“The bricks are ready,” Will told me one late summer afternoon when we were walking back to the house from the shop.
Jake and Daniel had gone riding and Susanna was playing house with Anna. I’d been helping Will sand and finish a fancy looking bench. Now that it had a coat of stain, the bench needed a day to just sit undisturbed and dry.
“You want to help me lay the bricks? The brooder mansion should go up really fast now that we have the bricks.”
I nodded eagerly and Will stopped on the path.
“Okay, well, I need to mix some mortar first. Why don’t you get us a snack and meet me by the coop where we made the bricks?”
I smiled, knowing that was Will’s real motive in asking me if I wanted to help build the adobe chicken mansion.
“You could’ve just asked me to make you something to eat,” I said. Will pulled on my braid and winked at me.
“Yeah, but, didn’t it sound nicer that way?” he said, heading back the way we came. I rolled my eyes and climbed up the porch steps.
The porch oven was hot and the big water-bath pot was simmering away. What’s Mom doing? I wondered.
Mom was in the kitchen and I could hear her humming as I approached. She was sitting on a stool, writing on the lids of a couple dozen jars of cherry tomatoes and pints of salsa.
“I didn’t know you were going to can today,” I said, sorry that she’d been working alone.
“Oh, it’s okay,” she said. “It’s just tomatoes and salsa. Easy-peasy. And I’m almost done. One more canner full of salsa. We sure have a lot of tomatoes this year!”
Mom looked happier than usual. Like she’d gotten a present.
“Do you like canning—a lot?” I asked.
At this, Mom looked up at me and tucked a brown curl of hair behind one ear. Her face was flushed pink from the heat and she looked pretty. That’s funny . . . I never thought about Mom being pretty, I thought. I bet she was a real beauty when she was my age.
“I like having a well-stocked pantry and cellar,” Mom said, as though she were admitting a vice. “I guess it makes me feel safe. Like the world can fall apart and my family will still be okay. I shouldn’t put my hope in the cellar though.”
“It’s the part you can do,” I said, knowing what she meant. “It’s the part you do well and it feels good to have done your job.”
“That’s the point of all of this,” Mom agreed, “for each of us to do what we do best where it will matter the most. Where it will . . . be life and health to us all.”
“So why did you say that? About not putting your hope in the cellar?” I asked over my shoulder, as I looked into the pantry for the leftover coconut cake.25
“Because ultimately, staying alive and well-fed shouldn’t be the goal,” Mom replied, as though reproving herself.
“What is the goal?” I asked, turning around with the cake in my hands.
“To be good,” Mom said simply. “To become all that we were made to be, like a plant coming to maturity, then fruiting and dying, having become a fully productive plant.”
“Then what’s the point of canning or gardening at all?” I asked, feeling like her philosophy was contradicting the tabletop full of canned tomatoes.
“It’s part of the fruiting, I think.” Mom gazed out of the back window at the lush straw bale garden. “Or should be. It can be motivated by self-preservation but ultimately everything dies, so living to stay alive is confused . . . living to learn and grow inside is the point.”
“Like that rogue tomato plant we found in the road last year,” I said. “Remember that? It was just out there in the hard ground and covered with little tomatoes.” I laughed, remembering.
Mom nodded. “Exactly,” she said. “It’s not what you start out with, it’s what you do with it.”
“Well,” I said, forcing a fake grin, “On that note, can Will and I have some of this leftover cake and a quart of milk?” Mom laughed and stood up, nodding.
“Sure. What are you guys doing?”
“We’re starting to build the adobe chicken coop,” I said, backing out the door with my arms full.
“Oh, that’s awesome. Call me when it’s done, I’ll come out and look.”
Will was done making the mud mortar, which is basically a wetter adobe mud with no straw in it. He looked up and wiped the sweat off of his brow with a kerchief and joined me in the shade of a bunch of scrub oaks.
“What took so long?” he asked, reaching for a piece of cake. “I nearly fainted from weakness.” I laughed and handed him the quart of milk.
“Philosophical discussion with Mom. She’s canning tomatoes.”
“Oh. Does she need you?” Will asked.
“No. She’s almost done. What’s next here?”
“Now we lay the bricks in that square I have marked off,” Will answered around a bite of cake. “We line up the outside walls with the string I put up, that way it’ll be square.”
“Did you ever test the bricks like you said?” I asked, borrowing the quart of milk to wash down a bite of cake.
“Yeah,” Will answered. “I dropped one of them from waist height on the concrete and turned it so it would land on a corner. It didn’t break. Then I dropped it from as far up as I could reach. It broke in half but the break was clean, not crumbly. It’s good adobe.”
Will had cleaned and leveled a strip of ground all the way around the foundation and had laid some flat stones into the dirt that didn’t rock or give anywhere. On top of these, he slopped out some adobe mud and we began to lay the bricks.
We used concrete tools and tapped the bricks with the handle end of the trowels to help them settle into the mud until they were good and firm. Will had made some half-bricks for the corners and showed me how to leave a small crack between the bricks to help the outside stucco mud stick to the wall later.
In less than an hour, we were done. The coop was small and low to the ground so newly hatched chicks could come and go without trouble. It was four feet square and three feet high. Will had inserted 1X12 boards upright in the walls to make dividers for the nests. Later, he would add a board on top of them to close the boxes in a little more securely. Two roosting poles crossed the coop about a foot off the ground.
We left some small gaps for air flow and a low opening in the front. The opening was made by laying a 2x6 board on top of a 10 inch gap two bricks high. We laid the rest of the bricks right over the board.
“I’m going to build a frame for the roof and then cover it with clear corrugated panels to let light in,” Will said, as we stood back to survey our work. “And on one end, I’ll hinge it so the roof can be lifted easily to check for eggs that don’t hatch.”
I called Mom to come out and look. Dad came with her. They were both pleased and admired our work.
“So what do you think, son?” Dad asked Will. “Are you going to build with adobe?”
“Well,” Will said, wincing at the thought. “I love the results. It’s beautiful. But making those bricks is a lot of work and time. It would be a lot faster and easier to build with straw bales. So, I guess my conclusion so far is that if I can afford to buy the straw, I’d rather build that way.”
“Hey! You guys are sneaking around having fun behind our backs!” Jake yelled as he and Daniel rode up on Ranger and Cricket.
Dad laughed. “Yeah, poor you, locked away in a dungeon somewhere, twiddling your thumbs in boredom.”
Jake grinned and dismounted by sliding off Ranger’s rump. He swaggered over to look at the coop.
“It’s nice,” Daniel commented, walking around the coop to see it from every angle. “Was it hard to get it square?” Will had taken down the string we used to square the walls. Now he showed Daniel how he had used the string.
“There’s a rodeo and fair in Pinehill next weekend,” Dad announced, changing the subject. “There’s going to be a horse race like they used to have in the old days. Plus, all the bull riding and roping stuff. You guys want to go?”
“Yeeha!” Jake shouted. “I do! Can I race Ranger?” Will hooted in laughter at the thought of old Ranger in a race.
“Can I race Cricket?” Daniel asked, and we all fell silent for a moment thinking about that. Cricket actually would have a chance in the race. He was a surprisingly fast horse. But Daniel was new to riding.
But he’s good, I thought. He could do it. Dad must have been thinking the same thing.
“Maybe,” he said. “It’s a little dangerous. Do you think you can keep your seat if Cricket acts up?”
“Yeah. I totally can. I can ride him bareback at a gallop, squatting on his back!” Daniel replied, admitting to a stunt that he’d been keeping secret from everyone but me.
“Is that so?” Dad commented, impressed.
“It’s true,” I said. “He has really good balance. And Cricket trusts him.”
“What! When have you ridden like that?” Jake exclaimed, out of sorts that he’d missed out on secret information. Jake is a really good rider himself; he has a way with managing the orneriest horse without apparent effort.
“Well,” Dad said, “I’ll register your entry. You’ve got a week to practice.”
“Yes!” Daniel exclaimed, spinning in a circle on one heel. “I didn’t know they had horse races at fairs,” he added, hooking his thumbs in his pockets like a cowboy.
“They don’t,” Will answered. “This is mostly an Indian fair and rodeo. It’s way more fun than the usual modern rodeo but the one at Pinehill is really small. There won’t be a lot of people racing, I think.”
“You guys have no idea,” Dad said. “In the old days, they used to have wagon races and range cow milking contests and chicken pulls.”
“What the heck? What’s range cow milking?” I asked. “How could you milk a range cow?”
“It’s not easy!” Mom laughed. “One guy would rope the cow and another would try to squeeze at least one drop out of her and into a coke bottle.”
“What’s a chicken pull?” Susanna asked. Dad shook his head.
“Believe me, you don’t want to know.”