By The Shores Of Silver Lake (Chaprer 6)
By The Shores Of Silver Lake
Laura Ingalls Wilder
The Black Ponies
Sunshine, 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; northward 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 threshers 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.”
“Do 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.”