By The Shores Of Silver Lake (Chapter 29)
By The Shores Of Silver Lake
Laura Ingalls Wilder
The Shanty on the Claim
“The first thing to do is to dig a well,” said Pa next morning. He shouldered his spade and shovel and went whistling toward the slough while Laura cleared the breakfast table and Ma rolled up her sleeves.
“Now, girls,” she said cheerfully, “all together with a will, and we’ll soon have things to right.”
But even Ma was puzzled that morning. The little claim shanty was as full as it would hold. Everything must be carefully fitted into the space. Laura and Carrie and Ma lifted and tugged the furniture this way and that, and stood and thought, and tried again.
Mary’s rocking chair and the table were still outdoors when Pa came back.
“Well, Caroline, your well’s all dug!” he sang out. “Six feet deep, and good, cold water in quicksand. Now I’ll hammer together a cover for it, so Grace can’t fall in, and that’ll be done.” He looked at the disorder and pushed back his hat to scratch his head. “Can’t you get it all in?”
“Yes, Charles,” said Ma. “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”
It was Laura who thought how to fit in the beds. The trouble was that they now had three bedsteads. When they stood side by side, there was not room for Mary’s rocking chair. Laura thought of setting the little bedsteads together, tight in the corner, and putting the foot of the big bedstead against them, with its headboard against the other wall.
“Then we’ll hang a curtain around our beds,” she said to Ma, “and another curtain across beside yours, and that leaves room for the rocking chair against your curtain.”
“That’s my smart girl!” said Ma.
Against the foot of Laura’s and Mary’s bed, the table fitted under the window that Pa was sawing in that wall. Ma’s rocking chair went in beside the table, and the whatnot fitted in that corner, behind the door. In the fourth corner stood the stove, with the dish cupboard made of a packing box behind it, and the trunk fitted between the stove and Mary’s rocking chair.
“There!” said Ma. “And the boxes will go under the beds. It couldn’t be better!”
At dinner Pa said, “Before night I’ll finish this half of a house.” And he did. He put in a window beside the stove, to the south. He hung in the doorway a door bought from the lumberyard in town. Then all over the outside of the shanty he put black tar paper, fastening it down with lath.
Laura helped him unroll the wide, black, tarry-smelling paper down over the slanting roof and the walls of fresh, clean, pine-scented boards, and she helped him cut it and she held it down in the wind while he nailed on the lath. Tar-paper was not pretty, but it stopped all the cracks and kept out the wind.
“Well, there’s one good day’s work done,” Pa said when they sat down to supper.
“Yes,” said Ma. “And tomorrow we’ll finish unpacking and be finally settled. I must do a baking too. It’s a blessing to have yeast once more. I feel as though I never want to see another sour-dough biscuit.”
“Your light bread is good and so are your sour-dough biscuits,” Pa told her. “But we won’t have either if I don’t rustle something to bake them with. Tomorrow I’ll haul a load of wood from Lake Henry.”
“May I go with you, Pa?” Laura asked.
“Me, too?” Carrie begged.
“No, girls,” said Pa. “I’ll be gone quite a while and Ma will need you.”
“I wanted to see trees,” Carrie explained.
“I don’t blame her,” said Ma. “I would like to see some trees again myself. They would rest my eyes from all this prairie with not a tree. Not even a bush to be seen in any direction.”
“This country’s going to be covered with trees,” Pa said. “Don’t forget that Uncle Sam’s tending to that. There’s a tree claim on every section, and settlers have got to plant ten acres of trees on every tree claim. In four or five years you’ll see trees every way you look.”
“I’ll be looking in all directions at once then,” Ma smiled. “There’s nothing more restful than shady groves in the summertime, and they’ll break the wind too.”
“Well, I don’t know,” said Pa. “Trees spread, and you know what it was like back in the Big Woods of Wisconsin, grubbing out stumps and breaking our backs on the sprouting hoe to keep a little land clear for crops. It’s restful to have clear prairie land like this, if you’re going to farm. But Uncle Sam don’t seem to look at it that way, so don’t worry, Caroline; you’re going to see plenty of trees all over this country. Likely they’ll stop the wind and change the climate, too, just as you say.”
They were all too tired for music that night. Soon after supper they were all asleep, and bright and early next morning Pa drove away toward Lake Henry.
The whole world was gay in the early sunshine when Laura led Ellen to drink at the well. All over the prairie the little white blossoms of wild onion were dancing in the wind. Down the slope of the little hill below the shanty, patches of wild crocus spread yellow and blue in the young grass, and everywhere the sheep-sorrel uncurled its little pink-lavender flowers above sleek clover-shaped leaves. Laura bent down to pick them as she walked, and slowly nibbled the delightfully fresh, sour little stems and petals.
From the grassy swell where she picketed Ellen she could see the town beyond to the north. Big Slough curved between and spread wide southwest, covering acres upon acres with its rough high grass. All the rest of the whole enormous prairie was a green carpet flowered with spring blossoms.
Big girl as she was, Laura spread her arms wide to the wind and ran against it. She flung herself on the flowery grass and rolled like a colt. She lay in the soft, sweet grasses and looked at the great blueness above her and the high, pearly clouds sailing in it. She was so happy that tears came into her eyes.
Suddenly she thought, “Have I got a grass stain on my dress?” She stood up and anxiously looked, and there was a green stain on the calico. Soberly she knew that she should be helping Ma, and she hurried to the little dark tar-paper shanty.
“It’s tiger-striped,” she said to Ma.
“What is, Laura?” Ma asked, looking up startled. She was putting her books on the bottom shelves of the whatnot.
“This shanty,” said Laura. “Striped with yellow lath on the tar paper.”
“Tigers are yellow with black stripes,” Mary objected.
“You girls unpack your boxes now,” said Ma. “We’ll arrange all our pretty things on these upper shelves.”
On the shelf above the books there was room for Mary’s and Laura’s and Carrie’s little glass boxes. Each box had frosted flowers on its side and colored flowers on the lid. The three made that shelf all bright and gay.
Ma stood the clock on the fourth shelf. Its brown wooden case spread up in a carved lacy pattern from its round glass face, and behind glass painted with gilt flowers its brass pendulum wagged to and fro, tick-tock, tick-tock.
On the smallest, very top shelf above the clock, Laura set her white china jewel box with the tiny gold cup and saucer on its top, and Carrie put beside it her brown-and-white china dog.
“It’s very pretty, I’m sure,” Ma approved. “When the door is shut, the whatnot quite dresses up the room. Now for the china shepherdess.” Then she looked around quickly and exclaimed, “Mercy! Is my bread-sponge risen already?”
The bread-sponge was lifting the lid of the pan. Ma hurriedly floured the breadboard, and kneaded the dough. Then she got dinner. She was putting the pan of light biscuits in the oven when Pa came driving the wagon up the hill. Behind him the wagon box was piled high with willow brush that he had brought for summer fuel, for there were no real trees at Lake Henry.
“Hello, Flutterbudget! Let dinner wait, Caroline!” he called. “I’ve got something to show you as soon as I picket the team.”
Quickly he slipped the harness off the horses and dumped it across the wagon tongue. He hurried the horses away to their picket ropes, and came hurrying back. Then he lifted a horse blanket from the front of the wagon box.
“There you are, Caroline!” he beamed. “I covered them so they wouldn’t dry out in the wind.”
“What, Charles?” Ma and Laura craned to see into the wagon box, and Carrie climbed up the wheel. “Trees!” Ma exclaimed.
“Little trees!” Laura shouted. “Mary! Pa’s brought little trees!”
“They’re cottonwoods,” Pa said. “They all grew from seeds of the Lone Tree that we saw across the prairie when we were coming out from Brookings. It’s a giant of a tree when you get close to it. It’s seeded all along the edge of Lake Henry. I dug enough of these seedlings to make a windbreak clear around the shanty. You’re going to have your trees growing, Caroline, quick as I can get them set in the ground.”
He took his spade out of the wagon and said, “The first one’s your tree, Caroline. Pick it out and tell me where you want it.”
“Just a minute,” Ma answered. She hurried to the stove and shut its draft and set back the pot of potatoes. Then she picked out her tree. “I want it right here by the door,” she said.
With his spade, Pa cut a square in the sod and lifted the grass. He dug a hole and loosened the soft soil until it was fine and crumbly. Then carefully he lifted the little tree and carried it without shaking the earth from its roots.
“Hold the top straight, Caroline,” he said. Ma held the small tree straight by its top, while with his spade Pa sifted earth over its roots until the hole was filled. Then he stamped the earth down firmly, and stood back. “Now you can look at a tree, Caroline. Your own tree. We’ll give each one of ’em a pailful of water after dinner. But first we’ll get their roots in the ground. Come, Mary, it’s your turn next.”
Pa dug another hole in a straight line with the first. He brought another tree from the wagon, and Mary carefully held it upright while Pa planted it. That was Mary’s tree.
“Yours is next, Laura,” said Pa. “We’ll make a square windbreak, all around the house. Ma’s tree and mine by the door, and a tree for each of you girls on each side of ours.”
Laura held her tree while Pa planted it. Then Carrie held hers. The four little trees stood up straight from the patches of dark earth in the grass.
“Now Grace must have hers,” said Pa. “Where’s Grace?” He called to Ma, “Caroline, bring Grace out here to plant her tree!”
Ma looked out of the shanty. “She’s out there with you, Charles,” she said.
“I guess she’s behind the house, I’ll get her,” Carrie said, and she ran, calling, “Grace!” In a minute she came from behind the shanty, her eyes large and scared and the freckles standing out from her pale face. “Pa, I can’t find her!”
“She must be close by,” said Ma, and she called, “Grace! Grace!” Pa shouted too, “Grace!”
“Don’t stand there! Go look for her, Carrie! Laura, go!” Ma said. She exclaimed, “The well!” and ran down the path.
The cover was on the well, so Grace had not fallen into it.
“She can’t be lost,” Pa said.
“I left her outdoors. I thought she was with you,” said Ma.
“She can’t be lost,” Pa insisted. “She wasn’t out of my sight a minute.” He shouted, “Grace! Grace!”
Laura ran panting up the hill. She could not see Grace anywhere. Along the edge of the Big Slough toward Silver Lake she looked, and over the flowery prairie. Quickly, quickly she looked, again and again, seeing nothing but wild flowers and grasses. “Grace! Grace!” she screamed. “Grace!”
Pa met her on the slope as she ran down and Ma came up gasping for breath. “She must be in sight, Laura,” Pa said. “You must have missed seeing her. She can’t be—” Terribly he exclaimed, “The Big Slough!” He turned and ran.
Ma ran after him, calling back, “Carrie, you stay with Mary! Laura, look for her, go look!”
Mary stood in the doorway of the shanty calling, “Grace! Grace!” More faintly from Big Slough came Pa’s shouts and Ma’s, “Grace! Where are you? Grace!”
If Grace was lost in the Big Slough, how could anyone find her? The old, dead grass stood higher than Laura’s head, over acres and acres, for miles and miles. The deep mud sucked at bare feet, and there were water holes. Laura could hear, where she stood, the sound of the coarse slough grass in the wind, a muffling sound that almost smothered even Ma’s shrill call, “Grace!”
Laura felt cold and sick.
“Why don’t you look for her?” Carrie cried. “Don’t stand there! Do something! I’m going myself!”
“Ma told you to stay with Mary,” said Laura. “So you’d better stay.”
“She told you to look!” Carrie screamed. “Go look! Go look! Grace! Grace!”
“Shut up! Let me think!” Laura screeched, and she started running across the sunny prairie.