By The Shores Of Silver Lake (Chapter 18)
By The Shores Of Silver Lake
Laura Ingalls Wilder
Pa Finds the Homestead
After breakfast next morning Pa took his gun and set out. All that morning Laura was listening for a shot and not wanting to hear it. All morning she remembered the great wolf sitting quiet in the moonlight that shimmered through his thick fur.
Pa was late for dinner. It was long past noon when he stamped the snow from his feet in the lean-to. He came in and put his gun on the wall, and hung his cap and coat on their nail. His mittens he hung, by their thumbs, to dry on the line behind the stove. Then he washed his face and hands in the tin basin on the bench, and before the small glass that hung above it he combed his hair and his beard.
“Sorry I kept dinner waiting, Caroline,” he said. “I was gone longer than I thought. Went farther than I intended.”
“It doesn’t matter, Charles; I’ve kept dinner warm,” Ma replied. “Come to the table, girls! Don’t keep Pa waiting.”
“How far did you go, Pa?” Mary asked.
“Better than ten miles, all told,” said Pa. “Those wolf tracks led me a chase.”
“Did you get the wolf, Pa?” Carrie wanted to know. Laura did not say anything.
Pa smiled at Carrie and said, “Now, now, don’t ask questions. I’ll tell you all about it. I went across the lake, followed the marks you girls made last night. And what do you suppose I found in that high bank where you saw the wolf?”
“You found the wolf,” Carrie said confidently. Laura still said nothing. Her food was choking her; she could hardly swallow the smallest mouthful.
“I found the wolves’ den,” said Pa. “And the biggest wolves’ tracks I ever saw. Girls, there were two big buffalo wolves at that den last night.”
Mary and Carrie gasped. Ma said, “Charles!”
“It’s too late to be scared now,” Pa told them. “But that’s what you girls did. You went right up to the wolves’ den and there were the wolves.
“Their tracks were fresh, and all the signs show plain as day what they were doing. It’s an old den, and from their size they’re no young wolves. I’d say they’d been living there for some years. But they haven’t been living there this winter.
“They came down from the northwest sometime yesterday evening and went pretty straight to that den. They stayed around it, in and out of it, maybe till this morning. I followed their tracks from there, down along Big Slough and out on the prairie, southwest.
“From the time they left the old den, those wolves never stopped. They trotted along, side by side, as if they had started on a long journey and knew where they were going. I followed them far enough to be sure that I couldn’t get a shot at them. They’ve left for good.”
Laura took a deep breath as though she had forgotten to breathe till now. Pa looked at her. “You are glad they got away, Laura?” he asked.
“Yes, Pa, I am,” Laura answered. “They didn’t chase us.”
“No, Laura, they didn’t chase you. And for the life of me, I can’t figure out why they didn’t.”
“And what were they doing at that old den?” Ma wondered.
“They were just looking at it,” said Pa. “My belief is they came back to visit the old place where they lived before the graders came in and the antelope left. Maybe they used to live here before the hunters killed the last buffalo. Buffalo wolves were all over this country once, but there’s not many left now, even around here. The railroads and settlements kept driving them farther west. One thing’s certain if I know anything about wild animal tracks; those two wolves came straight from the west and went straight back west, and all they did here was to stop one night at the old den. And I wouldn’t wonder if they’re pretty nearly the last buffalo wolves that’ll ever be seen in this part of the country.”
“Oh, Pa, the poor wolves,” Laura mourned.
“Mercy on us,” Ma said briskly. “There’s enough to be sorry for, without being sorry for the feelings of wild beasts! Be thankful the brutes didn’t do any worse than scare you girls last night.”
“That isn’t all, Caroline!” Pa announced. “I’ve got some news. I’ve found our homestead.”
“Oh, where, Pa! What’s it like? How far is it?” Mary and Laura and Carrie asked, excited. Ma said, “That’s good, Charles.”
Pa pushed back his plate, drank his tea, wiped his mustache, and said, “It is just right in every way. It lies south of where the lake joins Big Slough, and the slough curves around to the west of it. There’s a rise in the prairie to the south of the slough, that will make a nice place to build. A little hill just west of it crowds the slough back on that side. On the quarter section there’s upland hay and plow land lying to the south; and good grazing on all of it, everything a farmer could ask for. And it’s near the townsite, so the girls can go to school.”
“I’m glad, Charles,” said Ma.
“It’s a funny thing,” Pa said. “Here I’ve been looking around this country for months and never finding a quarter section that just exactly suited me. And that one was lying there all the time. Likely enough I wouldn’t have come across it at all, if this wolf chase hadn’t taken me across the lake and down along the slough on that side.”
“I wish you had filed on it last fall,” Ma worried.
“Nobody’ll be in here this winter,” Pa said confidently. “I’ll get out to Brookings and file on that claim next spring before anybody else is looking for a homestead.”