When one of the Woolsey children came banging on our door, Bricker was out seining for gold, as usual. The boy had been sent by his papa asking for Bricker’s help getting in his wheat. I sent our oldest, McAllister, in his father’s place. He’s 14. I hoped he would do.
Mr. Woolsey watched McAllister swing a scythe, then put him on the threshing floor, saying it would be better if no one died harvesting his grain.
I don’t know what the man was thinking. It’s just as dangerous being around McAllister swinging a flail. Why, one night on the Oregon trail, the boy about killed one of the oxen, pretending to be a knight and jousting with the animal. But Mr. Woolsey gave him a flail and told him to have at it. At first McAllister thought it was great fun to whale away on the wheat stooks. He soon learned wheat berries don’t easily separate from the chaff like it does in those convenient Bible stories. The grain has to be beaten loose over and over until your arms fall out of their sockets. Took the sass right out of him.
There’s no steam thresher in the valley. They haven’t figured out how to successfully double-team something that size over Smith Mountain. They’d need to lock wagon wheels, sledding it down the other side and floating it across the river. So Mr. Woolsey started manual gleaning with a horse and a skid, but his oh-so-delicate wife, Patricia Woolsey, saw the horse plop a load of droppings as it tromped the grain out of the stooks. Let me tell you, the operation came to a screeching halt. That’s when they scoured the valley for men to help hand thresh. I admit she’s right, the grain is impossible to clean, when it’s been crapped on and stomped in, but I wonder if she knows that’s what she’s been eating most of her life?
Poor McAllister was so sore he could hardly walk home from the Woolseys. I rubbed his skinny arms with horse liniment, and he went back the next day and thereafter until he’d worked the whole harvest. They paid him two bushels of wheat per day, valued at 25cents a bushel.
The adults got three bushel and McAllister says he worked harder old Mr. Virgil who spent most of his time spitting tobacco into the pile and laughing, “Let her bake that into bread.” Nonetheless, McAllister gleaned enough grain to last us a year, so I suppose I cannot think of him as a child anymore. Even if he still plays pirates and accidentally leaves a few lumps on the other children.
The Woolseys will haul McAllister’s sacks of grain along with theirs to the mill. It’s an 18 mile trip one-way to Enterprise, but of the five gristmills on the other side of the mountain, they make the better flour.
McAllister is proud and bossing the rest of the children. Maggie, 10 months younger, will tolerate none of his guff. He calls her the Chicken Queen since she’s takes care of the hens. She calls him an Indian word meaning full of skunk scat. I don’t know where they pick up these things.
This is hard country. The children have traded their years of tomfoolery for work and the opportunity to eat. I believe every loaf of bread I bake in the mud oven this winter will make me ask. Is it right to trade their childhood for our dream to own land? Bricker says when he strikes it rich we’ll buy their childhood back.