By The Shores Of Silver Lake (Chaprer 25)
By The Shores Of Silver Lake
Laura Ingalls Wilder
That day did not seem real. Laura’s eyelids felt sandy and she yawned all the time, yet she did not feel sleepy. At noon young Mr. Hinz and the two Mr. Harthorns came to dinner. In the afternoon their hammers could be heard pounding on the framework of the new buildings. It seemed a long time since Pa had gone.
He did not come that night. All the next day he did not come. That night he did not come. And now Laura was sure that he was having a hard time to get the homestead. Perhaps he might not get it. If he did not get it, perhaps they would go west to Oregon.
Ma would not let any more strangers sleep in the house. Only Mr. Hinz and the two Harthorns bunked down on the floor by the stove. The weather was not so cold that men would freeze, sleeping in their wagons. Ma charged twenty-five cents just for supper, and far into the night she and Mrs. Boast cooked and Laura washed dishes. So many men came to eat that she did not try to count them.
Late in the afternoon of the fourth day Pa came home. He waved as he drove by to put the tired team in the stable, and he walked smiling into the house. “Well, Caroline! Girls!” he said. “We’ve got the claim.”
“You got it!” Ma exclaimed joyfully.
“I went after it, didn’t I?” Pa laughed. “Brrr! It’s chilly, riding. Let me get to the stove and warm myself.”
Ma shook down the fire and set the kettle boiling for tea. “Did you have any trouble, Charles?” she asked.
“You wouldn’t believe it,” said Pa. “I never saw such a jam. It looks like the whole country’s trying to file on land. I got to Brookings all right the first night, and next morning when I showed up at the Land Office I couldn’t get anywheres near the door. Every man had to stand in line and wait his turn. So many were ahead of me that my turn didn’t come that day.”
“You didn’t stand there all day, Pa?” Laura cried.
“Yep, Flutterbudget. All day.”
“Without anything to eat? Oh, no, Pa!” said Carrie.
“Pshaw, that didn’t worry me. What worried me was the crowds. I kept thinking maybe somebody ahead of me is getting my quarter section. Caroline, you never saw such crowds. But my worry then wasn’t a patch to what came later.”
“What, Pa?” Laura asked.
“Let a fellow get his breath, Flutterbudget! Well, when the Land Office closed I went along in the jam to get supper at the hotel, and I heard a couple of men talking. One had filed on a claim near Huron. The other said De Smet was going to be a better town than Huron, and then he mentioned the very piece I picked out last winter. He told the numbers. He was going to file on it first thing next morning. He said it was the only piece left vacant anywhere near this townsite. So he was going to have it, though he’d never seen it.
“Well, that was enough for me. I had to beat him to that claim. At first I thought I’d be up bright and early next morning, and then I figured I wouldn’t take any chances. So as soon as I got some supper, I made tracks for the Land Office.”
“I thought it was closed,” said Carrie.
“It was. I settled right down on the doorstep to spend the night.”
“Surely you didn’t need to do that, Charles?” said Ma, handing him a cup of tea.
“Need to do that?” Pa repeated. “I wasn’t the only man who had that idea, not by a blamed sight. Lucky I got there first. Must have been forty men waiting there all night, and right next to me were those two fellows that I’d heard talking.”
He blew on the tea to cool it, and Laura said, “But they didn’t know you wanted that piece, did they?”
“They didn’t know me from Adam,” said Pa, drinking the tea, “till a fellow came along and sang out, ‘Hello, Ingalls! So you weathered the winter on Silver Lake. Settling down at De Smet, uh?’”
“Oh, Pa!” Mary wailed.
“Yes, the fat was in the fire then,” said Pa. “I knew I wouldn’t have a chance if I budged from that door. So I didn’t. By sun-up the crowd was doubled, and a couple of hundred men must have been pushing and shoving against me before the Land Office opened. There wasn’t any standing in line that day, I tell you! It was each fellow for himself and devil take the hindmost.
“Well, girls, finally the door opened. How about some more tea, Caroline?”
“Oh, Pa, go on!” Laura cried. “Please.”
“Just as it opened,” said Pa, “the Huron man crowded me back. ‘Get in! I’ll hold him!’ he said to the other fellow. It meant a fight, and while I fought him, the other’d get my homestead. Right then, quick as a wink, somebody landed like a ton of bricks on the Huron man. ‘Go in, Ingalls!’ he yelled. ‘I’ll fix ’im! Yow-ee-ee!’”
Pa’s long, catamount screech curled against the walls, and Ma gasped, “Mercy! Charles!”
“And you’ll never guess who it was,” said Pa.
“Mr. Edwards!” Laura shouted.
Pa was astounded. “How did you guess it, Laura?”
“He yelled like that in Indian Territory. He’s a wildcat from Tennessee,” Laura remembered. “Oh, Pa, where is he? Did you bring him?”
“I couldn’t get him to come home with me,” said Pa. “I tried every persuasion I could think of, but he’s filed on a claim south of here and must stay with it to keep off claim jumpers. He told me to remember him to you, Caroline, and to Mary and Laura. I’d never have got the claim if it hadn’t been for him. Golly, that was a fight he started!”
“Was he hurt?” Mary asked anxiously.
“Not a scratch. He just started that fight. He got out of it as quick as I ducked inside and started filing my claim. But it was some time before the crowd quieted down. They—”
“All’s well that ends well, Charles.” Ma interrupted.
“I guess so, Caroline,” Pa said. “Yes, I guess that’s right. Well, girls, I’ve bet Uncle Sam fourteen dollars against a hundred and sixty acres of land, that we can make out to live on the claim for five years. Going to help me win the bet?”
“Oh, yes, Pa!” Carrie said eagerly, and Mary said, “Yes, Pa!” gladly, and Laura promised soberly, “Yes, Pa.”
“I don’t like to think of it as gambling,” Ma said in her gentle way.
“Everything’s more or less a gamble, Caroline,” said Pa. “Nothing is certain but death and taxes.”