The summer sun beat hot against my back, and beads of sweat ran down my forehead. I wedged a pole among the roots of the tree stump and was going to push on the end, when my mother called.
“Todd? Your father’s home!”
I dropped the pole and ran across the soft brown field toward the house. Ducking beneath a line of flapping sheets, I rounded the house and stopped short of crashing into our wagon.
“Here, son,” my father said with a smile. “Take this sack of flour and give it to your mother.”
As soon as we unloaded the wagon, I put the horse in the pasture and returned to the house. Father was giving Mother a bundle.
“Twenty yards of unbleached muslin,” he said as he handed her the paper-wrapped package.
She smiled. “Thank you, James!” she said happily. Then she undid the string and removed the paper. “You can add the string to the ball,” she said, handing it to me. “Then you can have the paper for your schoolwork.”
I wound on the piece of string, then sat and watched as the rest of the provisions were put away. At the very last, Father reached into his pocket and pulled out a stick of cinnamon candy. He rumpled my hair then handed it to me. My mouth watered and I was about to break off a piece when Mother reminded me she had cold meat and apple dumplings for lunch. At the table we bowed our heads while Father offered the blessing. As we ate, I listened to them talk.
“Ed Beesley was in town, Ellen,” Father said. “He offered me fourteen dollars an acre for our land.”
Surprised, I looked from Father, who sat eating contentedly, to Mother, who looked like she was about to explode.
“And what was your answer?” she asked in an uneven tone.
“Well,” Father replied as he slowly took another piece of meat, “that would be a total of seven thousand dollars.”
Mother’s eyes began to widen as she waited to hear the rest of the story. My father, however, took his time in the telling. “You could have almost anything you’d want … with plenty left over,” Father added.
“James Putnam!” my mother scolded. “Will you please get to the point?”
Father looked up and his eyes danced with mischief. “I told him no,” he replied simply.
Mother’s face turned into a bright smile as she went to his side. She kissed him, and they both laughed. “James Putnam, sometimes I just don’t know what you’re thinking.”
I smiled and poured milk over my dumplings.
Father carried the ax as we returned to the tree stump. “So you got all the digging done,” he said, smiling. “Good! But tell me, son, did you practice your writing today?”
“Yes, sir,” I nodded. “But I do hate it, Father.”
“You hate it!” he laughed. “You like printing. Why do you hate writing?”
I kicked at a clump of sod and shrugged. “My eye knows how it should look, but my hand does it all wrong.”
Father laughed again and lowered the ax to the ground. He took off his shirt and looked at the stump. “You mean your hand isn’t disciplined yet. Keep at it, Todd. Practice is good discipline.” He knelt beside the stump and felt around the roots. “You did do a lot of digging, but there are still some big roots down there. I’ll chop them loose then we’ll be able to get this stump out of here.”
He reached for the ax and I knelt beside him, watching. When the roots were chopped, he knelt beside me, resting.
“It’s a lot of work, isn’t it, son?” he puffed with a smile.
“Do you think you’d ever sell, Father?” I asked. “I mean, you wouldn’t have to work so hard.”
He was quiet for a minute, then he smiled. “Money comes and goes, but the land is forever. No, Todd, I’d never sell it. It will be our legacy to you.”
“What’s a legacy?”
“A legacy is something precious that you leave to someone you love. What you decide to do with it will be up to you. But people see things differently. Ed Beesley sees land as something you parcel off and sell. But land’s a funny thing, Todd, even when you have a deed, it’s not really yours. You’ve just paid for the right to use it.” He picked up a handful of soil. “Smell that promise of all green and growing things, Todd. It’s a lasting responsibility, and long after we’re gone, the land will still be right here for others to use. While I use it, I mean to treat it kindly, and with discipline, just as God intended.”
“What do you think God intended?” I asked quietly.
“I think He wants us to dig out dead stumps … and grow things. You see, when we treat the land with discipline, it treats us kindly. We leave a stand of forest for the deer and rabbits that live in our meadow. If we had no meadow, Mother wouldn’t be able to make rabbit stew. If we grew no crops, we’d have little or nothing to eat. If we didn’t clear stumps and rocks or didn’t plant seeds, no crops would come up and we’d have no one to blame but ourselves. So we discipline ourselves to hard work, Todd, just as you can discipline your hand to write properly. Then as time goes by, you will see the benefits of your effort.” Father got up. “We’ve rested long enough,” he said, “now let’s see if we can move that old stump and make way for growing things.”
He put his back to the pole while I gripped mine with both hands. Slowly we pried, then eased up. Then we pried again and pushed with all our might. With a groan the stump inched upward as the ground yielded its hold. My father laughed as streams of sweat ran down his face. And soon the stump lay upside down on the ground. He clamped a hand on my shoulder and shouted, “We did it, son! We did it!”
“Hello!” Mother called as she came across the field. “I’ve brought a cool drink of water.”
She ladled a cup for me, then she and Father went off to sit beneath the shade of a tree. I stayed to break clumps of dirt from the bottom of the stump. Then I dug my fingers into the damp brown earth and let it trickle through my fingers. It formed a soft mound of earth that I smoothed flat with my hand. Carefully I wrote my name with a stick. The lines were scraggly and uneven. But with practice … yes, I knew I could write better.
I scratched out my name and looked out over the fields. Long green lines marked our rows where parsnips and corn and carrots and beets were reaching up through the ground. Here and there a tree stump or a rock poked through the soil. It will take years to clear them, I thought. Then I smiled to myself. It’ll be a big job, but the land will be mine. And I’ll be proud to continue my parents’ work.