Authors: Wilder, Laura Ingalls
Laura was washing the dishes one morning when old Jack, lying in the sunshine on the doorstep, growled to tell her that someone was coming. She looked out, and saw a buggy crossing the gravelly ford of Plum Creek.
“Ma,” she said, “it's a strange woman coming.”
Ma sighed. She was ashamed of the untidy house, and so was Laura. But Ma was too weak and Laura was too tired and they were too sad to care very much.
Mary and Carrie and baby Grace and Ma had all had scarlet fever. The Nelsons across the creek had had it too, so there had been no one to help Pa and Laura.
The doctor had come every day; Pa did not know how he could pay the bill. Far worst of all, the fever had settled in Mary's eyes, and Mary was blind.
She was able to sit up now, wrapped in quilts in Ma's old hickory rocking chair. All that long time, week after week, when she could still see a little, but less every day, she had never cried. Now she could not see even the brightest light any more. She was still patient and brave.
Her beautiful golden hair was gone. Pa had shaved it close because of the fever, and her poor shorn head looked like a boy's. Her blue eyes were still beautiful, but they did not know what was before them, and Mary herself could never look through them again to tell Laura what she was thinking without saying a word.
“Who can it be at this hour in the morning?” Mary wondered, turning her ear toward the sound of the buggy.
“It's a strange woman alone in a buggy. She's wearing a brown sunbonnet and driving a bay horse,”
Laura answered. Pa had said that she must be eyes for Mary.
“Can you think of anything for dinner?” Ma asked.
She meant for a company dinner, if the woman stayed till dinnertime.
There was bread and molasses, and potatoes. That was all. This was springtime, too early for garden vegetables; the cow was dry and the hens had not yet begun to lay their summer's eggs. Only a few small fish were left in Plum Creek. Even the little cottontail rabbits had been hunted until they were scarce.
Pa did not like a country so old and worn out that the hunting was poor. He wanted to go west. For two years he had wanted to go west and take a homestead, but Ma did not want to leave the settled country. And there was no money. Pa had made only two poor wheat crops since the grasshoppers came; he had barely been able to keep out of debt, and now there was the doctor's bill.
Laura answered Ma stoutly, “What's good enough for us is good enough for anybody!”
The buggy stopped and the strange woman sat in it, looking at Laura and Ma in the doorway. She was a pretty woman, in her neat brown print dress and sunbonnet. Laura felt ashamed of her own bare feet and limp dress and uncombed braids. Then Ma said slowly, “Why, Docia!”
“I wondered if you'd know me,” the woman said.
“A good deal of water's gone under the bridge since you folks left Wisconsin.”
She was the pretty Aunt Docia who had worn the dress with buttons that looked like blackberries, long ago at the sugaring-off dance at Grandpa's house in the Big Woods of Wisconsin.
She was married now. She had married a widower with two children. Her husband was a contractor, working on the new railroad in the west. Aunt Docia was driving alone in the buggy, all the way from Wisconsin to the railroad camps in Dakota Territory.
She had come by to see if Pa would go with her. Her husband, Uncle Hi, wanted a good man to be storekeeper, bookkeeper, and timekeeper, and Pa could have the job.
“It pays fifty dollars a month, Charles,” she said.
A kind of tightness smoothed out of Pa's thin cheeks and his blue eyes lighted up. He said slowly “Seems like I can draw good pay while I'm looking for that homestead, Caroline.”
Ma still did not want to go west. She looked around the kitchen, at Carrie and at Laura standing there with Grace in her arms.
“Charles, I don't know,” she said. “It does seem providential, fifty dollars a month. But we're settled here. We've got the farm.”
“Listen to reason, Caroline,” Pa pleaded. “We can get a hundred and sixty acres out west, just by living on it, and the land's as good as this is, or better. If Uncle Sam's willing to give us a farm in place of the one he drove us off of, in Indian Territory, I say let's take it. The hunting's good in the west, a man can get all the meat he wants.”
Laura wanted so much to go that she could hardly keep from speaking.
“How could we go now?” Ma asked. “With Mary not strong enough to travel.”
“That's so,” said Pa. “That's a fact.” Then he asked Aunt Docia, “ The job wouldn't wait?”
“No,” Aunt Docia said. “No, Charles. Hi is in need of a man, right now. You have to take it or leave it.”
“It's fifty dollars a month, Caroline,” said Pa. “And a homestead.”
It seemed a long time before Ma said gently, “Well, Charles, you must do as you think best.”
“I'll take it, Docia!” Pa got up and clapped on his hat. “Where there's a will, there's a way. I'll go see Nelson.”
Laura was so excited that she could hardly do the housework properly. Aunt Docia helped, and while they worked she told the news from Wisconsin.
Her sister, Aunt Ruby, was married and had two boys and a beautiful little baby girl named Dolly Varden. Uncle George was a lumberjack, logging on the Mississippi. Uncle Henry's folks were all well, and Charley was turning out better than had been expected, considering how Uncle Henry had spared the rod and spoiled that child. Grandpa and Grandma were still living in the old place, their big log house.
They could afford a frame house now, but Grandpa declared that good sound oak logs made better walls than thin sawed boards.
Even Black Susan, the cat that Laura and Mary had left behind when they rode away from their little log house in the woods, was still living there. The little log house had changed hands several times, and now it was a corncrib, but nothing would persuade that cat to live anywhere else. She went right on living in the corncrib, sleek and plump from rats she caught, and there was hardly a family in all that country that didn't have one of her kittens. They were all good mousers, big-eared and long-tailed like Black Susan.
Dinner was ready in the swept, neat house when Pa came back. He had sold the farm. Nelson was paying two hundred dollars cash for it, and Pa was jubilant.
“That'll square up all we owe, and leave a little something over,” he said. “How's that, Caroline!”
“I hope it's for the best, Charles,” Ma replied. “But how—”
“Wait till I tell you! I've got it all figured out,” Pa told her. "I'll go on with Docia tomorrow morning.
You and the girls stay here till Mary gets well and strong, say a couple of months. Nelson's agreed to haul our stuff to the depot, and you'll all come out on the train."
Laura stared at him. So did Carrie and Ma. Mary said, “On the train?”
They had never thought of traveling on the train.
Laura knew, of course, that people did travel on trains. The trains were often wrecked and the people killed. She was not exactly afraid, but she was excited. Carrie's eyes were big and scared in her peaked little face.
They had seen the train rushing across the prairie, with long, rolling puffs of black smoke streaming back from the engine. They heard its roar and its wild, clear whistle. Horses ran away, if their driver could not hold them when they saw a train coming.
Ma said in her quiet way, “I am sure we will manage nicely with Laura and Carrie to help me.”GROWN UP
T here was a great deal of work to be done, for Pa must leave early next morning. He set the old wagon bows on the wagon and pulled the canvas cover over them; it was almost worn out but it would do for the short trip. Aunt Docia and Carrie helped him pack the wagon, while Laura washed and ironed, and baked hardtack for the journey.
In the midst of it all, Jack stood looking on. Everyone was too busy to notice the old bulldog, till suddenly Laura saw him standing between the house and the wagon. He did not frisk about, cocking his head and laughing, as he used to do. He stood braced on his stiff legs because he was troubled with rheumatism now. His forehead was wrinkled sadly and his stub-tail was limp.
“Good old Jack,” Laura told him, but he did not wag. He looked at her sorrowfully.
“Look, Pa. Look at Jack,” Laura said. She bent and stroked his smooth head. The fine hairs were gray now. First his nose had been gray and then his jaws, and now even his ears were no longer brown.
He leaned his head against her and sighed.
All in one instant, she knew that the old dog was too tired to walk all the way to Dakota Territory under the wagon. He was troubled because he saw the wagon ready to go traveling again, and he was so old and tired.
“Pa!” she cried out. “Jack can't walk so far! Oh, Pa, we can't leave Jack!”
“He wouldn't hold out to walk it for a fact,” Pa said. “I'd forgot. I'll move the feedsack and make a place for him to ride here in the wagon. How'll you like to go riding in the wagon, huh, old fellow?”
Jack wagged one polite wag and turned his head aside. He did not want to go, even in the wagon.
Laura knelt down and hugged him as she used to do when she was a little girl. “Jack! Jack! We're going west! Don't you want to go west again, Jack?”
Always before he had been eager and joyful when he saw Pa putting the cover on the wagon. He had taken his place under it when they started, and all the long way from Wisconsin to Indian Territory, and back again to Minnesota, he had trotted there in the wagon shade, behind the horses' feet. He had waded through creeks and swum rivers, and every night while Laura slept in the wagon he had guarded it.
Every morning, even when his feet were sore from walking, he had been glad with her to see the sun rise and the horses hitched up; he had always been ready for the new day of traveling.
Now he only leaned against Laura and nudged his nose under her hand to ask her to pet him gently. She stroked his gray head and smoothed his ears, and she could feel how very tired he was.
Ever since Mary and Carrie, and then Ma, had been sick with scarlet fever, Laura had been neglect-ing Jack. He had always helped her in every trouble before, but he could not help when there was sick-ness in the house. Perhaps all that time he had been - feeling lonely and forgotten.
“I didn't mean it, Jack,” Laura told him. He understood; they had always understood each other. He had taken care of her when she was little, and he had helped her take care of Carrie when Carrie was the baby. Whenever Pa had gone away, Jack had always stayed with Laura to take care of her and the family.
He was especially Laura's own dog.
She did not know how to explain to him that he must go now with Pa in the wagon and leave her behind. Perhaps he would not understand that she was coming later on the train.
She could not stay with him long now because there was so much work to be done. But all that afternoon she said to him, “Good dog, Jack,” whenever she could. She gave him a good supper, and after the dishes were washed and the table set for an early breakfast, she made his bed.
His bed was an old horse blanket, in a corner of the lean-to at the back door. He had slept there ever since they moved into this house, where Laura slept in the attic and he could not climb the attic ladder.
For five years he had slept there, and Laura had kept his bed aired and clean and comfortable. But lately she had forgotten it. He had tried to scratch it up and arrange it himself, but the blanket was packed down in hard ridges.
He watched her while she shook it out and made it comfortable. He smiled and wagged, pleased that she was making his bed for him. She made a round nest in it and patted it to show him that it was ready.
He stepped in and turned himself around once. He stopped to rest his stiff legs and slowly turned again.
Jack always turned around three times before he lay down to sleep at night. He had done it when he was a young dog in the Big Woods, and he had done it in the grass under the wagon every night. It is a proper thing for dogs to do.
So wearily he turned himself around the third time and curled down with a bump and a sigh. But he held his head up to look at Laura.
She stroked his head where the fine gray hairs were, and she thought of how good he had always been. She had always been safe from wolves or Indians because Jack was there. And how many times he had helped her bring in the cows at night. How happy they had been playing along Plum Creek and in the pool where the fierce old crab had lived, and when she had to go to school he had always been waiting at the ford for her when she came home.
“Good Jack, good dog,” she told him. He turned his head to touch her hand with the tip of his tongue.
Then he let his nose sink onto his paws and he sighed and closed his eyes. He wanted to sleep now.
In the morning when Laura came down the ladder into the lamplight, Pa was going out to do the chores.
He spoke to Jack, but Jack did not stir.
Only Jack's body, stiff and cold, lay curled there on the blanket.
They buried it on the low slope above the wheat-field, by the path he used to run down so gaily when he was going with Laura to bring in the cows. Pa spaded the earth over the box and made the mound smooth. Grass would grow there after they had all gone away to the west. Jack would never again sniff the morning air and go springing over the short grass with his ears up and his mouth laughing. He would never nudge his nose under Laura's hand again to say he wanted her to pet him. There had been so many times that she might have petted him without being asked, and hadn't.
“Don't cry, Laura,” Pa said. “He has gone to the Happy Hunting Grounds.”
“Truly, Pa?” Laura managed to ask.
“Good dogs have their reward, Laura,” Pa told her.
Perhaps, in the Happy Hunting Grounds, Jack was running gaily in the wind over some high prairie, as he used to run on the beautiful wild prairies of Indian Territory. Perhaps at last he was catching a jack rabbit. He had tried so often to catch one of those long-eared, long-legged rabbits and never could.
That morning Pa drove away in the rattling old wagon behind Aunt Docia's buggy. Jack was not standing beside Laura to watch Pa go. The r e was only emptiness to turn to instead of Jack's eyes looking up to say that he was there to take care of her.
Laura knew then that she was not a little girl any more. Now she was alone; she must take care of herself. When you must do that, then you do it and you are grown up. Laura was not very big, but she was almost thirteen years old, and no one was there to depend on. Pa and Jack had gone, and Ma needed help to take care of Mary and the little girls, and somehow to get them all safely to the west on a train.RIDING IN THE CARS
w hen the time came, Laura could hardly believe it was real. The weeks and months had been endless, and now suddenly they were gone. Plum Creek, and the house, and all the slopes and fields she knew so well, were gone; she would never see them again. The last crowded days of packing, cleaning, scrubbing, washing, and ironing, and the last minute flurry of bathing and dressing were over. Clean and starched and dressed-up, in the morning of a weekday, they sat in a row on the bench in the waiting room while Ma bought the tickets.
In an hour they would be riding on the railroad cars.
The two satchels stood on the sunny platform outside the waiting-room door. Laura kept an eye on them, and on Grace, as Ma had told her to. Grace sat still in her little starched white lawn dress and bonnet, her feet in small new shoes sticking straight out. At the ticket window, Ma carefully counted money out of her pocketbook.
Traveling on the train cost money. They had not paid anything to travel in the wagon, and this was a beautiful morning to be riding in the wagon along new roads. It was a September day and small clouds were hurrying in the sky. All the girls were in school now; they would see the train go roaring by and know that Laura was riding in it. Trains went faster than horses can run. They went so terribly fast that often they were wrecked. You never knew what might happen to you on a train.
Ma put the tickets inside her mother-of-pearl pocketbook and carefully snapped shut its little steel clasps. She looked so nice in her dark delaine dress with white lace collar and cuffs. Her hat was black straw with a narrow turned-up brim and a white spray of lilies-of-the-valley standing up at one side of the crown. She sat down and took Grace on her lap.
Now there was nothing to do but wait. They had come an hour early to be sure not to miss the train.
Laura smoothed her dress. It was brown calico sprinkled with small red flowers. Her hair hung down her back in long, brown braids, and a red ribbon bow tied their ends together. There was a red ribbon around the crown of her hat too.
Mary's dress was gray calico with sprays of blue flowers. Her wide-brimmed straw hat had a blue ribbon on it. And under the hat, her poor short hair was held back from her face by a blue ribbon tied around her head. Her lovely blue eyes did not see anything.
But she said, “Don't fidget, Carrie, you'll muss your dress.”
Laura craned to look at Carrie, sitting beyond Mary. Carrie was small and thin in pink calico, with pink ribbons on her brown braids and her hat. She flushed miserably because Mary found fault with her, and Laura was going to say, “You come over by me, Carrie, and fidget all you want to!”
Just then Mary's face lighted up with joy and she said, “Ma, Laura's fidgeting, too! I can tell she is, without seeing!”
“So she is, Mary,” Ma said, and Mary smiled in satisfaction.
Laura was ashamed that in her thoughts she had been cross with Mary. She did not say anything. She got up and she was passing in front of Ma without saying a word. Ma had to remind her, “Say 'Excuse me,' Laura.”
“Excuse me, Ma. Excuse me, Mary,” Laura said politely, and she sat down beside Carrie. Carrie felt safer when she was between Laura and Mary. Carrie was really afraid of going on a train. Of course she would never say that she was frightened, but Laura knew.
“Ma,” Carrie asked timidly, “Pa will surely meet us, won't he?”
“He is coming to meet us,” Ma said. "He has to drive in from the camp, and it will take him all day.
We are going to wait for him in Tracy."
“Will he—will he get there before night, Ma?”
Ma said she hoped so.
You cannot tell what may happen when you go traveling on a train. It is not like starting out all together in a wagon. So Laura said bravely, “Maybe Pa's got our homestead picked out, already. You guess what it's like, Carrie, and then I'll guess.”
They could not talk very well, because all the time they were waiting, and listening for the train. At long, long last, Mary said she thought she heard it. Then Laura heard a faint, faraway hum. Her heart beat so fast that she could hardly listen to Ma.
Ma lifted Grace on her arm, and with her other hand she took tight hold of Carrie's. She said, “Laura, you come behind me with Mary. Be careful, now!”
The train was coming, louder. They stood by the satchels on the platform and saw it coming. Laura did not know how they could get the satchels on the train. Ma's hands were full, and Laura had to hold on to Mary. The engine's round front window glared in the sunshine like a huge eye. The smokestack flared upward to a wide top, and black smoke rolled up from it. A sudden streak of white shot up through the smoke, then the whistle screamed a long wild scream. The roaring thing came rushing straight at them all, swelling bigger and bigger, enormous, shaking everything with noise.
Then the worst was over. It had not hit them; it was roaring by them on thick big wheels. Bumps and crashes ran along the freight cars and flat cars and they stopped moving. The train was there, and they had to get into it.
“Laura!” Ma said sharply. “You and Mary be careful!”
“Yes, Ma, we are,” said Laura. She guided Mary anxiously, one step at a time, across the boards of the platform, behind Ma's skirt. When the skirt stopped, Laura stopped Mary.
They had come to the last car at the end of the train. Steps went up into it, and a strange man in a dark suit and a cap helped Ma climb up them with Grace in her arms.
“Oopsy-daisy!” he said, swinging Carrie up beside Ma. Then he said, “ The m your satchels, ma'am?”
“Yes, please,” Ma said. “Come, Laura and Mary.”
“Who is he, Ma?” Carrie asked, while Laura helped Mary up the steps. They were crowded in a small place. The man came pushing cheerfully past them, with the satchels, and shouldered open the door of the car.
They followed him between two rows of red velvet seats full of people. The sides of the car were almost solidly made of windows; the car was almost as light as outdoors, and chunks of sunshine slanted across the people and the red velvet.
Ma sat down on one velvet seat and plumped Grace on her lap. She told Carrie to sit beside her.
She said, “Laura, you and Mary sit in this seat ahead of me.”
Laura guided Mary in, and they sat down. The velvet seat was springy. Laura wanted to bounce on it, but she must behave properly. She whispered “Mary, the seats are red velvet!”
“I see,” Mary said, stroking the seat with her fingertips. “What's that in front of us?”
“It's the high back of the seat in front, and it's red velvet too,” Laura told her.
The engine whistled, and they both jumped. The train was getting ready to go. Laura knelt up in the seat to see Ma. Ma looked calm and so pretty in her dark dress with its white lace collar and the sweet tiny white flowers on her hat.
“What is it, Laura?” Ma asked.
Laura asked, “Who was that man?”
“ The brakeman,” Ma said. “Now sit down and—”
The train jerked, jolting her backward. Laura's chin bumped hard on the seat back, and her hat slid on her head. Again the train jerked, not so badly this time, and then it began to shiver and the depot moved.
“It's going!” Carrie cried out.
The shivering grew faster and louder, the depot slid backward, and under the car the wheels began to beat time. A rub-a-dubdub, a rub-a-dubdub, the wheels went, faster and faster. The lumberyard and the back of the church and the front of the school-house went by, and that was the last of that town.
The whole car swayed now, in time to the clackety-clacking underneath it, and the black smoke blew by in melting rolls. A telegraph wire swooped up and down beyond the window. It did not really swoop, but it seemed to swoop because it sagged" between the poles. It was fastened to green glass knobs that glittered in the sunshine and went dark when the smoke rolled above them. Beyond the wire, grass-lands and fields and scattered farmhouses and barns went by.
They went so fast that Laura could not really look at them before they were gone. In one hour that train would go twenty miles—as far as the horses traveled in a whole day.
The door opened, and a tall man came in. He wore a blue coat with brass buttons, and a cap, with in letters across its front. At every seat he stopped and took tickets. He punched round holes in the tickets with a small machine in his hand. Ma gave him three tickets. Carrie and Grace were so little that they could ride on the train without paying.
The Conductor went on, and Laura said low, “Oh, Mary! so many shining brass buttons on his coat, and it says CONDUCTOR right across the front of his cap!”
“And he is tall,” Mary said. “His voice is high up.”
Laura tried to tell her how fast the telegraph poles were going by. She said, “ The wire sags down between them and swoops up again,” and she counted them. “One—oop! two—oop! three! That's how fast they're going.”
“I can tell it's fast, I can feel it,” Mary said happily.
On that dreadful morning when Mary could not see even sunshine full in her eyes, Pa had said that Laura must see for her. He had said, "Your two eyes are quick enough, and your tongue, if you will use them for Mary.“ And Laura had promised. So she tried to be eyes for Mary, and it was seldom that Mary need ask her, "See out loud for me, Laura, please."
“Both sides of the car are windows, close together,” Laura said now. “Every window is one big sheet of glass, and even the strips of wood between the windows shine like glass, they are so polished.”
“Yes, I see,” and Mary felt over the glass and touched the shining wood with her fingertips.
"The sunshine comes slanting in the south windows, in wide stripes over the red velvet seats and the people. Corners of sunshine fall on the floor, and keep reaching out and going back. Up above the windows the shiny wood curves in from the walls on both sides, and all along the middle of the ceiling there's a higher place. It has little walls of tiny, long, low windows, and you can see blue sky outside them. But outside the big windows, on both sides, the country is going by. The stubble fields are yellow, and haystacks are by the barns, and little trees are yellow and red in clumps around the houses.
“Now I will see the people,” Laura went on murmuring. "In front of us is a head with a bald spot on top and side whiskers. He is reading a newspaper.
He doesn't look out of the windows at all. Farther ahead are two young men with their hats on. They are holding a big white map and looking at it and talking about it. I guess they're going to look for a homestead too. Their hands are rough and callused so they're good workers. And farther ahead there's a woman with bright yellow hair and, oh, Mary! the brightest red velvet hat with pink roses—"
Just then someone went by, and Laura looked up.
She went on, "A thin man with bristly eyebrows and long mustaches and an Adam's apple just went by.
He can't walk straight, the train's going so fast. I wonder what— Oh, Mary! He's turning a little handle on the wall at the end of the car, and water's coming out!
" The water's pouring right into a tin cup. Now he's drinking it. His Adam's apple bobs. He's filling the cup again. He just turns the handle, and the water comes right out. How do you suppose it— Mary!
He's set that cup on a little shelf. Now he's coming back."
After the man had gone by, Laura made up her mind. She asked Ma if she could get a drink of water, and Ma said she might. So she started out.
She could not walk straight. The lurching car made her sway and grab at the seat backs all the way. But she got to the end of the car and looked at the shining handle and spout, and the little shelf under them that held the bright tin cup. She turned the handle just a little, and water came out of the spout. She turned the handle back, and the water stopped. Under the cup there was a little hole, put there to carry away any water that spilled. Laura had never seen anything so fascinating. It was all so neat, and so marvelous, that she wanted to fill the cup again and again. But that would waste the water. So after she drank, she only filled the cup part way, in order not to spill it, and she carried it very carefully to Ma.
Carrie drank, and Grace. They did not want any more, and Ma and Mary were not thirsty. So Laura carried the cup back to its place. All the time the train was rushing on and the country rushing back, and the car swaying, but this time Laura did not touch one seat that she passed. She could walk almost as well as the Conductor. Surely nobody sus-pected that she had never been on a train before.
Then a boy came walking along the aisle, with a basket on his arm. He stopped and showed it to everyone, and some people took things out of it and gave him money. When he reached Laura, she saw that the basket was full of boxes of candy and of long sticks of white chewing gum. The boy showed them to Ma and said, "Nice fresh candy, ma'am?
Ma shook her head, but the boy opened a box and showed the colored candy. Carrie's breath made an eager sound before she knew it.
The boy shook the box a little, not quite spilling the candy out. It was beautiful Christmas candy, red pieces and yellow pieces and some striped red-and-white. The boy said, “Only ten cents, ma'am, one dime.”
Laura, and Carrie too, knew they could not have that candy. They were only looking at it. Suddenly Ma opened her purse and counted out a nickel and five pennies into the boy's hand. She took the box and gave it to Carrie.
When the boy had gone on, Ma said, excusing herself for spending so much, “After all, we must celebrate our first train ride.”
Grace was asleep, and Ma said that babies should not eat candy. Ma took only a small piece. Then Carrie came into the seat with Laura and Mary and divided the rest. Each had two pieces. They meant to eat one and save the other for next day, but some time after the first pieces were gone, Laura decided to taste her second one. Then Carrie tasted hers, and finally Mary gave in. They licked those pieces all away, little by little.
They were still licking their fingers when the engine whistled long and loud. Then the car went more slowly, and slowly the backs of shanties went backward outside it. All the people began to gather their things together and put on their hats, and then there was an awful jolting crash, and the train stopped. It was noon, and they had reached Tracy.
“I hope you girls haven't spoiled your dinners with that candy,” Ma said.
“We didn't bring any dinner, Ma,” Carrie reminded her.
Absently Ma replied, “We're going to eat dinner in the hotel. Come, Laura. You and Mary be careful.”END OF THE RAILS
Pa was not there at that strange depot. The brakeman set down the satchels on the platform and said, “If you'll wait a minute, ma'am, I'll take you to the hotel. I'm going there myself.”
“Thank you,” Ma said gratefully.
The brakeman helped unfasten the engine from the train. The fireman, all red and smeared with soot, leaned out of the engine to watch. Then he yanked a bell rope. The engine went on by itself, puffing and chuffing under the bell's clanging. It went only a little way, then it stopped, and Laura could not believe what she saw. The steel rails under the engine, and the wooden ties between them, turned right around.
They turned around in a circle there on the ground till the ends of the rails fitted together again, and the engine was facing backwards.
Laura was so amazed that she could not tell Mary what was happening. The engine went clanging and puffing on another track beside the train. It passed the train and went a little way beyond. The bell clanged, men shouted and made motions with their arms, and the engine came backing, bump! into the rear end of the train. All the cars slam-banged against each other. And there stood the train and the engine, facing back toward the east.
Carrie's mouth was open in amazement. The brakeman laughed at her in a friendly way. “That's the turntable,” he told her. “This is the end of the rails, and we have to turn the engine around so it can take the train back down the line.”
Of course, they would have to do that, but Laura had never thought of it before. She knew now what Pa meant when he spoke of the wonderful times they were living in. There had never been such wonders in the whole history of the world, Pa said. Now, in one morning they had actually traveled a whole week's journey, and Laura had seen the Iron Horse turn around, to go back the whole way in one afternoon.
For just one little minute she almost wished that Pa was a railroad man. There was nothing so wonderful as railroads, and railroad men were great men, able to drive the big iron engines and the fast, dangerous trains. But of course not even railroad men were bigger or better than Pa, and she did not really want him to be anything but what he was.
There was a long line of freight cars on another track beyond the depot. Men were unloading the cars into wagons. But they all stopped suddenly and jumped down from the wagons. Some of them yelled, and one big young man began to sing Ma's favorite hymn. Only he did not sing its words. He sang:
"There is a boarding house Not far away Where they have fried ham and eggs Three times a day.
"Wow! How the boarders yell When they hear that dinner bell!
Whoop! How those eggs do smell!
He was singing out these shocking words, and some other men were too, when they saw Ma and stopped.
Ma walked on quietly, carrying Grace and holding Carrie's hand. The brakeman was embarrassed. He said quickly, “We better hurry, ma'am, that's the dinner bell.”
The hotel was down a short street beyond a few stores and vacant lots. A sign over the sidewalk said “Hotel,” and under it a man stood swinging a hand bell. It kept on clanging, and all the men's boots made a beating sound on the dusty street and the board sidewalk.
“Oh, Laura, does it look like it sounds?” Mary asked trembling.
“No,” Laura said. “It looks all right. It's just a town, and they're just men.”
“It sounds so rough,” Mary said.
“This is the hotel door now,” Laura told her.
The brakeman led the way in, and set down the satchels. The floor needed sweeping. There was brown paper on the walls, and a calendar with a big shiny picture of a pretty girl in a bright yellow wheat-field. All the men went hustling through an open door into a big room beyond, where a long table was covered with a white cloth and set for dinner.
The man who had rung the bell told Ma, “Yes, ma'am! We've got room for you.” He put the satchels behind the desk and said, “Maybe you'd like to wash up, ma'am, before you eat?”
In a little room there was a washstand. A large china pitcher stood in a big china bowl, and a roller towel hung on the wall. Ma wet a clean handkerchief and washed Grace's face and hands and her own. Then she emptied the bowl into a pail beside the washstand and filled the bowl with fresh water for Mary and again for Laura. The cold water felt good on their dusty, sooty faces, and in the bowl it turned quite black. There was only a little water for each; then the pitcher was empty. Ma set it neatly in the bowl again when Laura was through. They all wiped on the roller towel. A roller towel was very convenient because its ends were sewed together and it ran around on its roller so that everyone could find a dry place.
Now the time had come to go into the dining room.
Laura dreaded that, and she knew that Ma did, too. It was hard to face so many strangers.
“You all look clean and nice,” Ma said. “Now remember your manners.” Ma went first, carrying Grace. Carrie followed her, then Laura went, leading Mary. Thenoisy clatter of eating became hushed when they went into the dining room, but hardly any of the men looked up. Somehow Ma found empty chairs; then they were all sitting in a row at the long table.
All over the table, thick on the white cloth, stood screens shaped like beehives. Under every screen was a platter of meat or a dish of vegetables. There were plates of bread and of butter, dishes of pickles, pitchers of syrup, and cream pitchers and bowls of sugar.
At each place was a large piece of pie on a small plate.
The flies crawled and buzzed over the wire screens, but they could not get at the food inside.
Every one was very kind and passed the food. All the dishes kept coming from hand to hand up and down the table to Ma. Nobody talked except to mutter, “You're welcome, ma'am,” when Ma said, “Thank you.” A girl brought her a cup of coffee.
Laura cut Mary's meat into small pieces for her and buttered her bread. Mary's sensitive fingers managed her knife and fork perfectly, and did not spill anything.
It was a pity that the excitement took away their ap-petites. The dinner cost twenty-five cents, and they could eat all they wanted to eat; there was plenty of food. But they ate only a little. In a few minutes all the men finished their pie and left, and the girl who had brought the coffee began to stack up the plates and carry them into the kitchen. She was a big, good-natured girl with a broad face and yellow hair.
“I guess you folks are going out to homestead?” she asked Ma.
“Yes,” Ma said.
“Your man working on the railroad?”
“Yes,” Ma said. “He's coming here to meet us this afternoon.”
“I thought that's the way it was,” the girl said. “It's funny your coming out here this time of year, most folks come in the spring. Your big girl's blind, ain't she? That's too bad. Well, the parlor's on the other side of the office; you folks can set in there if you want to, till your man comes.”
The parlor had a carpet on the floor and flowered paper on the walls. The chairs were cushioned in dark red plush. Ma sank into the rocking chair with a sigh of relief.
“Grace does get heavy. Sit down, girls, and be quiet.”
Carrie climbed into a big chair near Ma, and Mary and Laura sat on the sofa. They were all quiet, so that Grace would go to sleep for her afternoon nap.
The center table had a brass-bottomed lamp on it.
Its curved legs ended in glass balls on the carpet.
Lace curtains were looped back from the window, and between them Laura could see the prairie, and a road going away across it. Perhaps that was the road that Pa would come on. If it was, they would all go away on that road, and somewhere, far beyond the end of it that Laura could see, some day they would all be living on the new homestead.
Laura would rather not stop anywhere. She would rather go on and on, to the very end of the road, wherever it was.
All that long afternoon they sat quiet in that parlor while Grace slept, and Carrie slept a little, and even Ma dozed. The sun was almost setting when a tiny team and wagon came into sight on the road. It slowly grew larger. Grace was awake now, and they all watched from the window. The wagon grew life-size, and it was Pa's wagon, and Pa was in it.
Because they were in a hotel, they could not run out to meet him. But in a moment he came in saying “Hullo! Here's my girls!”RAILROAD CAMP
E arly next morning they were all in the wagon going west. Grace sat between Ma and Pa on the spring seat, and Carrie and Laura sat with Mary between them on a board across the wagon box.
Traveling on the cars was rich and swift but Laura preferred the wagon. For this one day's trip, Pa had not put on the cover. The whole sky was overhead and the prairie stretched away on all sides with farms scattered over it. The wagon went slowly, so there was time to see everything. And they could all talk comfortably together.
The only noise was the horses' feet clop-clopping and the little creaking sounds of the wagon.
Pa said that Uncle Hi had finished his first contract and was moving to a new camp farther west. He said “ The men have cleared out already. There's only a couple of teamsters left beside Docia's folks. They'll have the last of the shanties down and be hauling off the lumber in a couple of days.”
“Are we moving on then, too?” Ma asked.
“In a couple of days, yes,” Pa answered. He had not looked for a homestead yet. He would get one farther west.
Laura did not find much to see out loud for Mary.
The horses followed the road that went straight across the prairie. Always beside it was the railroad grade of raw earth. To the north the fields and houses were the same as at home, except that they were newer and smaller.
The freshness of the morning wore off. All the time little jolts and jiggles came up from the wagon through the hard board that they were sitting on. It seemed that the sun had never climbed so slowly.
Carrie sighed. Her peaked little face was pale. But Laura could do nothing for her. Laura and Carrie must sit on the ends of the board where the jiggling was hardest because Mary must be in the middle.
At last the sun was overhead, and Pa stopped the horses by a little creek. It was good to feel still. The little creek talked to itself, the horses munched their oats in the feedbox at the back of the wagon, and on the warm grass Ma spread a cloth and opened the lunch box. There was bread and butter and good hardboiled eggs, with pepper and salt in a paper, to dip the bitten eggs into.
Noon ended too soon. Pa led the horses to drink from the creek, while Ma and Laura picked up the eggshells and bits of paper, to leave the place tidy. Pa hitched the horses to the wagon again and sang out “All aboard!”
Laura and Carrie wished they could walk for a while. But they did not say so. They knew that Mary could not keep up with the wagon, and they could not let her sit in it alone and blind. They helped her climb up, and sat down beside her on the board.
The afternoon was longer than the morning. Once Laura said, “I thought we were going west.”
“We are going west, Laura,” Pa said, surprised.
“I thought it would be different,” Laura explained.
“Just you wait till we get out beyond settled country!” said Pa.
Once Carrie sighed, “I'm tired.” But she straightened up quickly and said, “Not so very tired.” Carrie did not mean to complain.
One little jolt is nothing at all. They had hardly noticed two miles and a half of little jolts when they rode to town from Plum Creek. But all the little jolts from sunrise to noon, and then all the little jolts from noon to sunset, are tiring.
Dark came, and still the horses plodded on, and the wheels kept turning and the hard board went on jar-ring. Stars were overhead. The wind was chilly. They would all have been asleep if the jolting board had let them sleep. For a long time nobody said anything.
Then Pa said, “There's the light of the shanty.”
Far ahead there was a little twinkle on the dark land. The stars were larger but their light was cold.
The tiny twinkle was warm.
“It's a little yellow spark, Mary,” Laura said. “It's shining from far away in the dark to tell us to keep on coming, there's a house there, and folks.”
“And supper,” said Mary. “Aunt Docia's keeping supper hot for us.”
Very slowly the light twinkled larger. It began to shine steady and round. After a long time it was square cornered.
“You can see it's a window now,” Laura told Mary.
“It's in a long, low, house. There are two other long, low dark houses in the dark. That's all I can see.”
“That's all of the camp,” Pa said. He told the horses, “Whoa.”
The horses stopped right then, without another step. The jiggling and jolting stopped. Everything stopped; there was only the still, cold dark. Then lamplight flared out of a doorway and Aunt Docia was saying, “Come right in, Caroline and girls! Hurry and put up your team, Charles; supper's waiting!”
The chilly dark had settled in Laura's bones. Mary and Carrie moved stiffly too, and they stumbled, yawning. In the long room, the lamp shone on a long table and benches and rough board walls. It was warm there and smelled of supper on the stove. Aunt Docia said, “Well, Lena and Jean, aren't you going to say anything to your cousins?”
“How do you do?” Lena said. Laura and Mary and Carrie all said, “How do you do?”
Jean was only a little boy, eleven years old. But Lena was a year older than Laura. Her eyes were black and snappy, her hair was black as black can be, and it curled naturally. The short wisps curled around her forehead, the top of her head was wavy, and the ends of her braids were round curls. Laura liked her.
“ D o you like to ride horseback?” she asked Laura.
“We've got two black ponies. We ride them, and I can drive them too. Jean can't because he's too little. Pa won't let him take the buggy. But I can, and tomorrow I'm going for the washing and you can come if you want to, do you?”
“Yes!” Laura said. “If Ma'll let me.” She was too sleepy to ask how they could go in a buggy for the washing. She was so sleepy that she could hardly stay awake to eat supper.
Uncle Hi was fat and good-natured and easygoing.
Aunt Docia talked very fast. Uncle Hi tried to calm her down, but every time he tried, Aunt Docia only talked faster. She was angry because Uncle Hi had worked hard all summer and had nothing to show for it.
“He's worked like a nailer all summer!” she said.
“He's even worked his own teams on the grade, and both of us saving and scrimping and pinching till the job was finished, and now it's finished and the company says we owe them money! They say we're in debt to them for our summer's hard work! And on top of that they want us to take another contract, and Hi takes it! That's what he does! He takes it!”
Uncle Hi tried to calm her down again, and Laura tried to stay awake. All the faces wavered and the voice raveled out thin; then her neck jerked her head up. When supper was over, she staggered up to help do the dishes, but Aunt Docia told her and Lena to run along to bed.
There was no room in Aunt Docia's beds for Laura and Lena , nor for Jean. He was going to stay in the bunkhouse with the men, and Lena said, “Come along, Laura! We're going to sleep in the office tent!”
Outdoors was very large and dim and chilly. The bunkhouse lay low and dark under the big sky, and the little office tent was ghostly in the starlight. It seemed far away from the lamplit shanty.
The tent was empty. There was only grass under-foot and canvas walls sloping up to a peak overhead.
Laura felt lost and lonesome. She would not have minded sleeping in the wagon, but she did not like to sleep on the ground in a strange place, and she wished that Pa and Ma were there.
Lena thought it was great fun to sleep in the tent.
She flopped down right away, on a blanket spread on the ground. Laura mumbled sleepily, “Don't we undress?”
“What for?” Lena said. “You only have to put on your clothes again in the morning. Besides, there aren't any covers.”
So Laura lay down on the blanket and was sound asleep. Suddenly she jerked awake with a frightful start. From the huge blackness of the night came again a wild, shrill howl.
It was not an Indian. It was not a wolf. Laura did not know what it was. Her heart stopped beating “Aw, you can't scare us!” Lena called out. She said to Laura, “It's Jean, trying to scare us.”
Jean yelled again, but Lena shouted, “Run away, little boy! I wasn't brought up in the woods to be scared by an owl!”
“Yah!” Jean called back. Laura began to unstiffen and fell asleep.THE BLACK PONIES
S unshine, coming through the canvas onto Laura's face, woke her. She opened her eyes just as Lena opened hers, and looking at each other they laughed.
“Hurry up! We're going for the washing!” Lena sang out, jumping up.
They hadn't undressed, so they did not need to dress. They folded the blanket and their bedroom work was done. They went skipping out into the large, breezy morning.
The shanties were small under the sunny sky. East and west ran the railroad grade and the road; north-ward the grasses were tossing tawny seed plumes.
Men were tearing down one of the shanties with a pleasant racket of clattering boards. On picket lines in the blowing grasses, the two black ponies, with blowing black manes and tails, were grazing.
“We've got to eat breakfast first,” Lena said.
“Come on, Laura! Hurry!”
Everyone except Aunt Docia was already at the table. Aunt Docia was frying pancakes.
"Get yourselves washed and combed, you lie-abeds!
Breakfast's on the table and no thanks to you, lazy miss!" Aunt Docia, laughing, gave Lena a spank as Lena went by. This morning she was as good-natured as Uncle Hi.
Breakfast was jolly. Pa's great laugh rang out like bells. But afterward what stacks of dishes there were to wash!
Lena said the dishes were nothing to what she had been doing; dishes three times a day for forty-six men, and between times the cooking. She and Aunt Docia had been on their feet from before sunrise till late at night, and still they couldn't keep up with all the work. That's why Aunt Docia had hired the washing out. This was the first time that Laura had ever heard of hiring out the washing. A homesteader's wife did Aunt Docia's washing; she lived three miles away so they'd have a six-mile drive.
Laura helped Lena carry the harness to the buggy, and lead the willing ponies from their picket lines.
She helped put the harness on them, the bits into their mouths, the hames on the collars clasping their warm black necks, and the tailpieces under their tails.
Then Lena and Laura backed the ponies in beside the buggy pole, and fastened the stiff bather traces to the whiffletrees. They climbed into the buggy and Lena took the lines.
Pa had never let Laura drive his horses. He said she was not strong enough to hold them if they ran away.
As soon as Lena had the lines, the black ponies started gaily trotting. The buggy wheels turned swiftly, the fresh wind blew. Birds fluttered and sang and flew dipping over the tops of the blowing grasses.
Faster and faster went the ponies, faster went the wheels. Laura and Lena laughed with joy.
The trotting ponies touched noses, gave a little squeal and ran.
Up sailed the buggy, almost jerking the seat from under Laura. Her bonnet flapped behind her tugging at its strings around her throat. She clutched onto the seat's edge. The ponies were stretched out low, running with all their might.
“They're running away!” Laura cried out.
“Let 'em run!” Lena shouted, slapping them with the lines. " They can't run against anything but grass!
Hi! Yi! Yi, yi, yee-ee!" she yelled at the ponies.
Their long black manes and tails streamed on the wind, their feet pounded, the buggy sailed. Everything went rushing by too fast to be seen. Lena began to sing:
"I know a young man fair to see, Take care! Oh, take care!
And he can very obliging be.
Beware! Oh, beware!"
Laura had not heard the song before, but she was soon singing the refrain with all her voice.
"Take care, dear girl, he's a-fooling you!
Take care! Oh, take care!
Trust him not for he won't prove true, Beware! Oh, beware!"
“Hi, yi, yi, yi yipee-ee!” they yelled. But the ponies couldn't go faster, they were going as fast as they could.
"I wouldn't marry a farmer (Lena sang) He's always in the dirt I'd rather marry a railroad man Who wears a striped shirt!
"Oh, a railroad man, a railroad man, A railroad man for me!
I'm going to marry a railroad man A railroader's bride I'll be!"
“I guess I better breathe them,” she said. She pulled at the lines till she made the ponies trot, and then they slowed to a walk. Everything seemed quiet and slow.
“I wish I could drive,” Laura said. “I always wanted to, but Pa won't let me.”
“You can drive a ways,” Lena offered generously.
Just then the ponies touched noses again, squealed, and ran.
“You can drive on the way home!” Lena promised.
Singing and whooping, they went racing on across the prairie. Every time Lena slowed the ponies to get their breath, they got it and ran again. In no time at all, they reached the homesteader's claim shanty.
It was a tiny room, boarded up-and-down, and its roof sloped all one way, so that it looked like half of a little house. It was not as big as the wheat stacks beyond it, where men were threshing wheat with a noisy, chaff-puffing machine. The homesteader's wife came out to the buggy, lugging the basket of washing. Her face and arms and her bare feet were as brown as leather from the sun. Her hair straggled uncombed and her limp dress was faded and not clean.
“You must excuse the way I look,” she said. “My girl was married yesterday, and here come the thresh-ers this morning, and this wash to do. I been hustling since before sun-up, and here the day's work hardly started and my girl not here any more to help me.”
“ D o you mean Lizzie got married?” Lena asked.
“Yes, Lizzie got married yesterday,” Lizzie's mother said proudly. “Her Pa says thirteen's pretty young, but she's got her a good man and I say it's better to settle down young. I was married young myself.”
Laura looked at Lena , and Lena looked at her. On the way back to camp they did not say anything for some time. Then both spoke at once.
“She was only a little older than I am,” said Laura, and Lena said, “I'm a year older than she was.”
They looked at each other again, an almost scared look. Then Lena tossed her curly black head. “She's a silly! Now she can't ever have any more good times.”
Laura said soberly, “No, she can't play any more now.”
Even the ponies trotted gravely. After a while Lena said she supposed that Lizzie did not have to work any harder than before. “Anyway, now she's doing her own work in her own house, and she'll have babies.”
“Well,” Laura said, “I'd like my own house and I like babies, and I wouldn't mind the work, but I don't want to be so responsible. I'd rather let Ma be responsible for a long time yet.”
“And besides, I don't want to settle down,” Lena said. “I'm not ever going to get married, or if I do, I'm going to marry a railroader and keep on moving west as long as I live.”
“May I drive now?” Laura asked. She wanted to forget about growing up.
Lena gave her the lines. “All you have to do is hold the lines,” Lena said. “ The ponies know the way back.” At that instant, the ponies touched noses and squealed.
“Hold on to them, Laura! Hold on to them!” Lena screeched.
Laura braced her feet and hung on to the lines with all her might. She could feel that the ponies didn't mean any harm. They were running because they wanted to run in the windy weather; they were going to do what they wanted to do. Laura hung on to them and yelled, “Yi, yi, yi, yip-ee!”
She had forgotten the basket of clothes, and so had Lena. All the way back to camp across the prairie they went whooping and singing, the ponies went running, trotting, and running again. When they stopped by the shanties to unhitch and picket the ponies, they found all the top layers of the clean washing on the buggy floor under the seats.
Guiltily they piled and smoothed them and lugged the heavy basket into the shanty where Aunt Docia and Ma were dishing up the dinner.
“You girls look as if butter wouldn't melt in your mouths,” said Aunt Docia. “What have you been up to?”
“Why, we just drove out and brought back the washing,” said Lena .
That afternoon was even more exciting than the morning. As soon as the dishes were washed, Lena and Laura ran out again to the ponies. Jean had gone on one of them. He was riding away across the prairie.
“No fair!” Lena yelled. The other pony was galloping in a circle, held by its picket rope. Lena grabbed its mane, unsnapped the rope, and sailed right up from the ground onto the back of the running pony.
Laura stood watching Lena and Jean race in circles, yelling like Indians. They rode crouching, their hair streaming back, their hands clutched in the flying black manes and their brown legs clasping the ponies'
sides. The ponies curved and swerved, chasing each other on the prairie like birds in the sky. Laura would never have tired of watching them.
The ponies came galloping and stopped near her, and Lena and Jean slid off.
“Come on, Laura,” Lena said generously. “You can ride Jean's pony.”
“Who says she can?” Jean demanded. “You let her ride your own pony.”
“You better behave or I'll tell how you tried to scare us last night,” said Lena .
Laura took hold of the pony's mane. But the pony was much larger than she was, its back was high, and the pony was strong. Laura said, “I don't know if I can. I never did ride horseback.”
“I'll put you on,” said Lena . She held her pony by the forelock with one hand, and bending down she held her other hand for Laura to step onto.
Jean's pony seemed larger every minute. It was big and strong enough to kill Laura if it wanted to, and so high that to fall off it would break her bones. She was so scared to ride it that she had to try.
She stepped onto Lena's hand, she scrambled up the warm, slippery, moving mass of pony, while Lena boosted. Then she got one leg over the pony's back and everything began moving rapidly. Dimly she heard Lena saying, “Hang on to his mane.”
She was holding on to the pony's mane. She was hanging on to deep handfuls of it with all her might, and her elbows and her knees were holding on to the pony, but she was jolting so that she couldn't think.
The ground was so far beneath that she didn't dare look. Every instant she was falling, but before she really fell she was falling the other way, and the jolting rattled her teeth. Far off she heard Lena yell, “Hang on, Laura!”
Then everything smoothed into the smoothest rippling motion. This motion went through the pony and through Laura and kept them sailing over waves in rushing air. Laura's screwed-up eyes opened, and below her she saw the grasses flowing back. She saw the pony's black mane blowing, and her hands clenched tight in it. She and the pony were going too fast but they were going like music and nothing could happen to her until the music stopped.
Lena ' s pony came pounding along beside her. Laura wanted to ask how to stop safely but she could not speak. She saw the shanties far ahead, and knew that somehow the ponies had turned back toward the camp. Then the jolting began again. Then it stopped, and there she sat on the pony's back.
“Didn't I tell you it's fun?” Lena asked.
“What makes it jolt so?” Laura asked.
“That's trotting. You don't want to trot, you want to make your pony gallop. Just yell at it, like I did. Come on, let's go a long ways this time, you want to?”
“Yes,” said Laura.
“All right, hang on. Now, yell!”
That was a wonderful afternoon. Twice Laura fell off; once the pony's head hit her nose and made it bleed, but she never let go of the mane. Her hair came unbraided and her throat grew hoarse from laughing and screeching, and her legs were scratched from running through the sharp grass and trying to leap onto her pony while it was running. She almost could, but not quite, and this made the pony mad. Lena and Jean always started the ponies to running and then swung up. They raced each other from the ground, trying which could sooner mount and reach a certain mark.
They did not hear Aunt Docia calling them to supper. Pa came out and shouted “Supper!” When they went in, Ma looked at Laura in shocked amazement and said mildly, “Really, Docia, I don't know when Laura's looked so like a wild Indian.”
“She and Lena are a pair,” said Aunt Docia. “Well, Lena hasn't had an afternoon to do as she liked since we came out here, and she won't have another till the summer's over.”THE WEST BEGINS
Early next morning they were all in the wagon again. It had not been unloaded so everything was ready to go.
Nothing was left of the camp but Aunt Docia's shanty. Over the worn-out grass and the dead spots where shanties had been, surveyors were measuring and driving stakes for a new town that would be built.
“We'll be along as soon as Hi gets his business settled,” Aunt Docia said.
“I'll see you at Silver Lake ! ” Lena called to Laura, while Pa chirruped to the horses and the wheels began to turn.
The sun shone brightly on the uncovered wagon, but the wind was cool and riding was pleasant. Here and there, men were working in their fields, and now and then a team and wagon passed.
Soon the road curved downward through rolling land and Pa said, “ The Big Sioux River's ahead.”
Laura began to see out loud for Mary. “ The road's going down a low bank to the river, but there aren't any trees. There's just the big sky and grassy land, and the little, low creek. It's a big river sometimes, but now it's dried up till it's no bigger than Plum Creek. It trickles along from pool to pool, by dry gravel stretches and cracked dry mud flats. Now the horses are stopping to drink.”
“Drink hearty,” Pa said to the horses. “There's no more water for thirty miles.”
Beyond the low river the grassy land was low curve behind curve and the road looked like a short hook.
“ The road pushes against the grassy land and breaks off short. And that's the end of it,” said Laura.
“It can't be,” Mary objected. “ The road goes all the way to Silver Lake.”
“I know it does,” Laura answered.
“Well, then I don't think you ought to say things like that,” Mary told her gently. “We should always be careful to say exactly what we mean.”
“I was saying what I meant,” Laura protested. But she could not explain. There were so many ways of seeing things and so many ways of saying them.
Beyond the Big Sioux there were no more fields, no houses, no people in sight. There really was no road, only a dim wagon trail, and no railroad grade. Here and there Laura glimpsed a little wooden stake, almost hidden in the grasses. Pa said they were surveyors' stakes for the railroad grade that was not started yet.
Laura said to Mary, “This prairie is like an enormous meadow, stretching far away in every direction, to the very edge of the world.”
The endless waves of flowery grasses under the cloudless sky gave her a queer feeling. She could not say how she felt. All of them in the wagon, and the wagon and team, and even Pa, seemed small.
All morning Pa drove steadily along the dim wagon track, and nothing changed. The farther they went into the west, the smaller they seemed, and the less they seemed to be going anywhere. The wind blew the grass always with the same endless rippling, the horses' feet and the wheels going over the grass made always the same sound. The jiggling of the board seat was always the same jiggling. Laura thought they might go on forever, yet always be in this same changeless place, that would not even know they were there.
Only the sun moved. Without ever seeming to, the sun moved steadily upward in the sky. When it was overhead, they stopped to feed the horses and to eat a picnic lunch on the clean grass.
It was good to rest on the ground after riding all the morning. Laura thought of the many times they had eaten under the sky, while they were traveling all the way from Wisconsin to Indian Territory and back again to Minnesota. Now they were in Dakota Territory going farther west. But this was different from all the other times, not only because there was no cover on the wagon and no beds in it, but some other reason.
Laura couldn't say how, but this prairie was different.
“Pa,” she asked, “when you find the homestead, will it be like the one we had in Indian Territory?”
Pa thought before he answered. “No,” he said finally. “This is different country. I can't tell you how, exactly, but this prairie is different. It feels different.”
“That's likely enough,” Ma said sensibly. “We're west of Minnesota, and north of Indian Territory, so naturally the flowers and grasses are not the same.”
But that was not what Pa and Laura meant. There was really almost no difference in the flowers and grasses. But there was something else here that was not anywhere else. It was an enormous stillness that made you feel still. And when you were still, you could feel great stillness coming closer.
All the little sounds of the blowing grasses and of the horses munching and whooshing in their feedbox at the back of the wagon, and even the sounds of eating and talking could not touch the enormous silence of this prairie.
Pa talked about his new job. He would be the company storekeeper, and the timekeeper at Silver Lake camp. He would run the store and he would keep straight in his books the charge account of every man on the job, and know exactly how much money was due each man for his work, after his board bill and his account at the store had been subtracted. And when the paymaster brought the money each payday, Pa would pay every man. That was all he had to do, and for that he would be paid fifty dollars every month.
“And best of all, Caroline, we're among the very first out here!” said Pa. “We've got the pick of the land for our homestead. By George, our luck's turned at last! First chance at new land, and fifty dollars a month for a whole summer to boot!”
“It is wonderful, Charles,” said Ma.
But all their talking did not mean anything to the enormous silence of that prairie.
All that afternoon they went on, mile after mile, never seeing a house or any sign of people, never seeing anything but grass and sky. The trail they followed was marked only by bent and broken grasses.
Laura saw old Indian trails and buffalo paths worn deep in the ground and now grassed over. She saw strange large depressions, straight-sided and flat-bottomed, that had been buffalo wallows, where now the grass was growing. Laura had never seen a buffalo, and Pa said it was not likely that she would ever see one. Only a little while before the vast herds of thousands of buffaloes had grazed over this country.
They had been the Indians' cattle, and white men had slaughtered them all.
On every side now the prairie stretched away empty to far, clear skyline. The wind never stopped blowing, waving the tall prairie grasses that had turned brown in the sun. And all the afternoon, while Pa kept driving onward, he was merrily whistling or singing. The song he sang oftenest was:
"Oh, come to this country And don't you feel alarm For Uncle Sam is rich enough To give us all a farm!"
Even baby Grace joined in the chorus, though she did not bother to follow the tune.
"Oh, come away! Come away!
Come away, I say!
Oh, come away! Come away!
Come right away!
Oh, come to this country And have no fear of harm Our Uncle Sam is rich enough To give us all a farm!"
The sun was lowering in the west when a rider appeared on the prairie behind the wagon. He came following behind not very fast, but coming a little nearer mile after mile while the sun was slowly sinking.
“How much farther is it to Silver Lake, Charles?”
“About ten miles,” said Pa.
“There isn't anybody living nearer, is there?”
“No,” said Pa.
Ma did not say anything more. Neither did anyone else. They kept glancing back at that rider behind them, and each time they looked, he was a little nearer. He was surely following them and not meaning to overtake them until the sun sank. The sun was so low that every hollow between the low prairie swells was filled with shadow.
Each time that Pa glanced back, his hand made a little motion, slapping the horses with the lines to hurry them. But no team could pull a loaded wagon as fast as a man could ride.
The man was so near now that Laura could see two pistols in leather holsters on his hips. His hat was pulled low over his eyes, and a red bandana was tied loosely around his neck.
Pa had brought his gun west, but it was not in the wagon now. Laura wondered where it was, but she did not ask Pa.
She looked back again and saw another rider coming on a white horse. He wore a red shirt. He and the white horse were far behind and small, but they came fast, galloping. They overtook the first rider, and the two came on together.
Ma said in a low voice, “There's two of them now, Charles.”
Mary asked frightened, “What is it? Laura, what's the matter?”
Pa looked back quickly, and then he was comfortable. “Everything's all right now,” he said. “That's Big Jerry.”
“Who's Big Jerry?” Ma asked.
“He's a half-breed, French and Indian,” Pa answered carelessly. “A gambler, and some say a horse thief, but a darned good fellow. Big Jerry won't let anybody waylay us.”
Ma looked at him astonished. Her mouth opened and then it shut; she did not say anything.
The riders came up beside the wagon. Pa lifted his hand and said, “Hullo, Jerry!”
“Hullo, Ingalls!” Big Jerry answered. The other man gave them all a snarling look and went galloping on ahead, but Big Jerry rode along by the wagon.
He looked like an Indian. He was tall and big but not one bit fat, and his thin face was brown. His shirt was flaming red. His straight black hair swung against his flat, high-boned cheek as he rode, for he wore no hat. And his snow-white horse wore no saddle nor bri-dle. The horse was free, he could go where he wanted to go, and he wanted to go with Big Jerry wherever Big Jerry wanted to ride. The horse and the man moved together as if they were one animal.
They were beside the wagon only a moment. Then away they went in the smoothest, prettiest run, down into a little hollow and up and away, straight into the blazing round sun on the far edge of the west. The flaming red shirt and the white horse vanished in the blazing golden light.
Laura let out her breath. “Oh, Mary! The snow-white horse and the tall, brown man, with such a black head and a bright red shirt! The brown prairie all around—and they rode right into the sun as it was going down. They'll go on in the sun around the world.”
Mary thought a moment. Then she said, “Laura, you know he couldn't ride into the sun. He's just riding along on the ground like anybody.”
But Laura did not feel that she had told a lie. What she had said was true too. Somehow that moment when the beautiful, free pony and the wild man rode into the sun would last forever.
Ma still feared that the other man might be lying in wait to rob them, but Pa told her, “Don't worry! Big Jerry's gone ahead to find him and stay with him till we get into camp. Jerry'll see that nobody molests us.”
Ma looked back to see that her girls were all right, and she held Grace snugly on her lap. She did not say anything because nothing she could say would make any difference. But Laura knew that Ma had never wanted to leave Plum Creek and did not like to be here now; she did not like traveling in that lonely country with night coming on and such men riding the prairie.
The wild calls of birds came down from the fading sky. More and more dark lines streaked the pale-blue air overhead—straight lines of wild ducks, and long flying wedges of wild geese. The leaders called to their flocks behind them, and each bird answered in turn. The whole sky twanged, "Honk? Honk! Honk!
Quanck? Quanck. Quanck."
“ They're flying low,” said Pa. “Settling down for the night on the lakes.”
There were lakes ahead. A thin silvery line at the very edge of the sky was Silver Lake, and little glimmers south of it were the Twin Lakes, Henry and Thompson. A wee dark blob between them was the Lone Tree. Pa said it was a big cottonwood, the only tree to be seen between the Big Sioux River and the Jim; it grew on a little rise of ground no wider than a road, between the Twin Lakes, and it grew big because its roots could reach water.
“We'll get some seeds from it to plant on our homestead,” Pa said. “You can't see Spirit Lake from here, it's nine miles northwest of Silver Lake . You see, Caroline, what fine hunting country this is. Plenty of water and good feeding ground for wild fowl.”
“Yes, Charles, I see,” said Ma.
The sun sank. A ball of pulsing, liquid light, it sank in clouds of crimson and silver. Cold purple shadows rose in the east, crept slowly across the prairie, then rose in heights on heights of darkness from which the stars swung low and bright.
The wind, which all day long had blown strongly, dropped low with the sun and went whispering among the tall grasses. The earth seemed to lie breathing softly under the summer night.
Pa drove on and on beneath the low stars. The horses' feet went softly thump-thumping on the grassy ground. Far, far ahead a few tiny lights pricked through the dark. They were the lights of Silver Lake camp.
“Don't need to see the trail for these next eight miles,” Pa told Ma. “All a man's got to do is keep driving toward the lights. There's nothing between us and camp but smooth prairie and air.”
Laura was tired and chilly. The lights were far away.
They might be stars after all. The whole night was a glittering of stars. Close overhead and down on all sides great stars glittered in patterns on the dark. The tall grass rustled against the turning wagon wheels; it kept on rustling, rustling against the wheels that kept on turning.
Suddenly Laura's eyes jerked open. There was an open doorway and light streaming out. And in the dazzle of lamplight Uncle Henry was coming, laughing. So this must be Uncle Henry's house in the Big Woods when Laura was little, for that was where Uncle Henry was.
“Henry!” Ma exclaimed.
“It's a surprise, Caroline!” Pa sang out. “I thought I wouldn't tell you Henry's out here.”
“I declare, it takes my breath, I am so surprised,”
And then a big man was laughing up at them, and he was Cousin Charley. He was the big boy who had bothered Uncle Henry and Pa in the oat field, and been stung by thousands of yellow jackets. “Hello, Half-Pint! Hello, Mary! And here's baby Carrie, a big girl now. Not the baby any longer, uh?” Cousin Charley helped them down from the wagon, while Uncle Henry took Grace and Pa helped Ma over the wheel, and here came Cousin Louisa, bustling and talking and herding them all into the shanty.
Cousin Louisa and Charley were both grown up now. They were keeping the boarding shanty, cooking for the men who were working on the grade. But the men had eaten supper long ago, and now they were all sleeping in the bunkhouses. Cousin Louisa talked about all this, while she dished up the supper she had been keeping hot on the stove.
After supper Uncle Henry lighted a lantern and led the way to a shanty that the men had built for Pa.
"It's all new lumber, Caroline, fresh and clean as a whistle," Uncle Henry said, holding up the lantern so they could see the new board walls and the bunks built up against them. There was a bunk on one side for Ma and Pa, and on the other side two narrow bunks, one above the other, for Mary and Laura and Carrie and Grace. The beds were already spread in the bunks; Cousin Louisa had seen to that.
In no time at all, Laura and Mary were cuddled on the rustling fresh hay-mattress with the sheet and quilts drawn up to their noses, and Pa blew out the lantern.A SILVER LAKE
The sun had not yet risen next morning when Laura let down the pail into the shallow well by Silver Lake. Beyond the lake's eastern shore the pale sky was bordered with bands of crimson and gold. Their brightness stretched around the south shore and shone on the high bank that stood up from the water in the east and the north.
Night was still shadowy in the northwest, but Silver Lake lay like a sheet of silver in its setting of tall wild grasses.
Ducks quacked among the thick grasses to the southwest, where the Big Slough began._Screaming gulls flew over the lake, beating against the dawn wind. A wild goose rose from the water with a ringing call, and one after another the birds of his flock answered him as they rose and followed. The great tri-angle of wild geese flew with a beating of strong wings into the glory of the sunrise.
Shafts of golden light shot higher and higher in the eastern sky, until their brightness touched the water and was reflected there.
Then the sun, a golden ball, rolled over the eastern edge of the world.
Laura breathed a long breath. Then hurriedly she pulled up the pail of water, and carrying it she hurried back toward the shanty. The new shanty stood alone by the lake shore, south of the cluster of shanties that was the graders' camp. It shone yellow in the sunshine; a little house almost lost in the grasses, and its little roof sloped all one way, as if it were only half a roof.
“We have been waiting for the water, Laura,” Ma said, when Laura went in.
“Oh, but Ma! the sunrise! You should have seen the sunrise!” Laura exclaimed. “I just had to watch it.”
She began quickly to help Ma get breakfast, and while she hurried she told how the sun came up beyond Silver Lake, flooding the sky with wonderful colors while the flocks of wild geese flew dark against them, how thousands of wild ducks almost covered the water, and gulls flew screaming against the wind above it.
“I heard them,” Mary said. "Such a clamoring of wild birds, it was like bedlam. And now I see it all.
You make pictures when you talk, Laura."
Ma smiled at Laura too, but she only said, “Well, girls, we have a busy day before us,” and she laid out their work.
Everything must be unpacked and the shanty made tidy before noon. Cousin Louisa's beds must be aired and returned, and Ma's ticking mattresses stuffed with fresh clean hay. Meanwhile, from the company store Ma brought yards of bright-figured calico for curtains. She made a curtain and they hung it across the shanty, shutting the bunks behind it. Then she made another curtain and hung it between the bunks; so there were two bedrooms, one for her and Pa, the other for the girls. The shanty was so small that the curtains touched the bunks, but when the bunks were made up with Ma's mattresses and featherbeds and patchwork quilts, it all looked fresh and bright and snug.
Then in front of the curtain was the room to live in.
It was very small, with the cookstove at the end by the door. Ma and Laura placed the drop-leaf table against the side wall, before the open front door. Mary's rocking chair and Ma's they put on the other side of the room. The floor was bare ground, with humps of obsti-nate grass roots in it, but they swept it clean. The wind blew softly in from the open doorway, and the railroad shanty was very pleasant and homelike.
“This is another kind of little house with only half a roof and no window,” said Ma. “But it's a tight roof, and we don't need a window, so much air and light come through the doorway.”
When Pa came to dinner, he was pleased to see everything so nicely settled and arranged. He tweaked Carrie's ear and swung Grace up in his hands; he could not toss her, under that low roof.
“But where's the china shepherdess, Caroline?” he asked.
“I haven't unpacked the shepherdess, Charles,” said Ma. “We aren't living here, we're only staying till you get our homestead.”
Pa laughed. “I've got plenty of time to pick the right one too! Look at all this great prairie with nobody on it but the railroad graders and they'll go away before winter comes. We can just about take our pick of the land.”
“After dinner,” Laura said, “Mary and I are going to take a walk and look at the camp and the lake and everything.” She took the water pail and ran out bareheaded to get fresh water from the well for dinner.
The wind was blowing steady and strong. Not a cloud was in the huge sky, and far and wide on the im-mense land there was nothing but shimmering light passing over the grasses. And down wind came the sound of many men's voices, singing.
The teams were coming into camp. In a long, dark, snakelike line as they came over the prairie, horses plodding side by side in their harness, and men march-ing, bareheaded and bare-armed, brown-skinned in their striped blue-and-white shirts and gray shirts and plain blue shirts, and all of them were singing the same song.
They were like a little army coming across the vast land under the enormous empty sky, and the song was their banner.
Laura stood in the strong wind, looking and listening, till the last of the column came into the crowd that gathered and spread around the camp's low shanties, and the song blurred into the sound of all their hearty voices. Then she remembered the water pail in her hand. She filled it from the well as quickly as she could, and ran back; slopping water on her bare legs in her hurry.
“I just had—to watch the—teams coming into camp,” she panted. “So many of them, Pa! And all the men were singing!”
“Now, Flutterbudget, catch your breath!” Pa laughed at her. “Fifty teams and seventy-five or eighty men are only a small camp. You ought to see Stebbins' camp west of here; two hundred men and teams according.”
“Charles,” Ma said.
Usually everyone knew what Ma meant when she said in her gentle way, “Charles.” But this time Laura and Carrie and Pa all looked at her wondering. Ma shook her head just the least bit at Pa.
Then Pa looked straight at Laura and said, "You girls keep away from the camp. When you go walking, don't go near where the men are working, and you be sure you're back here before they come in for the night. There's all kinds of rough men working on the grade and using rough language, and the less you see and hear of them the better. Now remember, Laura.
And you too, Carrie." Pa's face was very serious.
“Yes, Pa,” Laura promised, and Carrie almost whispered, “Yes, Pa.” Carrie's eyes were large and frightened. She did not want to hear rough language, whatever rough language might be. Laura would have liked to hear some, just once, but of course she must obey Pa.
So that afternoon when they set out for their walk they went away from the shanties. They set out along the lake shore toward the Big Slough.
The lake lay at their left shimmering in the sunshine. Little silvery waves rose and fell and lapped upon the shore as the wind ruffled the blue water.
The shore was low, but firm and dry, with little grasses growing to the water's edge. Across the glittering lake, Laura could see the east bank and the south bank, rising up as tall as she was. A little slough came into the lake from the northeast, and Big Slough went on toward the southwest in a long curve of tall wild grasses.
Laura and Mary and Carrie walked slowly along on the green shore by the rippling silver-blue water, toward the wild Big Slough. The grasses were warm and soft to their feet. The wind blew their flapping skirts tight against their bare legs and ruffled Laura's hair.
Mary's sunbonnet and Carrie's were tied firmly under their chins, but Laura swung hers by its strings. Millions of rustling grass-blades made one murmuring sound, and thousands of wild ducks and geese and herons and cranes and pelicans were talking sharply and brassily in the wind.
All those birds were feeding among the grasses of the sloughs. They rose on flapping wings and settled again, crying news to each other and talking among themselves among the grasses, and eating busily of grass roots and tender water plants and little fishes.
The lake shore went lower and lower toward Big Slough, until really there was no shore. The lake melted into the slough, making small ponds surrounded by the harsh, rank slough grass that stood five and six feet tall. Little ponds glimmered between the grasses and on the water the wild birds were thick.
As Laura and Carrie pushed into the slough grasses, suddenly harsh wings ripped upward and round eyes glittered; the whole air exploded in a noise of squawk-ing, quacking, quonking. Flattening their webbed feet under their tails, ducks and geese sped over the grass-tops and curved down to the next pond.
Laura and Carrie stood still. The coarse-stemmed slough grass rose above their heads and made a rough sound in the wind. Their bare feet sank slowly into ooze.
“Oo, the ground is all soft,” Mary said, turning back quickly. She did not like mud on her feet.
“Go back, Carrie!” Laura cried. "You'll mire down!
The lake is in here among the grasses!"
The soft, cool mud sucked around her ankles as she stood, and before her the little ponds glimmered among the tall grasses. She wanted to go on and on, into the slough among the wild birds, but she could not leave Mary and Carrie. So she turned back with them to the hard, higher prairie where waist-high grasses were nodding and bending in the wind, and the short, curly buffalo grass grew in patches.
Along the edge of the slough they picked flaming red tiger lilies, and on higher ground they gathered long branching stems of purple buffalo bean pods.
Grasshoppers flew up like spray before their feet in the grasses. All kinds of little birds fluttered and flew and twittered balancing in the wind on the tall, bending grass stems, and prairie hens scuttled everywhere.
“Oh, what a wild, beautiful prairie!” Mary sighed with happiness. “Laura, have you got your sunbonnet on?”
Guiltily Laura pulled up her sunbonnet from where it hung by its strings down her neck. “Yes, Mary,” she said.
Mary laughed. “You just now put it on. I heard you!”
It was late afternoon when they turned back. The little shanty, with its roof slanting all one way, stood all by itself and small at the edge of Silver Lake. Tiny in the doorway, Ma shaded her eyes with her hand to look for them, and they waved to her.
They could see the whole camp, scattered along the lake shore north of the shanty. First was the store where Pa was working with the big feed store behind it. Then the stable for the work teams. The stable was built into a swell of the prairie, and its roof was thatched with slough grass. Beyond it was the long, low bunkhouse where the men slept, and still farther away was Cousin Louisa's long boardinghouse shanty, with supper smoke already rising from its stovepipe.
Then for the first time Laura saw a house, a real house, standing all by itself on the lake's northern shore.
“I wonder what that house can be and who lives there,” she said. “It isn't a homestead because there's no stable and no land plowed.”
She had told Mary all that she saw, and Mary said “What a pretty place it is with the clean, new shanties and the grass and the water. There's no use wondering about that house; we can ask Pa about it. Here comes another flock of wild ducks.”
Flock after flock of ducks and long lines of wild geese were coming down from the sky and settling to stay all night on the lake. And the men were making a racket of voices as they came from their work. In the shanty's doorway again, Ma waited till they reached her, windblown and full of the fresh air and sunshine, bringing her their armfuls of tiger lilies and purple bean pods.
Then Carrie put the big bouquet in a pitcher of water while Laura set the table for supper. Mary sat in her rocking chair with Grace in her lap and told her about the ducks quacking in the Big Slough and the great flocks of wild geese going to sleep in the lake.HORSE THIEVES
One night at supper Pa spoke hardly at all. He only answered questions. At last Ma asked “Aren't you feeling well, Charles?”
“I'm all right, Caroline,” Pa answered.
“ Then what is the matter?” Ma demanded.
“Nothing,” Pa said. "Nothing to worry you about.
Well, the fact is, the boys have got word to look out for horse thieves tonight."
“That's Hi's affair,” Ma said. “I hope you'll let him tend to it.”
“Don't worry, Caroline,” Pa said.
Laura and Carrie looked at each other and then at Ma. After a moment Ma said gently, “I wish you'd out with it, Charles.”
“Big Jerry's been in camp,” Pa said. “He's been here a week, and now he's gone. The boys say he's in with the gang of horse thieves. They say every time Big Jerry visits a camp the best horses are stolen after he leaves. They think he stays just long enough to pick out the best teams and find out what stalls they're in, and then he comes back with his gang in the night and gets away with them in the dark.”
“I always heard you can't trust a half-breed,” Ma said. Ma did not like Indians; she did not like even half-Indians.
“We'd all have been scalped down on the Verdigris River, if it hadn't been for a full-blood,” said Pa.
“We wouldn't have been in any danger of scalping if it hadn't been for those howling savages,” said Ma “with fresh skunk skins around their middles.” And she made a sound that came from remembering how those skunk skins smelled.
“I don't think Jerry steals horses,” Pa said. But Laura thought he said it as if he hoped that saying it would make it so. “ The real trouble is, he comes to camp after payday and wins all the boys' money playing poker. That's why some of them would be glad to shoot him.”
“I wonder Hi allows it,” said Ma. “If there's anything as bad as drink, it's gambling.”
“They don't have to gamble if they don't want to, Caroline,” Pa said. "If Jerry wins their money, it's their own fault. There never was a kinder-hearted man than Big Jerry. He'd give the shirt off his back.
Look how he takes care of Old Johnny."
“That's so,” Ma admitted. Old Johnny was the water boss. He was a little, wizened, bent-backed old Irishman. He had worked on railroads all his life, and now he was too old to work. So the company had given him the job of carrying water to the men.
Every morning and again after dinner, little old Johnny came to the well to fill his two large, wooden water pails. When they were full he set his wooden yoke across his shoulders and stooping, he hooked into the pails the two hooks that hung from short chains at each end of the yoke. Then with a grunt and groan, he straightened up. The chains lifted the heavy pails from the ground and Johnny steadied them with his hands while he bore their weight on his shoulders. He trotted under the weight with short, stiff steps.
There was a tin dipper in each water pail. When he got to the men working on the grade, Johnny would trot along the line of work, so that any thirsty man could help himself to a drink of water without stopping work.
Johnny was so old that he was little, stooped and shrunken. His face was a mass of wrinkles, but his blue eyes twinkled cheerily and he always trotted as quickly as he could so that no thirsty man need wait for a drink.
One morning before breakfast, Big Jerry had come to the door and told Ma that Old Johnny had been sick all night.
“He's so little and old, ma'am,” Big Jerry said. "The meals at the boarding shanty don't agree with him.
Would you give him a cup of hot tea and a bit of breakfast?"
Ma put several of her hot, light biscuits on a plate and beside them she put a fried mashed-potato cake and a slice of crisply fried salt pork. Then she filled a little tin pail with hot tea and gave it all to Big Jerry.
After breakfast Pa went to the bunkhouse to see Old Johnny, and later he told Ma that Jerry had taken care of the poor old man all night. Johnny said that Jerry had even spread his own blanket over him to keep him warm and gone without any covering himself in the cold.
“He couldn't take better care of his own father than he did of Old Johnny,” Pa said. “For that matter, Caroline, I don't know but what we're beholden to him ourselves.”
They all remembered how Big Jerry had come out of the prairie on his white horse when the strange man was following them and the sun was setting.
“Well,” Pa said, getting up slowly, "I've got to go sell the boys the ammunition for their guns. I hope Jerry doesn't come back to camp tonight. If he just rode up to see how Old Johnny is, rode up to the stable to put his horse in, they'd shoot him."
“Oh, no, Charles! Surely they wouldn't do that!”
Pa pulled on his hat. “ The one that's doing most of the talking's already killed one man,” he said. “He got off easy on a plea of self-defense, but he's served a term in State's prison. And Big Jerry cleaned him out, last payday. He hasn't got the nerve to face Big Jerry, but he'll bushwhack him if he gets the chance.”
Pa went to the store, and Ma soberly began to clear the table. While Laura washed the dishes, she thought of Big Jerry and his white horse. She had seen them many times, galloping over the brown prairie. Big Jerry always wore a bright red shirt, he was always bareheaded, and his white horse never wore a strap.
The night was dark when Pa came from the store.
He said that half a dozen men with loaded guns were lying in wait around the stable.
It was bedtime. There was not a light in the camp.
The dark shanties, low against the land, could hardly be seen; only if you knew where to look, you could see them darker in the dark. There was a little starshine on Silver Lake , and all around it stretched the black prairie, flat under the velvet-dark sky sparkling with stars. The wind whispered cold in the dark, and the grass rustled as if it were afraid. Laura looked and listened, and hurried shivering into the shanty again.
Behind the curtain Grace was sleeping and Ma was helping Mary and Carrie to bed. Pa had hung up his hat and sat down on the bench, but he was not taking off his boots. He looked up when Laura came in, and then he got up and put on his coat. He buttoned it all the way up and turned up its collar so that his gray shirt did not show. Laura did not say a word. Pa put on his hat.
“Don't sit up for me, Caroline,” he said cheerfully.
Ma came from behind the curtain, but Pa was gone.
She went to the doorway and looked out. Pa had dis-appeared in the darkness. After a minute Ma turned around and said, “Bedtime, Laura.”
“Please, Ma, let me stay up too,” Laura begged.
“I believe I won't go to bed,” said Ma. “Not for a while, anyway. I'm not sleepy. It's no use to go to bed when you're not sleepy.”
“I'm not sleepy, Ma,” Laura said.
Ma turned down the lamp and blew it out. She sat down in the hickory rocker that Pa had made for her in Indian Territory. Laura went softly on her bare feet across the ground and sat close beside Ma.
They sat in the dark, listening. Laura could hear a thin, faint humming in her ears; it seemed to be the sound of her listening. She could hear Ma's breathing and the slow breathing of Grace, asleep, and the faster breathing of Mary and Carrie lying awake behind the curtain. The curtain made a faint sound, moving a little in the air from the open doorway. Outside the doorway there was an oblong of sky and stars above the faraway edge of dark land.
Out there the wind sighed, the grass rustled, and there was the tiny, ceaseless sound of little waves lapping on the lake shore.
A sharp cry in the dark jerked all through Laura; she almost screamed. It was only the call of a wild goose, lost from its flock. Wild geese answered it from the slough, and a quacking of sleepy ducks rose.
“Ma, let me go out and find Pa,” Laura whispered.
“Be quiet,” Ma answered. "You couldn't find Pa.
And he doesn't want you to. Be quiet and let Pa take care of himself."
“I want to do something. I'd rather do something,”
“So would I,” said Ma. In the dark her hand began softly to stroke Laura's head. “ The sun and the wind are drying your hair, Laura,” Ma said. “You must brush it more. You must brush your hair a hundred strokes every night before you go to bed.”
“Yes, Ma,” Laura whispered.
“I had lovely long hair when your Pa and I were married,” Ma said. “I could sit on the braids.”
She did not say any more. She went on stroking Laura's rough hair while they listened for the sound of shooting.
There was one shining large star by the black edge of the doorway. As time went on, it moved. Slowly, it moved from east to west, and more slowly still the smaller stars wheeled about it.
Suddenly Laura and Ma heard footsteps, and in an instant the stars were blotted out. Pa was in the doorway. Laura jumped up, but Ma only went limp in the chair.
“Sitting up, Caroline?” Pa said. “Pshaw, you didn't need to do that. Everything's all right.”
“How do you know that, Pa?” Laura asked. “How do you know Big Jerry—?”
“Never mind, Flutterbudget!” Pa stopped her cheerfully. “Big Jerry's all right. He won't be coming into camp tonight. I wouldn't be surprised though, if he rode in this morning on his white horse. Now go to bed. Let's get what sleep we can before sunrise.”
Then Pa's great laugh rang out like bells. “There'll be a sleepy bunch of men working on the grade today!”
While Laura was undressing behind the curtain and Pa was taking off his boots on the other side of it, she heard him say in a low voice to Ma, “ The best of it is, Caroline, there'll never be a horse stolen from Silver Lake camp.”
Sure enough, early that morning Laura saw Big Jerry riding by the shanty on his white horse. He hailed Pa at the store and Pa waved to him; then Big Jerry and the white horse galloped on and away toward where the men were working.
There never was a horse stolen from Silver Lake camp.THE WONDERFUL AFTERNOON
Early every morning while Laura washed the breakfast dishes, she could look through the open door and see the men leaving the boarding shanty and going to the thatched stable for their horses. Then there was a rattling of harness and a confusion of talking and shouts, and the men and teams went out to the job leaving quietness behind them.
All the days went by, one like another. On Mondays Laura helped Ma do the washing and bring in the clean-scented clothes that dried quickly in the wind and sunshine. On Tuesdays she sprinkled them and helped Ma iron them. On Wednesdays she did her task of mending and sewing though she did not like to. Mary was learning to sew without seeing; her sensitive fingers could hem nicely, and she could sew quilt-patches if the colors were matched for her.
At noon the camp was noisy again with all the teams and the men coming in to dinner. Then Pa came from the store, and they all ate in the little shanty with the wind blowing against it and the wide prairie outside the door. Softly colored in all shades from dark brown to russet and tan, the prairie rolled in gentle swells to the far edge of the sky. The winds were blowing colder at night, more and more wild birds were flying southward, and Pa said that winter would not be long in coming. But Laura did not think about winter.
She wanted to know where the men were working and how they made a railroad grade. Every morning they went out, and at noon and at night they came back, but all that she saw of working was a smudge of dust that came up from the tawny prairie in the west.
She wanted to see the men building the railroad.
Aunt Docia moved into the camp one day, and she brought two cows. She said, “I brought our milk on the hoof, Charles. It's the only way to get any, out here where there aren't any farmers.”
One of the cows was for Pa. She was a pretty, bright-red cow named Ellen. Pa untied her from the back of Aunt Docia's wagon, and handed the halter rope to Laura. “Here, Laura,” he said. “You're old enough to take care of her. Take her out where the grass is good, and be sure to drive down the picket pin good and firm.”
Laura and Lena picketed the cows not far apart in good grass. Every morning and every evening they met to take care of the cows. They led them to drink from the lake, and moved the picket pins to fresh grass, and then they did the milking, and while they milked they sang.
Lena knew many new songs and Laura learned them quickly. Together, while the milk streamed into the bright tin pails, they sang:
"A life on the ocean wave A home on the rolling deep The pollywogs wag their tails And the tears roll down their cheeks."
Sometimes Lena sang softly, and so did Laura.
"Oh, I wouldn't marry a farmer, He's always in the dirt I'd rather marry a railroad man Who wears a striped shirt."
But Laura liked the waltz songs best. She loved the Broom song, though they had to sing “broom” so many times to make the tune swing.
"Buy a broo-oom, buy a broom, broom!
Buy a broom, broom, buy a broom, broom!
Will you buy of this wandering Bavarian a broom?
To brush off the insects That come to annoy you You'll find it quite useful By night and by day."
The cows stood quiet, chewing their cuds, as though they were listening to the singing until the milking was done.
Then with the pails of warm, sweet-smelling milk, Laura and Lena walked back toward the shanties. In the mornings the men were coming out of the bunkhouse, washing in the basins on the bench by the door and combing their hair. And the sun was rising over Silver Lake .
In the evenings the sky flamed with red and purple and gold, the sun had set, and the teams and men were coming in, dark along the dusty road they had worn on the prairie, and singing. Then quickly Lena hurried to Aunt Docia's shanty, and Laura to Ma's, because they must strain the milk before the cream began to rise, and help get supper.
Lena had so much work to do, helping Aunt Docia and Cousin Louisa, that she had no time to play. And Laura, though she did not work so hard, was busy enough. So they hardly ever met except at milking time.
“If Pa hadn't put our black ponies to work on the grade,” Lena said one evening, “you know what I'd do?”
“No, what?” Laura asked.
“Well, if I could get away, and if we had the ponies to ride, we'd go see the men working,” said Lena .
“Don't you want to?”
“Yes, I want to,” Laura said. She did not have to decide whether or not she would disobey Pa, because they couldn't do it anyway.
Suddenly one day at dinner Pa set down his teacup, wiped his mustache, and said, “You ask too many questions, Flutterbudget. Put on your bonnet and come up to the store along about two o'clock. I'll take you out and let you see for yourself.”
“Oh, Pa!” Laura cried out.
“There, Laura, don't get so excited,” Ma said quietly.
Laura knew she should not shout. She kept her voice low. “Pa, can Lena go too?”
“We will decide about that later,” said Ma.
After Pa had gone back to the store, Ma talked seriously to Laura. She said that she wanted her girls to know how to behave, to speak nicely in low voices and have gentle manners and always be ladies. They had always lived in wild, rough places, except for a little while on Plum Creek, and now they were in a rough railroad camp, and it would be some time before this country was civilized. Until then, Ma thought it best that they keep themselves to themselves. She wanted Laura to stay away from the camp, and not get acquainted with any of the rough men there. It would be all right for her to go quietly with Pa to see the work this once, but she must be well-behaved and lady-like, and remember that a lady never did anything that could attract attention.
“Yes, Ma,” Laura said.
“And Laura, I do not want you to take Lena , ” said Ma. “ Lena is a good, capable girl, but she is boister-ous, and Docia has not curbed her as much as she might. If you must go where those rough men are working in the dirt, then go quietly with your Pa and come back quietly, and say no more about it.”
“Yes, Ma,” Laura said. “But—”
“But what, Laura?” Ma asked.
“Nothing,” said Laura.
“I don't know why you want to go anyway,” Mary wondered. “It's much nicer here in the shanty, or taking a little walk by the lake.”
“I just want to. I want to see them building a railroad,” Laura said.
She tied on her sunbonnet when she set out and re-solved to keep it tied on. Pa was alone in the store. He put on his broad-brimmed hat and padlocked the door, and they went out on the prairie together. At that time of day when there were no shadows the prairie looked level, but it was not. In a few minutes its swells hid the shanties, and on the grassy land there was nothing to be seen but the dusty track of the road and the railroad grade beside it. Against the sky ahead rose up the smudge of dust, blowing away on the wind.
Pa held on to his hat and Laura bent her head in the flapping sunbonnet, and they trudged along together for some time. Then Pa stopped and said, “There you are, Half-Pint.”
They were standing on a little rise of the land. Before them the railroad grade ended bluntly. In front of it, men with teams and plows were plowing onward toward the west, breaking a wide strip of the prairie sod.
“Do they do it with plows?” Laura said. It seemed strange to her to think that men with plows went ahead into this country that had never been plowed to build a railroad.
“And scrapers,” said Pa. “Now watch, Laura.”
Between the plowing and the blunt end of the grade, teams and men were going slowly around in a circle, over the end of the grade and back to cross the plowed strip. The teams were pulling wide, deep shovels. The s e were the scrapers.
Instead of one long shovel handle, each scraper had two short handles. And a strong half-hoop of steel curved from one side of the scraper to the other side.
The team was hitched to this curve of steel.
When a man and his team came to the plowed land, another man took hold of the scraper handles and held them just high enough to thrust the round shovel point into the loose earth of the plowed ground while the team went on and earth filled the scraper. Then he let go of the handles, the full scraper sat level on the ground, and the horses pulled it on around the circle, up the side of the grade.
On the grade's blunt end the men who drove the team caught hold of the scraper's handles and tipped the whole scraper over in a somersault inside the curving steel that the horses were hitched to. All the dirt was left right there, while the team drew the empty scraper down the grade and on around the circle to the plowed land again.
There the other man caught hold of the handles and held them just high enough to thrust the round shovel point into the loose earth until the scraper was filled again. And on around the circle it came sliding behind the team, up the steep slope of the grade, and somersaulting over again.
Team after team came around the circle, scraper after scraper tipped over. The teams never stopped coming, the scrapers never stopped filling and tipping.
As the loose soil was scraped from the plowed land, the curve widened out so that the scrapers passed over freshly plowed ground ahead, while the plow teams came back and plowed again the ground that had been scraped.
“It all goes like clockwork,” said Pa. "See, no one stands still, no one hurries.
“When one scraper is filled another is on the spot to take its place, and the scraper holder is there to grab the handles and fill it. The scrapers never have to wait for the plows, and the plows go just so far ahead before they come back to plow again the ground that has been scraped. They are doing great work. Fred is a good boss.”
Fred stood on the dump watching the teams and scrapers circling, and the plows coming around inside the circle and moving out ahead of it again. He watched the dumping of the scrapers and the dirt rolling down, and with a nod or a word he told each driver when to dump his scraper, so that the grade would be even, and straight, and level.
For every six teams, one man did nothing but stand and watch. If a team slowed, he spoke to the driver and he drove faster. If a team went too fast, he spoke to that driver and that driver held his horses back.
The teams must be spaced evenly, while they kept on going steadily around the circle, over the plowed land and to the grade and over it and back to the plowed land again.
Thirty teams and thirty scrapers, and all the four-horse teams and the plows, and all the drivers and the scraper holders, all were going round and round, all in their places and all moving in time, there on the open prairie, just like the works of a clock as Pa had said, and on the prow of the new railroad grade in the dust, Fred, the boss, kept it all going.
Laura would never have tired of watching that. But farther west there was more to see. Pa said, “Come along, Half-pint, and see how they make a cut and a fill.”
Laura walked with Pa along the wagon track, where the crushed dead grasses were like broken hay in the dust where wagon wheels had passed. Farther to the west, beyond a little rise of the prairie, more men were building another piece of the railroad grade.
In the little dip beyond the rise they were making a fill, and farther on they were making a cut through higher ground.
“You see, Laura,” Pa said, “where the ground is low, they make the grade higher, and where the ground is high they cut through it to make the grade level. A railroad roadbed has to be as level as it can be for the trains to run on.”
“Why, Pa?” Laura asked. “Why can't the trains just run over the prairie swells?” There were no real hills, and it seemed a waste of hard work to cut through all the little rises and fill in all the little hollows, just to make the roadbed level.
“No, it saves work, later on,” Pa said. “You ought to be able to see that, Laura, without being told.”
Laura could see that a level road would save work for horses, but a locomotive was an iron horse that never got tired.
“Yes, but it burns coal,” said Pa. "Coal has to be mined, and that's work. An engine burns less coal running on a level than it does going up and down grades.
So you see it takes more work and costs more money now to make a level grade, but later on there'll be a saving in work and money, so they'll be used for building something else."
“What, Pa? What else?” Laura asked.
“More railroads,” said Pa. “I wouldn't wonder if you'll live to see a time, Laura, when pretty nearly everybody'll ride on railroads and there'll hardly be a covered wagon left.”
Laura could not imagine a country with so many railroads, nor one so rich that nearly everybody could ride on trains, but she did not really try to imagine it because now they had come to high ground where they could see the men working at the cut and the fill.
Right across the prairie swell where the trains would run, the teams with plows and the teams with scrapers were cutting a wide ditch. Back and forth went the big teams pulling the plows, and round and round went the teams hauling the scrapers, all steadily moving in time with each other.
But here the scrapers did not go in a circle; they went in a long, narrow loop, into the cut and out again at one end, and at the other end they went over the dump.
The dump was a deep ditch at the end of the cut, and crossways to it. Heavy timbers shored up the sides of this ditch and made a flat platform over the top of it. There was a hole in the middle of this platform, and earth had been graded high on each side of the ditch, to make a road level with the platform.
Out of the cut came the teams steadily walking one behind another pulling the loaded scrapers. They went up the grade to the top of the dump and they went across the platform. They passed over the hole, one horse walking on each side of it, while into the hole the driver dumped the scraper-load of dirt. Going steadily on, down the steep grade and around, they went back into the cut to fill the scrapers again.
All the time, a circle of wagons was moving through the dump, under the hole in the platform. Every time a scraper dumped its load, a wagon was under the hole to catch the dirt. Each wagon waited till five scraper-loads had poured down into it, then it moved on and the wagon behind it moved under the hole and waited.
The circle of wagons came out of the dump and curved back to climb up over the end of the high railroad grade that was coming toward the cut. Every wagon, as it passed over the grade, dumped its dirt and made the grade that much longer. The wagons had no wagon-boxes; they were only platforms of heavy planks. To dump the dirt the teamster turned those planks over, one at a time. Then he drove onward, down over the end of the fill and back in the endless circle, through the dump to be loaded again.
Dust blew from the plows and the scrapers, and from the dump and the end of the hill. A great cloud of dust rose all the time, up over the sweating men and the sweating horses. The men's faces and arms were black with sunburn and dust, their blue and gray shirts were streaked with sweat and dust, and the horses' manes and tails and hair were full of dust and their flanks were caked with muddy sweat.
They all went on, steadily and evenly, circling into the cut and out while the plows went back and forth, and circling under the dump and back over the end to the fill and under the dump again. The cut grew deeper and the fill grew longer while the men and teams kept on weaving their circles together, never stopping.
“ They never miss once,” Laura marveled. “Every time a scraper dumps, there's a wagon underneath to catch the dirt.”
“That's the boss's job,” Pa said. “He makes them keep time just like they were playing a tune. Watch the boss, and you'll see how it's done. It's pretty work.”
On the rise above the cut and on the end of the fill and along the circles, the bosses stood. They watched the men and the teams and kept them moving in time.
Here they slowed one team a little, there they hurried another. No one stopped and waited. No one was late at his place.
Laura heard the boss call out from the top of the cut. “Boys! Move along a little faster!”
“You see,” Pa said, “it's nearing quitting time, and they'd all slowed down a little. They can't put that over on a good boss.”
The whole afternoon had gone while Pa and Laura watched those circles moving, making the railroad grade. It was time to go back to the store and the shanty. Laura took one last, long look, and then she had to go.
On the way, Pa showed her the figures painted on the little grade-stakes that were driven into the ground in a straight line where the railroad grade would be. The surveyors had driven those stakes.
The figures told the graders how high to build the grade on low ground, and how deep to make the cuts on high ground. The surveyors had measured it all and figured the grade exactly, before anyone else had come there.
First, someone had thought of a railroad. Then the surveyors had come out to that empty country, and they had marked and measured a railroad that was not there at all; it was only a railroad that someone had thought of. Then the plowmen came to tear up the prairie grass, and the scraper-men to dig up the dirt, and the teamsters with their wagons to haul it. And all of them said they were working on the railroad, but still the railroad wasn't there. Nothing was there yet but cuts through the prairie swells, pieces of the railroad grade that were really only narrow, short ridges of earth, all pointing westward across the enormous grassy land.
“When the grade's finished,” Pa said, “the shovel-men will come along with hand shovels, and they'll smooth the sides of the grade by hand, and level it on top.”
“And then they'll lay the rails,” Laura said.
“Don't jump ahead so fast, Flutterbudget.” Pa laughed at her. " The railroad ties have got to be shipped out here and laid before it's time for the rails.
Rome wasn't built in a day, and neither's a railroad, nor anything else worth having."
The sun was so low now that each prairie swell began to have its shadow lying eastward, and out of the large, pale sky the flocks of ducks and the long wedges of geese were sliding down to Silver Lake to rest for the night. The clean wind was blowing now with no dust in it, and Laura let her sunbonnet slip down her back so that she could feel the wind on her face and see the whole great prairie.
There was no railroad there now, but someday the long steel tracks would lie level on the fills and through the cuts, and trains would come roaring, steaming and smoking with speed. The tracks and the trains were not there now, but Laura could see them almost as if they were there.
Suddenly she asked, “Pa, was that what made the very first railroad?”
“What are you talking about?” Pa asked.
“Are there railroads because people think of them first when they aren't there?”
Pa thought a minute. “That's right,” he said. “Yes, that's what makes things happen, people think of them first. If enough people think of a thing and work hard enough at it, I guess it's pretty nearly bound to happen, wind and weather permitting.”
“What's that house, Pa?” Laura asked.
“What house?” Pa asked.
“ That house, that real house.” Laura pointed. All this time she had been meaning to ask Pa about that house standing by itself on the north shore of the lake, and she had always forgotten.
“That's the surveyors' house,” Pa said.
“Are they there now?” Laura asked.
“ They come and go,” said Pa. They had almost reached the store, and he went on. “Run on along home now, Flutterbudget. I've got work to do on the books. Now you know how a railroad grade's made, be sure to tell Mary all about it.”
“Oh, I will, Pa!” Laura promised. “I'll see it out loud for her, every bit.”
She did her best, but Mary only said, "I really don't know, Laura, why you'd rather watch those rough men working in the dirt than stay here in the nice clean shanty. I've finished another quilt patch while you've been idling."
But Laura was still seeing the movement of men and horses in such perfect time that she could almost sing the tune to which they moved.PAYDAY
Two weeks had gone by and now Pa worked every evening after supper in his little office at the back of the store. He was making out the time-checks.
From the time-book he counted up the days each man had worked, and figured how much he had earned. Then Pa figured up how much the man owed the store; to that he added the man's board-bill at the cook-shanty. He subtracted that amount from the man's wages, and made out his time-check.
On payday Pa would give each man his time-check and the money due him.
Always before, Laura had helped Pa with his work.
When she was very little, in the Big Woods, she had helped him make the bullets for his gun; in Indian Territory she had helped finish the house, and on Plum Creek she had helped with the chores and the haying. But she could not help him now, for Pa said that the railroad company would not want anyone but him to work in the office.
Still she always knew what he was doing, for the store was in plain sight from the shanty's doorway and she saw everyone who came and went.
One morning she saw a fast team come dashing up to the store's door, and a man in fine clothes got quickly out of the buggy and hurried into the store.
Two more men waited in the buggy, watching the door and looking around them on every side as if they were afraid.
In a little while the first man came out and got into the buggy. After another look all around, they drove away quickly.
Laura ran out of the shanty toward the store. She was sure that something had happened there. Her heart was beating wildly, and it gave a great flop when she saw Pa, safe and sound, come out of the store.
“Where are you going, Laura?” Ma had called after her, and now Laura answered, “Nowhere, Ma.”
Pa came into the shanty and swung the door shut behind him. He took a heavy canvas bag out of his pocket.
“I want you to take care of this, Caroline,” he said.
“It's the men's pay. Anybody that tried to steal it would come to the office.”
“I'll take care of it, Charles,” Ma said. She wrapped the bag in a clean cloth and worked it deep into her open sack of flour. “Nobody'll ever think of looking there for it.”
“Did that man bring it, Pa?” Laura asked.
“Yes. That was the paymaster,” said Pa.
“Those men with him were afraid,” Laura said.
“Oh, I wouldn't say that. They were only guarding the paymaster to keep him from being robbed,” Pa said. “He's carrying a good many thousand dollars in cash to pay all the men in the camps, and somebody might try to get it. But those men had guns enough on them and in the buggy. They had no need to be afraid.”
As Pa went back to the store, Laura saw the handle of his revolver showing from his hip pocket. She knew he was not afraid, and she looked at his rifle over the door and his shotgun standing in the corner. Ma could use those guns. There was no fear that robbers could get that money.
That night Laura woke up often, and often she heard Pa stirring too, in the bunk on the other side of the curtain. Thenight seemed darker and full of strange sounds, because that money was in the flour-sack. But no one would think of looking for it there, and no one did.
Early in the morning, Pa took it to the store. This was payday. After breakfast all the men gathered around the store, and one by one they went inside.
One by one they came out again, and stood in little groups, talking. They would not work that day; it was payday.
At supper Pa said he must go back to the office again. “Some of the men don't seem to understand why they got only two weeks' pay,” he said.
“Why don't they get paid for the whole month?”
Laura asked him.
“Well, you see, Laura, it takes time to make out all those time-checks and send them in, and then the paymaster has to bring out the money. I'm paying the men their wages now up to the fifteenth, and in another two weeks I'll pay them up to now. Some of them can't get it through their thick heads that they've got to wait two weeks for their pay. They want to be paid right up to yesterday.”
“Don't fret about it, Charles,” said Ma. “You can't expect them to understand how business is handled.”
“And they don't blame you, do they, Pa?” said Mary.
“That's the worst of it, Mary. I don't know,” Pa answered. “Anyway I've got some bookwork to do at the office.”
The supper dishes were soon washed, and Ma sat rocking Grace to sleep, with Carrie snuggled beside her. Laura sat beside Mary in the doorway, watching the light fade from the waters of the lake. She was seeing it out loud for Mary.
“ The last light is shining pale in the middle of the smooth lake. All around it the water is dusky, where the ducks sleep, and the land is black beyond. The stars are beginning to twinkle in the gray sky. Pa has lighted his lamp. It shines out yellow from the back of the black store. Ma!” she cried out. “There's a big crowd of men—look.”
The men were crowding around the store. They did not say anything, and there was not even any sound of their feet on the grass. Only the dark mass of men was growing larger very fast.
Ma rose quickly and laid Grace on the bed. Then she came and looked out over Laura's head and Mary's. She spoke softly. “Come inside, girls.”
When they obeyed her she shut the door, all but a crack. She stood looking out through the crack.
Mary sat in the chair with Carrie, but Laura peeped under Ma's arm. The crowd was close around the store. Two men went up the step and pounded on the door.
The crowd was quiet. The whole dusky twilight was quiet for a moment.
Then the men pounded again on the door and one called, “Open the door, Ingalls!”
The door opened, and there in the lamplight stood Pa. He shut the door behind him, and the two men who had knocked stepped backward into the crowd.
Pa stood on the step with his hands in his pockets.
“Well, boys, what is it?” he asked quietly.
A voice came from the crowd. “We want our pay.”
Other voices shouted. “Our full pay!” “Come across with that two weeks' pay you kept back!” “We're going to get our pay!”
“You'll have it two weeks from now, just as soon as I can get your time-checks made out,” said Pa.
The voices shouted again. “We want it now!” “Quit stalling!” “We're going to have it now!”
“I can't pay you now, boys,” Pa said. “I won't have the money to pay you till the paymaster comes again.”
“Open up the store!” somebody answered. Then the whole crowd yelled. “That's it! That's good enough— Open the store! Open up that store!”
“No, boys. I won't do that,” Pa said coolly. “Come in tomorrow morning, and I'll let each man have all the goods he wants, on his account.”
“Open up that store or we'll open it for you!” came a shout. A growl rumbled from the crowd. The whole mass of men moved in toward Pa as if that growl moved them.
Laura ducked under Ma's arm, but Ma's hand clenched on her shoulder and pulled her back.
“Oh, let me go! They'll hurt Pa! Let me go, they'll hurt Pa!” Laura screamed in a whisper.
“Be still!” Ma told her in a voice Laura had never heard before.
“Stand back, boys. Don't crowd too close,” said Pa.
Laura heard his cold voice and stood trembling.
Then she heard another voice behind the crowd. It was deep and strong, not loud, but plainly heard.
“What's up, boys?”
In the dark Laura could not see the red shirt, but only Big Jerry was so tall. He stood head and shoulders above the shadowy figures of the crowd. Beyond them in the dusk was a pale blur that would be the white horse. A confusion of voices answered Big Jerry, then he laughed. His laugh was big and boom-ing.
“You fools!” Big Jerry laughed. “What's the fuss about? You want the goods out of the store? Well, tomorrow we'll take what we want of them. They'll still be here. Nobody'll stop us when we get started.”
Laura was hearing rough language. Big Jerry was using it. What he said was all mixed with swear words and with other words she had never heard. She hardly heard them now, because she felt all broken up; she felt as if everything was smashed like a dropped plate when Big Jerry took sides against Pa.
The crowd was all around Big Jerry now. He was calling some of the men by their names and talking to them about drinking and playing cards. Some of the crowd went with him toward the bunkhouse, then the rest of it broke into smaller pieces and scattered away in the dark.
Ma shut the door. “Bedtime, girls,” she said.
Laura went trembling to bed as Ma told her to do.
Pa did not come. Now and then she heard an out-break of loud, rough voices from the camp, and sometimes singing. She knew she would not sleep till Pa came.
Then her eyes opened suddenly. It was morning.
Beyond Silver Lake the sky was burning gold and one line of red cloud lay across it; the lake was rosy, and wild birds flew up clamoring. The camp was noisy too. All around the boarding shanty the men were gathered in a milling crowd, talking excitedly.
Ma and Laura stood outdoors at the corner of the shanty watching. They heard a shout and saw Big Jerry jump onto his white horse.
“Come on, boys!” he shouted. “All aboard for the fun!”
The white horse reared and whirled and reared again. Big Jerry gave a wild whoop, the white horse broke into a run, and away they went over the prairie toward the west. All the men rushed to the stable and in a minute man after man was on his horse and following Big Jerry. The whole crowd went streaming away on the horses and was gone.
A great, cool quietness came over the camp and over Laura and Ma. “Well!” Ma said.
They saw Pa walking from the store toward the boarding shanty. Fred, the foreman, came out of it and met him. They talked a minute. Then Fred went to the stable, got on his horse, and galloped away to the west.
Pa was chuckling. Ma said she did not know what there was to laugh about.
“That Big Jerry!” Pa's laugh rang out. “By gum, if he didn't lead 'em all away to do their devilment somewhere else!”
“Where?” Ma asked sharply.
Pa was sober then. "There's a riot at Stebbins'
camp. Everybody's flocking there from all the camps.
You're right, Caroline, it's no laughing matter."
All day the camp was quiet. Laura and Mary did not go for their walk. There was no telling what might be happening at Stebbins' camp, nor when that dangerous crowd would come back. Ma's eyes were anxious all day, her lips were tight, and now and then she sighed without knowing it.
After dark the men came. But they rode into camp more quietly than they had left it. They ate supper in the boarding shanty and then they went to bed in the bunkhouse.
Laura and Mary were still awake when Pa came late from the store. They lay quiet in their bunk and heard Pa and Ma talking beyond the lamplit curtain.
“Nothing to worry about now, Caroline,” Pa said.
“ They're tired out and everything's quiet.” He yawned, and sat down to take off his boots.
“What did they do, Charles? Was anybody hurt?”
“ They strung up the paymaster,” said Pa. “And one man was hurt bad. They put him in a lumber wagon and started back east with him to find a doctor. Don't get so upset, Caroline. We better thank our stars we got off so easy. It's all over.”
“I don't get upset till it is over,” Ma said. Her voice was shaking.
“Come here,” said Pa. Laura knew that now Ma was sitting on Pa's knee. “There, I know you don't,”
he said to her. “Never mind, Caroline. The grading's pretty near done, these camps'll be closing down and gone before long, and next summer we'll be settled on the homestead.”
“When are you going to pick it out?” said Ma.
“Quick as the camps close. I don't have a minute away from the store till then,” said Pa. “You know that.”
“Yes, I know, Charles. What did they do about the men that—killed the paymaster?”
“ They didn't kill him,” Pa said. "It was this way.
You see, it's the same at Stebbins' camp as here; the office is a lean-to at the back of the store. It has one door into the store and that's all. The paymaster stayed in the office with the money and kept the door locked. He paid the men through a little opening beside the door.
"Stebbins has got over three hundred and fifty men drawing pay there, and they wanted their pay up to now, like the men here wanted it. When they got paid only to the fifteenth, they acted ugly. Most of them wear guns, and they were in the store, threatening to shoot up the place unless they got their full pay.
"In the melee, a couple of men got to quarreling and one of them hit the other over the head with the weight from the scales. He dropped like a struck ox, and when they dragged him out into the air they couldn't bring him back to his senses.
"So the crowd started out with a rope, after the man that hit him. They trailed him easy enough into the slough, and then they couldn't find him in the high grass. They threshed around looking for him through that slough grass taller than their heads, till I guess they'd ruined any trail he'd left.
" They kept on hunting him till past noon, and lucky for him they didn't find him. When they got back to the store, the door was locked. They couldn't get in. Somebody had loaded the hurt man into a wagon and headed back east to look for a doctor.
" B y this time men were piling into the place from all the other camps. They ate everything they could get hold of in the boarding shanty and most of them were drinking. They kept pounding on the store door and yelling to the paymaster to open up and pay them, but nobody answered.
"A crowd of near a thousand drunken men is an ugly thing to deal with. Somebody caught sight of that rope and shouted, 'Hang the paymaster!' The whole crowd took it up and kept on yelling, 'Hang him!
“A couple of men got on top of the lean-to roof and tore a hole in the shingles. They left the end of the rope dangling over the edge of the roof and the crowd grabbed hold of it. The two fellows dropped down onto the paymaster and got the noose around his neck.”
“Stop, Charles. The girls are awake,” said Ma.
“Pshaw, that's all there is to it,” Pa said. “ They hauled him up once or twice, is all. He gave in.”
“ They didn't hang him?”
“Not enough to hurt much. Some of the crowd was breaking down the store door with neckyokes, and the storekeeper opened it. One of the fellows in the office cut the rope and let the paymaster down, and opened up the pay-window and the paymaster paid every man what he claimed was due him. A good many men from the other camps crowded in and drew pay, too. There wasn't any bothering with time-checks.”
“Shame on him!” Laura cried out. Pa drew back the curtain. “What did he do it for? I wouldn't! I wouldn't!” she went on, before Pa or Ma could say a word. There she was, sitting up on her knees in bed, her fists clenched.
“You wouldn't what?” said Pa.
“Pay them! They couldn't make me! They didn't make you!”
“That mob was bigger than ours. And the paymaster didn't have Big Jerry to help him,” said Pa.
“But you wouldn't have, Pa,” Laura said.
“Sh!” Ma hushed them. “You'll wake Grace. I'm thankful the paymaster was sensible. Better a live dog than a dead lion.”
“Oh, no, Ma! You don't mean that!” Laura whispered.
“Anyway, discretion is the better part of valor. You girls go to sleep,” Ma murmured.
“Please, Ma, ” Mary whispered. “How could he pay them? Where did he get the money, when he'd already paid out what he had?”
“That's so, where did he?” Ma asked.
“From the store. It's a big store and it had already taken in most of what the men had been paid; they spend as fast as they get,” said Pa. “Now mind your Ma, girls, and go to sleep.” He let the curtain fall.
Very softly under the quilt Mary and Laura talked until Ma blew out the lamp. Mary said she wanted to go back to Plum Creek. Laura did not answer that.
She liked to feel the great wild prairie all around the little shanty. Her heart beat strong and fast; she could hear in her mind again the savage fierce sound of that crowd's growl and Pa's cold voice saying, “Don't crowd too close.” And she remembered the sweating men and sweating horses moving strongly through clouds of dust, building the railroad in a kind of song. She did not want ever to go back to Plum Creek.WINGS OVER SILVER LAKE
T he weather grew colder and the sky was full of wings and great birds flying. From east to west, from north to south, and as far up into the blue sky as eyes could see, were birds and birds and birds sailing on beating wings.
At evening down they came endlessly from the sky, sliding down long slopes of air to rest on the water of Silver Lake .
There were great, gray geese. There were smaller, snow-white brant that looked like snow at the water's edge. There were ducks of many kinds; the large mal-lards with a shimmering of purple and green on their wings, the redheads, the bluebills, the canvasbacks, and teals and many others whose names Pa did not know. There were herons, and pelicans, and cranes.
There were little mudhens, and the small hell-divers that peppered the water thickly with their little black bodies. When a shot cracked, hell-divers up-ended and vanished quicker than winking. They went far down in the water and stayed there a long time.
At sunset the whole large lake was covered with birds of all kinds speaking in every kind of bird's voice to each other before they went to sleep for a night of rest on their long journey from north to south.
The winter was driving them; the winter was coming behind them from the north. They knew it and started early so that they could rest on the way. Al night they rested, comfortable on the water that held them so softly, and when dawn came, up they rose again to swim onward in the high air with their rested, strong wings.
One day Pa came from hunting, bringing a great, snow-white bird.
“I'm sorry, Caroline,” he said soberly. “I would not have done it if I'd known. I've shot a swan. It was too beautiful to kill. But I had no idea it was a swan. I never saw one flying before.”
“It can't be helped now, Charles,” Ma told him.
They all stood looking sorrowfully at the beautiful, snowy bird that would never fly again. “Come,” said Ma. “I'll pluck its feathers and you skin it. We'll cure the skin with the swan's-down on.”
“It's bigger than I am,” Carrie said. The swan was so large that Pa measured it. Its feathery white wings measured eight feet from tip to tip.
Another day Pa brought a pelican to the shanty to show Ma what it was like. He opened the long bill and dead fish fell out of the pouch of skin underneath it.
Ma snatched up her apron and pressed it to her face, and Carrie and Grace held their noses.
“Take it away, Charles, quick!” said Ma through the apron. Some of those fish were fresh, and some were fish that had been dead a long, long time. Pelicans were not fit to eat. Even their feathers smelled so strongly of rotten fish that Ma could not save them for pillows.
Pa shot all the ducks and geese that they could eat, but he shot nothing else except hawks. Sometimes he shot a hawk because hawks kill other birds. Every day Laura and Ma plucked feathers from the scalded skins of the ducks and geese that Pa shot for dinner.
“We'll soon have enough for another feather bed,”
said Ma. “ Then you and Mary can sleep in feathers this winter.”
All those golden autumn days the sky was full of wings. Wings beating low over the blue water of Silver Lake, wings beating high in the blue air far above it.
Wings of geese, of brant, of ducks and pelicans and cranes and heron and swans and gulls, bearing them all away to green fields in the south.
The wings and the golden weather and the tang of frost in the mornings made Laura want to go somewhere. She did not know where. She wanted only to go.
“Let's go west,” she said one night after supper.
“Pa, can't we go west when Uncle Henry does?”
Uncle Henry and Louisa and Charley had earned money enough to go west. They were going back to the Big Woods to sell their farm, and in the spring, with Aunt Polly, they were all driving west to Mon-tana.
“Why can't we?” Laura said. “There's all the money you've earned Pa; three hundred dollars. And we've got the team and wagon. Oh, Pa, let's go on west!”
“Mercy, Laura!” Ma said. “Whatever—” She could not go on.
“I know, little Half-Pint,” said Pa, and his voice was very kind. “You and I want to fly like the birds. But long ago I promised your Ma that you girls should go to school. You can't go to school and go west. When this town is built there'll be a school here. I'm going to get a homestead, Laura, and you girls are going to school.”
Laura looked at Ma, and then again at Pa, and she saw that it must happen; Pa would stay on a homestead, and she would go to school.
“You'll thank me some day, Laura. And you too, Charles,” Ma said gently.
“Just so you're content, Caroline, I'm satisfied,”
said Pa. That was true, but he did want to go west.
Laura turned back to the dishpan and went on washing the supper dishes.
“Another thing, Laura,” said Pa. “You know Ma was a teacher, and her mother before her. Ma's heart is set on one of you girls teaching school, and I guess it will have to be you. So you see you must have your schooling.”
Laura's heart jerked, and then she seemed to feel it falling, far, far down. She did not say anything. She knew that Pa and Ma, and Mary too, had thought that Mary would be a teacher. Now Mary couldn't teach, and— “Oh, I won't! I won't!” Laura thought. “I don't want to! I can't.” Then she said to herself, “You must.”
She could not disappoint Ma. She must do as Pa said. So she had to be a school teacher when she grew up. Besides, there was nothing else she could do to earn money.BREAKING CAMP
N ow all the vast, low earth rippled softly in gentle colors under a faded sky. Grasses were golden-stemmed, and over the prairie they spread a coverlet of buff and tan and brown and warm brownish gray; only the sloughs were darker with green. The birds were fewer, and hurrying. Often at sunset a long flock talked anxiously, high above Silver Lake, and instead of sinking to eat and rest on the water that must have tempted them so much, the tired leader fell back, another took his place, and they went on flying southward. Winter's cold was not far behind them and they could not pause to rest.
In the frosty mornings and the chilly evenings when they went to milk the cows, Laura and Lena wore shawls snug over their heads and pinned under their chins. Their bare legs were cold and the wind nipped their noses, but when they squatted down to milk the warm cows, the shawls covered them cosily and their feet warmed under them. And they sang while they milked.
"Where are you going, my pretty maid?
I'm going a-milking, sir, she said.
May I go with you, my pretty maid?
Oh, yes, if you please, kind sir, she said.
"What is your fortune, my pretty maid?
My face is my fortune, sir, she said.
Then I can't marry you, my pretty maid.
Nobody asked you, sir, she said."
“Well, I guess we won't be seeing each other again for a long time,” Lena said one evening. The grading job at Silver Lake was nearly finished. Next morning early, Lena and Jean and Aunt Docia were leaving.
They were going away before sun-up because they were getting away with three big wagonloads of goods from the company's stores. They would not tell anybody where they were going, for fear the company would catch them.
“I wish we'd had time to ride the black ponies again,” Laura said.
“Gosh!” Lena spoke that wicked word boldly. "I'm glad this summer's over! I hate houses.“ She swung the milk pail and chanted. "No more cooking, no more dishes, no more washing, no more scrubbing!
Whoop-ee!“ Then she said, ”Well, good-by. I guess you're going to stay right here as long as you live."
“I guess so,” Laura said miserably. She was sure that Lena was going out west. Maybe even to Oregon.
Next morning Laura milked the lone cow by her lonely self. Aunt Docia had driven away with a load of oats from the feed room. Lena had driven a wagonload of goods from the store, and Jean still another big load of scrapers and plows. Uncle Hi would follow them as soon as he settled with the company.
“I guess Hi's debt is big enough this time with all those goods charged to him,” Pa said.
“Shouldn't you have stopped it, Charles?” Ma worried.
“It's not my look-out,” said Pa. "My orders were to let the contractor take anything he wanted, and charge it to him. Oh, come, Caroline! It wasn't stealing. Hi hasn't got away with any more than's due him for his work here and at the camp on the Sioux. The company cheated him there, and he's got even here.
That's all there is to it."
“Well,” Ma sighed, “I'll be glad when these camps are gone and we're settled again.”
Every day the camp was noisy with men drawing their last pay and leaving. Wagon after wagon went away to the east. Every night the camp was emptier.
One day Uncle Henry, Louisa, and Charley started the long drive back to Wisconsin, to sell the farm. The boarding shanty and the bunkhouse were deserted, the store was empty, and Pa was only waiting till the company man came to check his bookkeeping.
“We'll have to go east somewhere to spend the winter,” he said to Ma. “This shanty's too thin for zero weather, even if the company'd let us stay in it, and even if we had any coal.”
“Oh, Charles,” Ma said, “you haven't even found the homestead yet, and if we have to spend the money you've earned, just living till spring—”
“I know. But what can we do?” said Pa. “I can find the homestead all right before we leave, and file on it next spring. Maybe next summer I can get a job to live on and pay for the lumber to build us a shanty. I could make a sod shanty, but even so it will take all we've got to live till spring, with the prices of supplies out here, and coal. No, we'd better go east for the winter.”
It was so hard to get ahead. Laura tried to cheer up, but she couldn't. She did not want to go back east again. She hated to leave Silver Lake to go east. They had got as far as Silver Lake and she wanted to hang on there, not to be pushed back. But if they must be, they must; next spring they could start again. It would do no good to complain.
“Don't you feel well, Laura?” Ma asked her.
“Oh, yes, Ma!” she answered. But she felt so heavy and dark that trying to be cheerful only made her more miserable.
The company man had come to check Pa's bookkeeping, and the last wagons from the west were going by. Even the lake was almost empty of birds and the sky was bare, except for one hurrying streak of flyers. Ma and Laura mended the wagon-cover and baked bread for the long drive.
That evening Pa came whistling from the store, and blew into the shanty like a breeze.
“How'd you like to stay here all winter, Caroline?”
he sang out. “In the surveyors' house!”
“Oh, Pa! Can we?” Laura cried.
“You bet we can!” said Pa. "If your Ma wants to. It's a good, sound, weather-tight house, Caroline. The head surveyor was at the store just now, and he says they thought they had to stay and they laid in coal and provisions enough to last them through, but if I'll take charge and be responsible for the company tools till spring, they'll go out for the winter. The company man's agreed.
"There's flour and beans and salt meat and potatoes, and even some canned stuff, he told me. And coal. We can have the whole of it for nothing, just for staying out here this winter. We can use the stable for the cow and team. I told him I'd let him know early tomorrow morning. What do you say, Caroline?"
They all looked at Ma and waited. Laura could hardly keep still in her excitement. To stay at Silver Lake ! Not to have to go back east, after all! Ma was disappointed; she had been wanting to go back to settled country. But she said, “It does seem Providential, Charles. There's coal, you say?”
“I wouldn't think of staying without it,” said Pa.
“But the coal's there.”
“Well, supper's on the table,” said Ma. “Wash up and eat before it gets cold. It does look like a good chance, Charles.”
At supper they talked of nothing else. It would be pleasant to live in a snug house; the shanty was cold with wind blowing through its cracks, though the door was shut and a fire was in the stove.
“Don't it make you feel rich—” Laura began.
“'Doesn't,'” said Ma.
“Doesn't it make you feel rich, Ma, just to think of the whole winter's provisions laid in, already?” said Laura.
“Not a penny going out till spring,” said Pa.
“Yes, Laura, it does,” Ma smiled. “You're right, Charles, of course; we must stay.”
“Well, I don't know, Caroline,” Pa said. "In some ways maybe we'd better not. So far as I know, we won't have a neighbor nearer than Brookings. That's sixty miles. If anything happened—"
A knock at the door startled them all. In answer to Pa's “Come in!” a big man opened the door. He was bundled in thick coats and a muffler. His short beard was black, his cheeks were red, and his eyes were as black as the eyes of the little papoose in Indian Territory whom Laura had never forgotten.
“Hullo, Boast!” Pa said. “Come up to the fire; it's chilly tonight. This is my wife and girls. Mr. Boast has filed on a homestead out here, and he's been working on the grade.”
Ma gave Mr. Boast a chair by the fire and he held his hands out to the warmth. One hand was bandaged.
“Did you hurt your hand?” Ma asked kindly.
“Only a sprain,” said Mr. Boast, “but the heat feels good on it.” Turning to Pa he went on, “I'm needing some help, Ingalls. You remember my team that I sold Pete? He paid me part down and said he'd pay the rest next payday. But he's kept putting it off, and now I'm darned if he hasn't skipped out with the team. I'd go after him and take them, but his son's with him and they'd put up a fight. I don't want trouble with two toughs at once, and me with a lame hand.”
“There's enough of us around yet to tend to it,”
“I don't mean that,” said Mr. Boast. “I don't want any trouble.”
“Then just where do I come in?” Pa asked.
“I was thinking. There's no law out here, no way to collect a debt, no officers, not even a county. But maybe Pete don't know that.”
“Oho!” said Pa. “You want me to make out some papers to serve on him?”
“I've got a man that'll act as sheriff and serve them,”
Mr. Boast said. His eyes twinkled as much as Pa's, but the twinkles were not alike. Mr. Boast's eyes twinkled small and black, Pa's twinkled wide and blue.
Pa laughed out loud and slapped his knee. “What a joke! Lucky I've got some legal cap left. I'll make out your papers, Boast! Go get your sheriff!”
Mr. Boast hurried away while Ma and Laura hastily cleared the table. Pa squared up to it and wrote on a large sheet of paper, red-lined down the sides.
“There!” he said finally, “that looks important. And finished just in time.”
Mr. Boast was knocking at the door. Another man was with him, wrapped in a big overcoat, a cap pulled low over his eyes and a muffler wrapped around his neck and across his mouth.
“Here you are, Sheriff!” Pa said to him. “Serve this writ of attachment and bring back the team or the money, dead or alive, with costs of this suit at law!”
Their laughter seemed to shake the shanty.
Pa looked at the cap and muffler that hid the man's face. “Lucky for you it's a cold night, Sheriff!” he said.
When the two men shut the door behind them, and Pa stopped laughing, he said to Ma, “ That was the head surveyor, or I'll eat my hat!” He slapped his thigh and roared again.
In the night Mr. Boast's voice and Pa's woke Laura.
At the door Mr. Boast was saying, "I saw your light and stopped by to tell you it worked. Pete was so scared he'd have turned over the money and the team both. That crook's got reason to be scared of the law.
Here are the costs, Ingalls. The surveyor wouldn't take any; he said the fun of it more than paid him."
“You keep his share,” said Pa. “I'll take mine. The dignity of this court must be upheld!”
When Mr. Boast laughed, Laura and Mary and Carrie and Ma all burst out laughing. They couldn't help it. Pa's laugh was like great bells ringing; it made you feel warm and happy. But Mr. Boast's laugh made everybody laugh.
“Hush, you'll wake Grace,” Ma said.
“What's the joke?” Carrie asked. She had been asleep and had only heard Mr. Boast laugh.
“What are you laughing at?” Mary asked her.
“Mr. Boast's laugh tickles,” Carrie said.
In the morning Mr. Boast came to breakfast. The camp was gone and there was nowhere else to eat.
The surveyors started east that morning in their buggy, and the last teamster passed. Mr. Boast was the last man to go; he had had to wait until his hand was better so that he could drive his team. His hand was worse that morning because it had been chilled in the night, but he started east anyway. He was going to Iowa to be married.
“If you folks are going to stay here all winter, I don't know but I'll bring Ellie back and stay too,” he said “if we can make it before winter sets in.”
“ B e glad to have you, Boast,” said Pa. Ma said, “We would, indeed.”
Then they watched Mr. Boast's wagon going, and heard its rattling die away on the wagon track to the east.
The whole prairie was empty now and not even one flock of birds was in the cold sky.
As soon as Mr. Boast's wagon was out of sight, Pa brought his team and wagon to the door.
“Come, Caroline!” he called. “Nobody's left in camp but us, and this is moving day!”THE SURVEYORS' HOUSE
T here was no need to pack anything, for the surveyors' house stood on the north shore of the lake not half a mile from the shanty.
Laura could hardly wait to see it. When she had helped to put everything neatly into the wagon, and Mary and Carrie and Ma and Grace were in it, Laura said to Pa, “Please, can't I run ahead?”
“'May' Laura,” Ma said. “Really, Charles, don't you think—”
“Nothing can hurt her,” Pa said. “We'll have her in sight all the way. Follow the lake shore, Flutterbudget, and don't worry, Caroline; we'll be there in two shakes of a lamb's tail.”
So Laura ran ahead. Straight against the steady wind she ran. Her shawl flapped in the wind behind her and the cold of the wind poured through her. She felt her blood thin and chill in the wind, and then she felt it warm and pulsing strong, and her breath throbbed hard in her chest.
She passed the spoiled spots where the camp had been. The earth was hard under her pounding feet, and rough with dead grass. No one else was anywhere near. Everybody had gone now. The prairie, the whole vast prairie, and the great sky and the wind were clear and free.
Even the wagon was left behind now. But it was coming. Laura looked back, and Pa waved to her.
When she stopped running she could hear the sound of the wind in the grasses and the lippety-lapping of the lake water. She hoppity-skipped on the short dry grass along the shore. She could shout if she wanted to. No one else was there. She shouted, “It's ours! All ours!”
The shout seemed loud in her throat, but in the air it was thin. The wind took it away perhaps. Or the stillness of the empty land and sky would not be disturbed.
The surveyors' boots had worn a path through the grasses. It was smooth and soft to Laura's feet. She bent her shawled head to the wind and padded along the path, hurrying. It would be fun to see the surveyors' house all by herself.
It stood up in front of her suddenly. It was a big house, a real house with two stories, and glass windows. Its up-and-down boards were weathering from yellow to gray, and every crack was battened, as Pa had said. The door had a china knob. It opened into the lean-to over the back door.
Laura opened the door and peeped in. Then she pushed the door back, along the curved mark it had worn in the board floor, and she went in.Thishouse had board floors; not as comfortable to bare feet as the earth floor of the shanty, but not so much work to keep clean.
The largeness of the empty house seemed to wait and listen. It seemed to know that Laura was there, but it had not made up its mind about her. It would wait and see. Against its walls the wind made a lonely sound, but that was outside the house. She tiptoed across the lean-to and opened a door on its farther side.
Laura looked at the large front room. Its board walls were still yellow inside, and sunshine from its west window slanted yellow on the floor. A cool light came in from the window to the east beside the front door.
The surveyors had left their stove! It was a larger stove than the one that Ma had brought from Plum Creek; it had six lids on top and two oven doors, and it stood all set up with its stovepipe in place.
Spaced on the wall beyond it were three doors. All of them were shut.
Laura tiptoed across the wide floor, and softly opened one door. There was a small room, with a bedstead in it. This room had a window, too.
Softly Laura opened the middle door. She was surprised. Steeply up in front of her went a stair, just the width of the door. She looked up, and saw the under-side of a slanting roof high overhead. She went up a few steps, and a big attic opened out on both sides of the stairs. It was twice as big as the large room downstairs. A window in each gable end lighted the whole empty place under the roof.
That made three rooms already, and still there was another door. Laura thought that there must have been a great many surveyors to need so much space.
This would be by far the largest house she had ever lived in.
She opened the third door. A squeal of excitement came out of her mouth and startled the listening house. There before her eyes was a little store. All up the walls of that small room were shelves, and on the shelves were dishes, and pans and pots, and boxes, and cans. All around under the shelves stood barrels and boxes.
The first barrel was nearly full of flour. The second held corn meal. The third had a tight lid, and it was full of pieces of fat, white pork held down in brown brine.
Laura had never seen so much salt pork at one time.
There was a wooden box full of square soda crackers, and a box full of big slabs of salted fish. There was a large box of dried apples, and two sacks full of potatoes, and another big sack nearly full of beans.
The wagon was at the door. Laura ran out, shouting “Oh, Ma, come quick and see! There's so many things— And a big attic, Mary! And a stove, and crackers, soda crackers!”
Ma looked at everything and she was pleased. “It's very nice, I'm sure,” she said. “And so clean. We can get settled here in a jiffy. Bring me the broom, Carrie.”
Pa didn't even have to set up a stove. He put Ma's stove in the lean-to outside the back door, where the coal was. Then while Pa built a fire they arranged the table and chairs in the large front room. Ma set Mary's rocking chair by the open oven door. Already that good stove was giving off heat, and in the warm corner Mary sat holding Grace and amusing her, to keep her out of the way while Ma and Laura and Carrie were busy.
Ma made the big bed on the bedstead in the bedroom. She hung her clothes and Pa's on nails in the wall there, and covered them neatly with a sheet. Upstairs in the large, low attic Laura and Carrie made two neat beds on the bedsteads there, one for Carrie and the other for Laura and Mary. Then they carried their clothes and their boxes upstairs; they hung the clothes on the gable wall by one window, and under it they set their boxes.
Everything was neat now, so they went downstairs to help Ma get supper. Pa came in bringing a large, shallow packing box.
“What's that for, Charles?” Ma asked, and Pa said “This is Grace's trundle bed!”
“It's the only thing we needed!” Ma exclaimed.
“ The sides are high enough to hold her covers tucked in,” said Pa.
“And low enough to go under our bed in the daytime, like any trundle bed,” said Ma.
Laura and Carrie made up a little bed for Grace in the packing box, and slid it under the big bed, and pulled it out again for the night. The moving-in was done.