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HOME > Classical Novels > Being a Boy > IV NO FARMING WITHOUT A BOY
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Say what you will about the general usefulness of boys, it is my impression that a farm without a boy would very soon come to grief. What the boy does is the life of the farm. He is the factotum, always in demand, always expected to do the thousand indispensable things that nobody else will do. Upon him fall all the odds and ends, the most difficult things. After everybody else is through, he has to finish up. His work is like a woman's,—perpetual waiting on others. Everybody knows how much easier it is to eat a good dinner than it is to wash the dishes afterwards. Consider what a boy on a farm is required to do; things that must be done, or life would actually stop.

It is understood, in the first place, that he is to do all the errands, to go to the [Pg 23] store, to the post-office, and to carry all sorts of messages. If he had as many legs as a centipede, they would tire before night. His two short limbs seem to him entirely inadequate to the task. He would like to have as many legs as a wheel has spokes, and rotate about in the same way. This he sometimes tries to do; and people who have seen him "turning cart-wheels" along the side of the road have supposed that he was amusing himself, and idling his time; he was only trying to invent a new mode of locomotion, so that he could economize his legs and do his errands with greater dispatch. He practices standing on his head, in order to accustom himself to any position. Leap-frog is one of his methods of getting over the ground quickly. He would willingly go an errand any distance if he could leap-frog it with a few other boys. He has a natural genius for combining pleasure with business. This is the reason why, when he is sent to the spring for a pitcher of water, and the family are waiting at the dinner-table, he is absent so long; for he stops to poke the frog that sits on [Pg 24] the stone, or, if there is a penstock, to put his hand over the spout and squirt the water a little while. He is the one who spreads the grass when the men have cut it; he mows it away in the barn; he rides the horse to cultivate the corn, up and down the hot, weary rows; he picks up the potatoes when they are dug; he drives the cows night and morning; he brings wood and water and splits kindling; he gets up the horse and puts out the horse; whether he is in the house or out of it, there is always something for him to do. Just before school in winter he shovels paths; in summer he turns the grindstone. He knows where there are lots of wintergreen and sweet flag root, but instead of going for them he is to stay indoors and pare apples and stone raisins and pound something in a mortar. And yet, with his mind full of schemes of what he would like to do, and his hands full of occupations, he is an idle boy who has nothing to busy himself with but school and chores! He would gladly do all the work if somebody else would do the chores, he thinks, and yet I doubt if [Pg 25] any boy ever amounted to anything in the world, or was of much use as a man, who did not enjoy the advantages of a liberal education in the way of chores.

A boy on a farm is nothing without his pets; at least a dog, and probably rabbits, chickens, ducks, and guinea hens. A guinea hen suits a boy. It is entirely useless, and makes a more disagreeable noise than a Chinese gong. I once domesticated a young fox which a neighbor had caught. It is a mistake to suppose the fox cannot be tamed. Jacko was a very clever little animal, and behaved, in all respects, with propriety. He kept Sunday as well as any day, and all the ten commandments that he could understand. He was a very graceful playfellow, and seemed to have an affection for me. He lived in a woodpile, in the dooryard, and when I lay down at the entrance to his house and called him, he would come out and sit on his tail and lick my face just like a grown person. I taught him a great many tricks and all the virtues. That year I had a large number of hens, and Jacko went about among them with the most perfect [Pg 26] indifference, never looking on them to lust after them, as I could see, and never touching an egg or a feather. So excellent was his reputation that I would have trusted him in the hen-roost in the dark without counting the hens. In short, he was domesticated, and I was fond of him and very proud of him, exhibiting him to all our visitors as an example of what affectionate treatment would do in subduing the brute instincts. I preferred him to my dog, whom I had, with much patience, taught to go up a long hill alone and surround the cows, and drive them home from the remote pasture. He liked the fun of it at first, but by and by he seemed to get the notion that it was a "chore," and when I whistled for him to go for the cows, he would turn tail and run the other way, and the more I whistled and threw stones at him the faster he would run. His name was Turk, and I should have sold him if he had not been the kind of dog that nobody will buy. I suppose he was not a cow-dog, but what they call a sheep-dog. At least, when he got big enough, he used to get [Pg 27] into the pasture and chase the sheep to death. That was the way he got into trouble, and lost his valuable life. A dog is of great use on a farm, and that is the reason a boy likes him. He is good to bite peddlers and small children, and run out and yelp at wagons that pass by, and to howl all night when the moon shines. And yet, if I were a boy again, the first thing I would have should be a dog; for dogs are great companions, and as active and spry as a boy at doing nothing. They are also good to bark at woodchuck holes.

A good dog will bark at a woodchuck hole long after the animal has retired to a remote part of his residence, and escaped by another hole. This deceives the woodchuck. Some of the most delightful hours of my life have been spent in hiding and watching the hole where the dog was not. What an exquisite thrill ran through my frame when the timid nose appeared, was withdrawn, poked out again, and finally followed by the entire animal, who looked cautiously about, and then hopped away to feed on the clover. At that moment I rushed [Pg 28] in, occupied the "home base," yelled to Turk and then danced with delight at the combat between the spunky woodchuck and the dog. They were about the same size, but science and civilization won the day. I did not reflect then that it would have been more in the interest of civilization if the woodchuck had killed the dog. I do not know why it is that boys so like to hunt and kill animals; but the excuse that I gave in this case for the murder was, that the woodchuck ate the clover and trod it down; and, in fact, was a woodchuck. It was not till long after that I learned with surprise that he is a rodent mammal, of the species Arctomys monax, is called at the West a ground-hog, and is eaten by people of color with great relish.

But I have forgotten my beautiful fox. Jacko continued to deport himself well until the young chickens came; he was actually cured of the fox vice of chicken-stealing. He used to go with me about the coops, pricking up his ears in an intelligent manner, and with a demure eye and the most virtuous droop of the tail. Charming fox! [Pg 29] If he had held out a little while longer, I should have put him into a Sunday-school book. But I began to miss chickens. They disappeared mysteriously in the night. I would not suspect Jacko at first, for he looked so honest, and in the daytime he seemed to be as much interested in the chickens as I was. But one morning, when I went to call him, I found feathers at the entrance of his hole,—chicken feathers. He couldn't deny it. He was a thief. His fox nature had come out under severe temptation. And he died an unnatural death. He had a thousand virtues and one crime. But that crime struck at the foundation of society. He deceived and stole; he was a liar and a thief, and no pretty ways could hide the fact. His intelligent, bright face couldn't save him. If he had been honest, he might have grown up to be a large, ornamental fox.

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