On the Farm in Winter by Anonymous

The life of a boy in winter on the old-fashioned New England farm seems to me one of the best of the right kinds of life for a healthy lad, provided his tastes have not been spoiled by wrong reading, or by some misleading glimpse of a city by gas-light. It certainly abounds with the blood and muscle-making sports for which the city physiologists so anxiously strive to substitute rinks and gymnasiums.

But I rather pity a young fellow who gets his only sleigh rides by paying a dollar an hour to the livery-stable, and who must do his skating within limits on artificial ice. He never gets even a taste of such primitive fun as two boys I know had last winter. The sleigh was at the wagon-maker's shop for repairs when the first heavy snow fell, and they harnessed Dobbin to an old boat, and had an uproarious ride up hill and down dale, with glorious bumps and jolts.

I rather pity a fellow, too, who eats grocer's apples, and confectioner's nuts, and baker's cream cakes, who never knows the fun of going down cellar to the apple bins to fill his pockets for school, and who owns no right in a pile of butternuts on the garret floor. I am sorry for a boy that knows nothing of the manly freedom of trowsers tucked in boots, hands and feet both cased in home-knit mittens and home-knit socks—I cannot believe his blood is as red, or can possibly flow so deep and strong in his sidewalk sort of life, as the young fellows who chop wood and ply the snow-shovel, and turn out en masse with snow-ploughs after a long storm—the sound of the future strength of the land is in the sturdy stamp of their snowy boots at the door as they come in from their hearty work. I am not writing of country boys that want to be clerks,—they are spoiled for fun anyhow,—but of the boys that expect, if they expect anything in particular, to stay on the farm and own it themselves some day.

This stinging cold morning the boys at the schoolhouse door are not discussing the play-bills of the Globe or the Museum, but how the river froze last night, turning the long quiet surface to blue-black ice, as smooth as a looking-glass. Now what skating! what grand noonings, what glorious evenings! No rink or frog-pond, where one no sooner gets under headway than he must turn about, but miles and miles of curving reaches leading him forward between rustling sedges, till he sees the white caps of the open lake dancing before him.

Presently the snow comes and puts an end to the sport; for sweeping miles and miles of ice is out of the question. After the snow, a thaw; and then the jolly snow-balling. There is not enough of a thaw to take the snow off; only enough to make it just sufficiently sloppy and soft for the freeze-up that follows to give it a crust almost as hard and smooth as the ice lately covered up.

Then such coasting! Just think of dragging your sled of a moonlight night up a mile of easy tramping to the foot of the mountain, whence you come down again, now fast, now slow, now "like a streak" down a sharp incline, now running over a even-rail fence buried in the glittering drifts, and bringing up at last at a neighbor's door, or at the back side of your own barnyard!

It is great fun, too, to slide on the drifts with "slews" or "jump-ers." These are made sometimes of one, sometimes of two barrel-staves, and are sure to give you many a jolly bump and wintersault.

There is fun to be had in the drifts too, digging caves or under-snow houses, wherein you may build a fire without the least danger. Here you can be Esquimaux, and your whole tribe sally forth from the igloŽ and attack a terrible white bear, if one of the party will kindly consent to be a bear for awhile. You can make him white enough by pelting him with snow, and he will bear enough before he is finally killed.

There is fun, too, and of no mean order, to be got out of the regular farm duties. Not much, perhaps, out of bringing in the wood, or feeding the pigs, or turning the fanning-mill; but foddering the sheep and calves, which, very likely, are pets, takes the boys to the hay-mow, where odors of summer linger in the herds-grass, and the daisy and clover-tops are almost as green and white and yellow and purple as when they fell before the scythe.

What a place is this elastic floor for a "wrestle or a summersault!" and then, who "da's't" climb to the big beam, into the neighborhood of the empty swallows nests and dusty cobwebs, and take the flying jump therefrom to the mow? Here, too, are hens' nests to be found, with frost-cracked eggs to carry in rats, and larger prey, also to be hunted when the hay is so nearly spent that the fork sticks into the loose boards at the bottom of the hay.

But of all things which the farmer's boy is wanted to do, and wants to do, there is nothing such clear fun as the breaking of a yoke of calves. First, the little yoke is to be got on to the pair somehow and a rope made fast to the "nigh" one's head, that is, the calf on the left side, where the driver goes. Then comes bawling and hauling and pushing, and often too much beating, until the little cattle are made to understand that "Gee" means turn to the right, and "Haw" means turn to the left, and that "Whoa" means stop, and "Back" means, of them all, just what is said.

Every command is roared and shouted; for an idea seems to prevail that oxen, big and little, are deaf as adders, and can never be made to hear except at the top of the voice. In a still, winter day, you may hear a grown-up ox-teamster roaring at his patient beasts two miles away; and a calf-breaker not half his size may be heard more than half as far. Then, on some frosty Saturday, when the little nubby-horned fellows have learned their lessons, they are hitched to a sled, and made to haul light loads, a little wood, or some of the boys,—the driver still holding to the rope, and flourishing his whip as grand as a drum-major.

Once in a while the little oxen of the future take matters into their own hoofs and make a strike for freedom, upsetting the sled and scattering its load, and dragging their driver headlong through the snow.

But they have to submit at last; and three or four years hence, you would never think from their solemn looks and sober pace that they ever had thought of such rebellious freaks. They were the boy's calves, but father's oxen.

Halter-breaking a colt is almost as good as breaking steers, only there is no sled-riding to be had in this.

Till lately, the young fellow has had the freedom of the fields, digging in the first snows for a part of his living, and with his rough life has grown as shaggy-coated as a Shetland pony, with as many burrs stuck in his short foretop as it will hold; for if there is an overlooked burdock on all the farm, every one of the horse kind running at large will find it, and each get more than his share of burrs matted and twisted into his foretop and mane.

Now, he is waxed and driven into a shed or stable, and fooled or forced to put his head into a long, stout, rope halter. Then he is got into the clear, open meadow, and his first lesson begins. The boys all lay hold of the rope at a safe distance from the astonished pupil, and pull steadily upon him. Just now he would rather go any way than straight ahead, and holds back with all his might, looking, with all his legs braced forward, his neck stretched to its utmost, and his head on a line with it, like a stubborn little donkey who has lost something in ears, but nothing in willfulness, and gained a little in tail. At last he yields a little to the uncomfortable strain, and takes a few reluctant steps forward, then rears and plunges and throws himself, and is drawn struggling headlong through the snow, until he tires of such rough usage and flounders to his feet.

Then he repeats his bracing tactics, the boys bracing as stoutly against him, till he suddenly gives way and they go tumbling all in a heap.

If the boys tire out before the colt gives up, there are other days coming, and sooner or later he submits; and in part compensation for not having his own way, he has a warm stall in the barn, and eats from a manger, just like a big horse, and is petted and fondled, and grows to be great friends with his young masters—at last to be "father's horse," instead of "our colt."

But by and by the long winter—this play-day of the year for the farm-boy—comes to an end, to make way for spring—spring which brings to him work out of all reasonable proportion to the amount of play, at least so the farm-boy is likely to think.