By The Shores Of Silver Lake (Chapter 10)
By The Shores Of Silver Lake
Laura Ingalls Wilder
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 ladylike, 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 boisterous, 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 resolved 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. These 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 shovelmen 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.