By The Shores Of Silver Lake (Chapter 27)
By The Shores Of Silver Lake
Laura Ingalls Wilder
Living in Town
All around the unfinished, little town the endless prairie lay greening in the sunshine for new grass was starting everywhere. Silver Lake was blue, and the large white clouds in the sky were mirrored in the clear water.
Slowly Laura and Carrie walked on either side of Mary toward the town. Behind them came the loaded wagon, Pa and Ma and Grace riding in it, and the cow Ellen tied behind. They were all moving to Pa’s building in town.
The surveyors had come back. Mr. and Mrs. Boast were gone to their claim. There was nowhere to live except in Pa’s unfinished building, and in all the hustle, bustle and busyness of the town there was no one that Laura knew. She did not feel all alone and happy on the prairie now; she felt lonely and scared. The town’s being there made the difference.
Men were busily working on the new buildings all up and down Main Street. Shavings and sawdust and ends of boards were scattered on the muddy and trampled young grass in the street, and wheels had cut deep ruts through it. Through the frames of buildings that did not have the siding on yet, and down alleys between the buildings, and beyond both ends of the street, the clean, green prairie rippled far away and quiet under the clear sky, but the town was troubled and noisy with rasping saws and pounding hammers and the thud of boxes and sharp crash of boards unloaded from wagons, and men loudly talking.
Timidly Laura and Carrie waited to let Pa’s wagon come up, and they led Mary along beside it until they came to the corner where Pa’s building was.
The tall false fronts loomed up, cutting off half the sky. Pa’s building had a front door, with a glass window at each side. The door opened into one long room. Far at its other end was a back door, and near it a side window. The floor was wide boards, and the walls were boards with daylight coming through the cracks and knotholes. That was all.
“This place isn’t very warm nor tight, Caroline,” Pa said. “I haven’t had time to put on the siding nor to ceil the inside, and there’s no cornice under the eaves to cover that big crack. But we’ll be warm enough, now that spring has come, and I’ll soon get the building finished.”
“You must build a stair, so we can get into the loft,” said Ma. “Now I shall just stretch a curtain across to make two rooms so we will have a place to sleep until you can put up a partition. Warm as this weather is, we don’t need siding and ceiling.”
Pa put Ellen and the horses in a small stable at the back of the lot. Then he set up the stove and stretched a rope for Ma’s curtain. Ma hung sheets on it while Laura helped Pa set up the bedstead. Then Carrie helped her make the beds while Mary amused Grace and Ma got supper.
The lamplight shone on the white curtain while they ate, but the end of the long room was shadowy and the chilly air coming through all the cracks made the lamp flicker and the curtain move. There was too much empty space in that building but all the time Laura felt that strangers were close outside it. Lamplight shone out of strangers’ windows, footsteps passed with a lantern, and voices were talking though she could not hear the words. Even when the night was still, she felt crowded by so many other people so near. She lay in bed with Mary in the dark and airy room, and stared at the vague white curtain and listened to the stillness and felt trapped in town.
Sometime in the night she dreamed of wolves’ howling, but she was in bed and the howling was only the wind. She was cold. She was too cold to wake up. The covers seemed very thin. She snuggled closer to Mary and burrowed her cold head under the thin covers. In her sleep she was tight and shivering, till finally she grew cosily warm. The next she knew, she heard Pa singing.
“Oh, I am as happy as a big sunflower
That nods and bends in the breezes!
And my heart is as light as the wind that blows
The leaves from off the treeses!”
Laura opened one eye and peeked from under the covers. Snow fell softly onto her face, a great lot of snow.
“Ow!” she said.
“Lie still, Laura!” said Pa. “All you girls lie still. I’ll shovel you out in a minute. Soon as I get this fire started and the snow off Ma.”
Laura heard the stove lids clatter. She heard the scratch of a match and the crackle of burning kindling. She did not stir. The covers were heavy over her and she was warm as toast.
Soon Pa came behind the curtain. “There’s a good foot of snow on these beds!” he exclaimed. “But I’ll have it off in three jerks of a lamb’s tail. Lie still now, girls!”
Laura and Mary lay perfectly still while Pa shoveled the snow off their covers, and the cold came through them. They lay shivering and watching while with his shovel he took the snow off Carrie and Grace. Then he went to the stable to shovel out Ellen and the horses.
“Get up, girls!” Ma called. “Bring your clothes and dress by the fire.”
Laura jumped out of the warm bed and grabbed her clothes from the chair where she had laid them the night before. She shook the snow off them and ran barefoot over snow scattered on the cold floor, to the stove beyond the curtain. As she ran she said, “Wait, Mary. I’ll come back in a minute and shake the snow off your clothes.”
She shook out her petticoats and her dress so quickly that the snow had no time to melt on them. Quickly she shook her stockings and emptied the snow from her shoes, and put them on. She hurried so fast that when she was dressed she was quite warm. Then she shook the snow from Mary’s clothes and helped her quickly to the warmth that the oven gave out.
Carrie came running with little squeals and jumps. “Oo, the snow burns my feet!” she said, laughing though her teeth chattered from cold. It was so exciting to wake up in a snowdrift that she wouldn’t wait in bed until Laura could shake her clothes. Laura helped button her up, then they put on their coats, and with the stove shovel and the broom they scooped and swept back the snow into piles in the far corners of the long room.
Snow lay in piles and drifts all along the street. Every lumber pile was a mountain of snow, and from the drifts the bare timbers of unfinished buildings stuck up thin and yellow. The sun was up, and all the slopes of snow were rosy and all the hollows blue. Through every crack the air came in as cold as ice.
Ma warmed her shawl by the fire, wrapped it snugly around Grace, and brought her to Mary, in the rocking chair pulled close to the oven The hot stove made the air fairly warm all around it. Ma set the table almost against the stove, and breakfast was ready when Pa came back.
“This building’s a pretty good sieve!” Pa said. “Snow blew through every crack and in under the eaves. That was a genuine blizzard while it lasted.”
“To think we went all winter without a blizzard, and now we get one in April,” Ma marveled.
“Lucky it struck in the night when folks were under cover,” said Pa. “If it had hit in the daytime, somebody would have been lost and frozen for sure. Nobody looks for a blizzard at this time of year.”
“Well, the cold can’t last long,” Ma encouraged herself. “‘April showers bring May flowers.’ What will an April blizzard bring?”
“For one thing, a partition,” said Pa. “I’ll have a partition up to keep in the heat around this stove before I’m a day older.”
And he did. All day by the stove he sawed and hammered. Laura and Carrie helped hold the boards, and in Mary’s lap Grace played with the shavings. The new partition made a little room, with the stove and the table and the beds in it, and its window looking out at all the green prairie covered with snow.
Then Pa brought in more snowy lumber and he began ceiling the walls. “I’ll stop some of the cracks anyway,” he said.
All over the town there was sawing and hammering inside the other buildings. Ma said, “I’m sorry for Mrs. Beardsley, keeping a hotel while it’s being built over her head.”
“That’s what it takes to build up a country,” said Pa. “Building over your head and under your feet, but building. We’d never get anything fixed to suit us if we waited for things to suit us before we started.”
In a few days the snow was gone and spring came back again. The wind from the prairie brought a smell of damp ground and young grass, the sun rose earlier every day, and faintly all day the blue sky clanged with the wild birds’ calls. High in the sky Laura could see them flying, flock after flock dark and small in the shimmering air.
They did not gather thickly any more on Silver Lake. Only a few very tired flocks settled late after sunset in the sloughs and rose to the sky again before the sun rose. Wild birds did not like the town full of people, and neither did Laura.
She thought, “I would rather be out on the prairie with the grass and the birds and Pa’s fiddle. Yes, even with wolves! I would rather be anywhere than in this muddy, cluttered, noisy town, crowded by strange people.” And she said, “Pa, when are we going to move to the homestead?”
“Soon as I sell this building,” said Pa.
More and more wagons came in every day. Teams and wagons pulled along the muddy street, past the windows. All day there was the noise of hammers and of boots and voices. The shovel gangs were leveling the railroad grade, the teamsters were unloading ties and steel rails. In the evenings they were loudly drinking in the saloons.
Carrie liked the town. She wanted to go out into it and see everything, and for hours she stood looking out of the windows. Sometimes Ma let her cross the street to visit two little girls who lived there, but oftener the little girls came to see her, for Ma did not like to let Carrie out of her sight.
“I declare, Laura, you are so restless you give me the fidgets,” Ma said one day. “You are going to teach school, so why not begin now? Don’t you think it would be nice if you taught Carrie and Louizy and Annie every day? It would keep Carrie at home and be good for you all.”
Laura did not think it would be nice. She did not want to do it at all. But she said obediently, “Yes, Ma.” She thought she might as well try. So next morning when Louizy and Annie came to play with Carrie, Laura told them that they would have a school. She seated them all in a row and set them a lesson to study in Ma’s old primer.
“You study that for fifteen minutes,” she told them, “and then I will hear you recite.”
They looked at her with wide eyes, but they did not say anything. They put their heads together and studied, while Laura sat in front of them. There never was such a long fifteen minutes. At last Laura heard their spelling lesson, and then she set them a lesson in arithmetic. Whenever they fidgeted she told them they must sit still, and she made them raise their hands for permission to speak.
“You all did very nicely, I’m sure,” Ma smiled in approval, when at last it was time to get dinner. “You may come every morning, and Laura will teach you. Tell your mother I shall step across the street this afternoon and tell her about our little school.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Louizy and Annie answered weakly. “Good-by, ma’am.”
“With diligence and perseverance, Laura, I think you will be a very good teacher,” Ma praised Laura, and Laura answered, “Thank you, Ma.” She thought, “I’ve got to be a teacher, so I might as well try hard to be a good one.”
Every morning little brown-haired Annie and redheaded Louizy came more reluctantly; every day it was harder to teach them. They fidgeted so that Laura despaired of ever making them sit still, and she could not make them study. One day they did not come.
“Perhaps they are too young to appreciate schooling, but I wonder at their mother,” said Ma. “Don’t be discouraged, Laura,” Mary said. “Anyway, you have taught the first school in De Smet.”
“I’m not discouraged,” Laura said cheerfully. She was so glad to be free from teaching that she began to sing while she swept the floor.
From the window Carrie cried out. “Look, Laura! Something’s happening! Maybe that’s why they don’t come.”
In front of the hotel a crowd was gathering. More and more men came from all directions, and the sound of their voices was loud and excited. Laura remembered the payday crowd that had threatened Pa. In a minute she saw Pa breaking through the crowd and coming home.
He came in looking sober. “What do you say to moving out to the claim right away, Caroline?” he asked.
“Today?” Ma asked.
“Day after tomorrow,” said Pa. “It will take me that long to put up a claim shanty.”
“Sit down, Charles, and tell me what is wrong,” Ma said quietly.
Pa sat down. “There’s been a murder.”
Ma’s eyes opened wide and she caught her breath. She said, “Here?”
“South of town.” Pa got up. “A claim jumper killed Hunter. He used to work on the grade. He drove out yesterday to his homestead, he and his father. When they drove up to his claim shanty, a man opened the door and looked out at them. Hunter asked him what he was doing there, and he shot Hunter dead. He tried to shoot the old man, but he whipped up the team and got away. Neither one of them had a gun. The old man got to Mitchell and brought officers out this morning, and they arrested the fellow. Arrested him!” Pa said furiously. “Hanging’s too good for him. If we’d only known in time!”
“Charles,” Ma said.
“Well,” said Pa, “I think we’d better get onto our claim before somebody jumps it.”
“So do I,” Ma agreed. “We will move as soon as you can put up any kind of shelter.”
“Fix me up a snack to eat, and I’ll start now,” said Pa. “I’ll go get a load of lumber and a man to help and put up the shanty this afternoon. We’ll move tomorrow.”