By The Shores Of Silver Lake (Chaprer 5)

By The Shores Of Silver Lake

Laura Ingalls Wilder

Chapter 5
Railroad Camp

Early 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 jarring. 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.

“Do 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 underfoot 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.

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