The following evening, Littlejim carried the lantern in one hand and the metal pail filled with milk in the other. As he opened the kitchen door, Mama and Nell were finishing the dishes.
“But why does Papa have to be so mean to Littlejim?” asked Nell. Littlejim had been wondering about that same question all day at school.
“Woolgathering, Jimmy?” Mr. Osk the schoolmaster had asked. “That isn’t like you, Jimmy. Where are you today?”
Littlejim had felt his face getting redder and redder. He was Mr. Osk’s star pupil at the little Henson Creek school, and he took great pride in his studies. But that day his mind had been on his father and on trying to decide if he was really brave enough to defy his papa and enter the competition.
“Why doesn’t Papa understand?” mumbled Littlejim, setting the pail of milk on the dry sink.
“Your papa is a hard man, yah,” said Mama. Her lilting speech grew stronger when she was upset. “Life has not been kind to your papa. He had no time to be a kinder—a child— when his father died so young. James had to go to the woods instead. He never learned to play.”
“But he always scolds Littlejim for everything,” said Nell. “Why doesn’t Papa want Littlejim to have any fun?”
Mama tied a clean white cloth to the bail on each side of the milk pail. Then she tilted the pail to strain the milk through the cloth into a pitcher. Finally, she set the pitcher on the back of the cookstove to clabber. Tomorrow she would churn the clabber for butter. Mama wiped her hands on her apron after she had rinsed the pail and turned it up to drain on the dry sink.
“We shall make our fun tonight. Don’t worry. Nell, bring out the white flour and sugar. We’ll make some cookies,” said Mama.
She took some butter from the cut-glass butter dish, added some white sugar, and began to beat the mixture as though she was mad at it. Littlejim knew this must be a special occasion. Mama usually made cookies with molasses or honey. White sugar was saved for company.
“Jimmy, crack us some walnuts,” she added.
“Oh, goody! Walnut cookies,” said Nell, sticking her finger into the cookie mixture. Mama removed Nell’s hand from the bowl and continued to cream the butter and sugar.
Nell cracked an egg on the side of Mama’s brown mixing bowl.
“Tookie. Tookie,” said Baby May, banging her wooden spoon on the side of her cradle in the corner by the stove. “Do you think we could make Papa like Littlejim more?” asked Nell.
“Your papa likes his son,” said Mama. “He does not understand why his son is not just like he was as a boy. He forgets that his son is a different person with different talents.”
“If he likes me, he has a fine way of showing it,” whispered Littlejim under his breath and placing a round black walnut on the flat side of the sadiron he held between his knees. Mama heated the iron on the cookstove to press their Sunday-go-tomeeting clothes after washday. The rest of the time, the sadiron became a nutcracker.
Carefully Littlejim held the black rippled nutshell so he would hit it and not his fingers with the old hammer that had one claw broken off. He hit the end of the walnut just right. The two halves fell apart. The goody in each half was intact. He tapped each half in turn and picked up two perfect nutmeat halves. “Maybe, if I practice, I can get them to come out in one piece, like Uncle Bob,” muttered Littlejim. Uncle Bob knew just where to tap the thick walnut so that the shell fell away, leaving the nutmeat in one piece. Littlejim had tried and tried but had never learned the secret to Uncle Bob’s trick.
Littlejim picked the pieces of shell out of his bowl of walnuts and dumped the goodies into the batter Nell was stirring.
Mama helped Nell spoon the batter onto the flat black pan. Littlejim shook the grate and added stove wood to the fire. Mama slid the pan into the oven, then she ladled stew from the bubbling pot into a bowl and mashed the vegetables with a fork.
“Maybe if I hug Papa and tickle him under his beard—he likes that—I can tell him to like Littlejim, too,” said Nell.
“Perhaps that would help,” said Mama, smiling and kissing her daughter on top of the head. She picked Baby May up from the cradle and began to spoon the stew into the baby’s open mouth.
“Jimmy, we will need some stove wood for morning. The woodbox is almost empty. Nell, help your brother bring a load of wood,” said Mama, “and put on your shawl, too.”