By The Shores Of Silver Lake (Chapter 15)
By The Shores Of Silver Lake
Laura Ingalls Wilder
The Last Man Out
Next morning the sun shone but the wind was colder and there was a feeling of storm in the air. Pa had come from doing the chores and was warming his hands by the stove, while Ma and Laura put breakfast on the table, when they heard a wagon rattling.
It stopped by the front door. The driver shouted and Pa went out to him. Through the window Laura saw them talking in the cold wind.
In a moment Pa came back and hurriedly put on his overcoat and his mittens while he said, “We’ve got a neighbor I didn’t know about last night. An old man, sick and all alone. I’m going out there now, I’ll tell you all about it when I get back.”
He drove away with the stranger and it was some time before he came walking home.
“Brrrr! It’s getting colder,” he said, dropping his coat and mittens on a chair and bending over the stove to warm himself before he unwound his muffler. “Well, it’s a good job done.
“That teamster’s the last one out. He came all the way from the Jim River and didn’t find a soul. Everyone along the line is going. Last night, when dark caught him, he saw a light about two miles north of the grade and drove to it on the chance of finding a place to stay all night.
“Well, Caroline, he found a claim shanty and an old man all by himself. His name is Woodworth. He has consumption, and came out here to take the prairie-climate cure. He’s been living on his claim all summer and was going to stay all winter.
“Well, he’s so feeble, the teamster tried to get him to go out. Told him it’s his last chance, but Woodworth wouldn’t go. So when the teamster saw our smoke this morning, he stopped to see if he couldn’t get somebody to help him persuade the old man.
“Caroline, he was skin and bones. But bound and determined to stick to the prairie cure. Said it was the one cure the doctors recommended as pretty near a surefire thing.”
“Folks come from all over the world to take it,” said Ma.
“Yes, I know, Caroline. It’s true enough, I guess, these prairies are about the only thing that cures consumption. But if you’d seen him, Caroline. No, he wasn’t in any shape to stay alone in a claim shanty, fifteen miles from a neighbor. The place for him is with his own folks.
“Anyhow, the teamster and I packed him up and loaded him and his things into the wagon. Lifted him in, as easy as if he was Carrie, here. In the end he was glad to be going. He’ll be a sight more comfortable with his folks in the east.”
“He’ll nearly freeze to death, riding in a wagon this cold day,” Ma said, putting more coal on the fire.
“He’s dressed warmly, wearing a good overcoat. We wrapped him in blankets besides and heated a bag of oats for his feet. He’ll make it all right. That teamster is one fine fellow.”
Thinking of that old man going out with the last teamster, Laura really knew how deserted the country was. It would take them two long days to get to the Big Sioux River. All the way between the Big Sioux and the Jim, there was nobody at all except them, there in the surveyors’ house.
“Pa, did you see wolf tracks this morning?” Laura asked.
“Yes, plenty of them, all around the stable,” said Pa. “Big tracks too. Must be buffalo wolves. But they couldn’t get in. All the birds have gone south, and the antelope were scared away by the men working on the grade, so the wolves will have to move on too. They won’t stay where they can’t kill anything to eat.”
After breakfast he went to the stable, and as soon as the housework was done Laura put on her shawl and went too. She wanted to see the wolf tracks.
She had never seen such huge ones, and deep. Those wolves must be very big and heavy. “Buffalo wolves are the largest wolves on the prairie and very fierce,” Pa told her. “I’d hate to meet one without a gun.”
He was looking the stable over carefully, to see that every board was nailed fast. He drove in more nails, to make the walls solid, and he put an extra bolt on the door. “If one gets broken, the other might hold,” he said.
Snow began to fall while Laura handed him nails and he hammered them in. The wind blew strong and keen, but it was a straight wind, not a blizzard wind. Still it was so cold that they could not talk.
At supper in the warm house Pa said, “I don’t believe the winters are going to be so bad out here. Seems like the blizzards sort of draw down through western Minnesota. We are farther west out here, and they say that three degrees west is as good as one degree south.”
After supper they all gathered in the warmth of the stove. Ma rocked Grace slowly to and fro, and Laura brought Pa the fiddle box. Now the happy winter evenings were begun.
“Hail Columbia, happy land!
(Pa sang with the fiddle)
Hail, ye heroes, Heaven-born band! Firm, united let us be,
Rallying ’round our liberty,
As a band of brothers joined
Peace and safety we shall find.”
He looked at Mary sitting quietly with beautiful empty eyes and folded hands in her rocking chair by the oven. “What shall I play for you, Mary?”
“I would like to hear ‘Highland Mary,’ Pa.” Softly Pa played a verse. “Now, Mary! Help sing!” he said, and they sang together.
“How sweetly bloomed the gay, green birk,
How rich the hawthorn’s blossom,
As underneath their fragrant shade
I clasped her to my bosom.
“The golden hours on angel wings
Flew o’er me and my dearie
For dear to me as light and life
Was my sweet Highland Mary!”
“It’s sweet,” Mary said when the last note died away.
“It’s sweet but it’s sad,” said Laura. “I like ‘Coming Through the Rye.’”
“I’ll play it,” Pa said, “but I won’t sing it alone. It isn’t fair for me to do all the entertaining.”
So gaily all together they sang the lively song. And Laura got up and pretended to be wading across a creek, holding her skirts above her ankles and laughing back over her shoulder, singing:
“Ilka lassie has her laddie,
Nane, they say, ha’e I,
Yet all the lads they smile at me
When coming through the Rye.”
Then Pa’s fiddle twinkled short, gay little notes, and he sang:
“I’m Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines!
I feed my horse on corn and beans.
And I often go beyond my means
To court the girls all in their teens,
For I’m Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines,
I’m Captain in the Army!”
Pa nodded at Laura, and she went on singing with the fiddle:
“I am Mrs. Jinks of Madison Square,
I wear fine clothes and I curl my hair,
The Captain went on a regular tear
And they kicked him out of the Army!”
“Laura!” Ma said. “Charles, do you think that is a nice song for a girl to sing?”
“She sang it well,” said Pa. “Now, Carrie, you must do your share. Get out here with Laura and see what you can do.”
He showed them how to hold hands and step to the tune of a polka. Then he played it and they danced while he sang:
“First! the heel and then the toe,
That’s the way the steps do go,
First the heel and then the toe,
That’s the way the steps do go,
Faster and faster he played, and faster they danced, with higher and higher steps, back and forth and whirling back again till they were breathless and hot with dancing and laughing.
“Now then,” said Pa, “try a bit of a waltz,” and the music flowed smoothly in gliding long waves. “Just float on the music,” Pa sang to them softly. “Just float on the music, glide smoothly and turn.”
Laura and Carrie waltzed across the room and back, and around and around the room, while Grace sat up in Ma’s lap and watched them with round eyes and Mary listened quietly to the music and the dancing feet.
“That’s fine, girls,” said Pa. “We must have more of it this winter. You’re growing up now and you must know how to dance. You’re going to be fine dancers, both of you.”
“Oh, Pa, you aren’t stopping!” Laura cried.
“It’s long past bedtime,” said Pa. “And there’ll be plenty more long, cosy evenings before spring.”
Bitter cold came down the stairway when Laura opened the door. She hurried up the steps, carrying the lighted lantern, and behind her Mary and Carrie hurried. There was a little warmth around the stovepipe that came up from the room below, and close to it they undressed and with shivering fingers pulled their nightgowns over their underflannels. Chattering, they crawled into their cold beds and Laura blew out the lantern.
In the dark she and Mary cuddled together, and slowly the blankets lost their chill. All around the house the black cold of the night was as high as the sky and as wide as the world, and there was nothing in it but the lonely wind.
“Mary,” Laura whispered. “I guess the wolves have gone. I didn’t hear them howl, did you?”
“I hope they have,” Mary answered drowsily.