Are We Poor?
Papa drove the rattling wagon slowly along the twisting road through the steep Ozark hills, so slowly that Rose wanted to jump off the wagon seat and run ahead. She silently tried to hurry along the mares, Pet and May. They would never get to Mr. Rippee's at this pace!
But the horses couldn't hear her, and even if they could, Papa would never let them run with the wagon on such a bumpy, rutted road.
Rose sighed and wriggled her bottom on the hard seat between Mama and Papa. Fido sat on Mama's lap, a contented look on his face, his little pink tongue hanging out. Every so often he raised his nose to catch a scent on the dusty fall breeze.
A pale ghost of the moon hovered over the treetops in a sky that glowed deep blue. The sunshine lay on Rose's shoulders like a cozy shawl, bright and warm. She inhaled deeply to catch a whiff of smoke from Papa's pipe mingling with the spicy smell of falling leaves.
Finally the team turned off the road into a wagon track that climbed a hillside. The forest fell away behind them and the horses bent their necks and grunted as they pulled the wagon into a great field that soared up and up in front of them. In that field were lines and lines of apple trees, more than anyone could possibly count. The trees marched across the sloping hillside like an army of bushy-headed soldiers. Each tree cast a patch of moving shadow on the golden grass.
Papa whoaed the mares and pushed up his hat brim to see better. Fido whined and fidgeted to get down, but Mama held him tight.
Boughs laden with red-and-yellow fruit, as pretty and bright as Christmas balls, swayed and shook. Men, women, even children -- some on ladders, some standing on the ground -- swarmed over the branches, picking the fruit into baskets. The whole orchard quivered with motion.
This was their future, Rose thought, and the instant she thought it, Papa uttered a satisfied, "Mmm-mmm." He tapped out the ashes of his pipe on the side of the wagon.
"I don't think there's any crop as lovely as apples," sighed Mama.
"Mr. Rippee sets a nice orchard," Papa agreed. "In a couple years, our place'll look as fine as this, and full of pickers, too. Then, my prairie Rose, we'll be rich." He gave Rose a wink and smiled at Mama.
"Rich." Rose repeated the word in her thoughts. She couldn't imagine the spindly little apple trees in their own orchard ever growing big enough to be heavy with fruit. And she certainly couldn't imagine being rich.
Blanche Coday, a girl in Rose's school, was rich. All the children said so. Blanche's father owned the drugstore in Mansfield. Blanche wore a different, beautifully lace-collared dress every day of the week. From her wrist dangled a gold-colored bracelet, and her black shoes shined like the inside of a nugget of split coal.
Rose wore the same dress every day, for a whole school session. Only when it became tattered, or so pinched in the shoulders that the seams might rip out -- only then could Rose go with Mama to Reynolds' Store and pick out cloth to sew up a new one. No matter how scuffed and patched her heavy Brogan shoes might become, they also had to last a whole school session. And her set of hair ribbons, one for each of her braids, were meant to last as long as her dress, although Rose sometimes lost them playing.
Some of the town girls, in their lovely dresses, with nickels to spend for gum and candy, teased Rose. They called her "country girl." And because Rose was the best scholar in spelling, they called her "teacher's pet." Rose didn't mind being teacher's pet.
But she knew she wasn't really a country girl, at least not like the poor girls whose mothers sent them to school with dirty feet, unwashed, unbraided hair, and runny noses. It made Rose's neck burn with shame to be called a country girl.
Rose looked at Mr. Rippee's fine orchard and asked Mama and Papa, "Are we poor?"
Papa's eyes flickered at Rose as he tucked his pipe into the pocket of his overalls. Mama set Fido in the wagon box and drew her shawl closer around her shoulders. "I think you had better answer that, Manly. You're the one who put the thought in her head."
"Now, I wouldn't say we're poor, exactly," Papa said thoughtfully, twisting an end of his mustache. "We've got our own spread. Folks who have land have their freedom, which is a sight better than money any day. The land's thin and stony, but it's ours so long as we keep up the mortgage and taxes.
"We've got the mares, and the mules, Roy and Nellie. We had a good first growing season here in the Ozarks, with cash crops, and food left over to last the winter."
"And don't forget my hens, Manly," Mama added, puffing herself up a little. "It was my egg money that bought you the new plow."
"Nobody can make a chicken listen to reason the way you can, Bess," Papa chuckled. "If chickens could vote, you'd be president."
"All right then," Mama said in a satisfied voice. "No, I wouldn't say we're poor, Rose. But the going is rough for every farmer right now, what with the country run down, so many folks thrown off their land and their jobs. Things will get better again. It takes time.
"Besides," she added, "you know what your grandpa Ingalls always says about rich and poor."
"The rich man gets his ice in the summer, and the poor man gets it in the winter. It all evens up in the end."(Continues...)