Mom and Aunt Etta. Aunt Etta made a great fuss while Mom built a fire in the wash-house stove to heat water for the children's baths. The clothes were buried by Dad and Uncle Henry and the wash-house was a busy place that night. As for poor old Buster, he had to spend weeks in the doghouse!
The Lost Corn Knife
“We'll have to get after those cockleburrs,” announced Dad one evening.
Cockleburrs!” All the children groaned.
It was several weeks after the Fourth of July and the picnic with its exciting ending was a thing of the past.
“A single burr when it first forms is poisonous and can kill a hog,” Dad went on. “If we leave one plant, it's as bad as leaving five hundred. The seed is carried by dogs and rabbits. It will wash down a creek and scatter over a whole field. It can lie dormant for seven years and still germinate and produce a big crop.”
“Don't we know it!” complained Raymond. “We've spent all our lives pulling cockleburrs, chopping them, spraying them, and they're still thereâall over the cornfields.”
“Not all over,” said Dad cheerfully. “The west forty is pretty clean. But the south side of this eighty along the fence where it meets the hogs' clover and down by the creek, is bad. We must get them out before the burrs get ripe and seed themselves. If we don't do it, the neighbors will soon be saying, âOld Man Green is taking over the Hoffman farm.'”
“Who is âOld Man Green'?” asked Margy.
“That's another name for Grandpa Cockleburr,” said Dad.
“When we went over to Hasses' to chop theirs out,” Dick said, “Mr. Hass paid us two dollars a day and fed us a big dinner too.”
“On your own farm, you don't get paid,” said Dad flatly. “But I'll tell you a secretâthe sweet corn is ready to pick.”
“Corn-on-the-cob!” cried Wilma. “Yum! Yum! I'll chop cockleburrs if I can have about ten ears to eat for dinner.”
The next morning after chores and breakfast were over, Dad called everybody to come. “It rained a little last night,” he said. “The cockleburrs will pull easy.”
Pulling cockleburrs was a family affair in the corn country. Mom and Wilma put on old slacks and shirts of Dad's. Mom wore a scarf around her head and Wilma an old straw hat. Margy wore Dick's old dungarees, big enough to fall off her. Dick and Raymond left shoes and socks at the house and rolled their pants up to their knees. They all started out. Both dogs went with them.
Because it was still early, it was damp and foggy out in the cornfield. The corn was up to a man's shoulder now, just beginning to tassel. The curly stiff leaves hung in curving arcs and rustled against each other. The wind began to blow the fog away. By noon it would be bright and sunny with midsummer heatâgood corn-growing weather.
The family spread out at the edge of the field. Dad and Mom and Raymond took four rows each. Dick and Wilma took two, Margy tagged along between Mom and Wilma. Most of the plants were young ones, with burrs just starting to form on the tips. They were easy to pull from the soft wet ground. When Dick or Wilma found one they could not pull, they called out, “Big one!” Dad or Raymond came over with the corn knife and chopped it out, cutting the root open so it would not grow again. They hung some of the larger plants on the cornstalks to dry them out. The smaller ones were left lying in piles in the row.
Dick hated cockleburrs and he hated getting rid of them. The cornstalks were wet, still dripping with rain from the night before. Pollen from the tassels dropped on bare necks and arms and stung them. The sharp edges of the long leaves hit Dick's face and cut it sometimes. Heavy corn in the ear bumped him on the head. The ground was so muddy it was hard to walk.