By The Shores Of Silver Lake (Chaprer 8)

By The Shores Of Silver Lake

Laura Ingalls Wilder

Chapter 8
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 triangle 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 obstinate 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 immense 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 marching, 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 squawking, 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 boarding-house 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.

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