Littlejim walked into the house. “Come, butter, come,” he sang as he carried the pitcher of buttermilk into the warm kitchen.
Nell began to sing the little song Mama always sang as she churned the butter.
“Come, butter, come!
Come, butter, come!
Jimmy wants hotcakes,
Nell wants jelly bread.”
and Littlejim joined in the chorus, “Come, butter, come!”
Mama was sifting the yellow cornmeal into the large wooden bread bowl. She took the pitcher from her son’s hands and poured buttermilk into the cornmeal. She stirred the mixture and poured it into the sizzling black skillet. Littlejim wrinkled up his nose. Nothing that he could think of smelled quite as good as cornbread browning in ham drippings.
“My little love,” said Mama, “bring me a slice of ham and a cabbage head. Oh, yes, get a few potatoes, too. When you get back, you can help Nell string the pumpkin. We need to clear the table before supper time.” Mama was busy and as excited as she always was at supper time. Her words were all run together.
Littlejim took the basket from its hook by the door. Mama and Nell began to sing again.
“I got a gal who lives in Letcher,
Hey, dee ding dong, diddle alley day.
She won’t come and I won’t fetch her.
Hey, dee ding dong, diddle alley day.”
Littlejim whistled the same tune as he walked along the path to the root garden. He pushed back the straw that he and Papa had heaped over the potato hills last fall. First they had mounded the soil where each potato plant marked the bounty hidden below, safe from freezing with first frost.
Littlejim dug into the potato hill with his hands and brought up several potatoes, soil still clinging to their brown skins. He knocked the soil off with his fingers and threw them into the basket. Then he turned to a large square area covered with straw. The cabbages had been buried in the soil with their heads down and their roots sticking up through the straw.
Littlejim laughed out loud. The cabbages were all lined up in straight rows. They looked like the soldiers he read about in Papa’s Kansas City Star who were fighting far away in Europe. But these cabbage soldiers were standing on their heads. He gave them a salute, like the one Uncle Bob gave to Ive Lusk when Ive came to the sawmill in his soldiering clothes.
Littlejim pulled a cabbage head from the ground, slung it over his shoulder by the root and picked up the basket of potatoes. He began to whistle as he watched the sun go down between the twin peaks of the Spear Tops. In winter, the sun left the Creek in the gap between the two peaks. In summer, it moved farther west, to set over the Little Bald Mountain.
The dry leaves in the thicket by the path from the garden rustled their music with his whistletune. The wind soughed through the white pines on the side of the hill behind the white-trimmed green house Bigjim had built for his family.
Littlejim was still whistling as he turned the corner in the path. His father stood there.
“Get a move on, boy,” Bigjim growled. “You’re slow as molasses in January.” Bigjim’s eyes were like gray winter skies under his slouch hat. His beard and overalls were covered with wood chips that bore testimony to his day in the woods.
“They’s milking to be done. And slopping the hogs,” said the voice that cracked like a whip. “Don’t need no woolgathering lazies here. Time you acted like a man.”
Littlejim’s whistle faded. The winter skies seemed to cloud over. The sun was gone behind the peaks.
“Yes, sir,” said Littlejim as he hurried into the safety of the smokehouse. Bigjim was a hard taskmaster, and he was a tough man to please. “This time I will,” the boy said half aloud. “If only Papa could see my essay in the Star.” He slammed the door as he walked into the kitchen and handed his mother the thick slice of ham. Soon it was sizzling in the black iron skillet as Littlejim washed the potatoes in the gray enamel pan and trimmed the cabbage, dropping the outer leaves into the bucket for the hogs.
“Papa’s home,” he said.
Mama selected a red pepper from one of the strings hanging on the kitchen rafters. She began to slice the potatoes.
“He will be hungry, tired and cold. Nell, clean up the pumpkin and shred the cabbage, please.”
Littlejim hated to leave the smells of frying salt-cured ham and cabbage. So he managed to wait a few minutes longer by offering to finish slicing the potatoes. Finally, he took the slop bucket filled with kitchen scraps from its place on the back porch and carried it carefully to the hog pen.
Littlejim counted five hogs. One sow and four shoats lazily moved toward the trough. The shoats would soon be ready for late butchering to resupply the smokehouse with ham and bacon. The winter supply never seemed to last through the summer.
Bigjim always butchered the shoats as late in the winter as possible, but February would be too late. By that time, there was too little cold weather to allow time for curing. The warm days of spring would cause the meat to spoil if it was not cured. This year Littlejim was old enough to help with the late butchering. Bigjim had promised.
He slowly poured the slop into the trough and watched as the hogs jostled one another to get the largest portion. Lilac, the sow, put all four feet into the two-sided wooden box with a Vshaped bottom. Lilac knew all the tricks. She had the most experience. She had lived longer. Bigjim would not butcher Lilac because she was needed to provide new pigs.
shucking an armload of dried corn from the corncrib, the boy threw the ears into the swill and mud. The hogs pushed against one another to get to the corn. Littlejim leaned over the fence and scratched one of the shoats beneath the ear. The enormous animal rubbed his back against the fence post that leaned into the pigpen and grunted his satisfaction.
“Jimmy,” called Mama from the back porch, “supper’s on the table. Milking can wait. Wash your hands.”