The Long Winter (Chapter 8)
The Long Winter
Laura Ingalls Wilder
Settled In Town
Pa’s store building was one of the best in town. It stood by itself on the east side of Main Street. Its false front was tall and square-cornered, with one upstairs window in it. Downstairs there were two windows with the front door between them.
Pa did not stop the loaded wagon there. He turned the corner to Second Street, that was only a road, and drove in behind the store to its lean-to door. There was a good wooden stable with one haystack already beside it, and beyond them, on Second Street, Laura saw a house newly built of fresh boards. Pa’s stable and store building had already weathered gray, like the other stores on Main Street.
“Well, here we are!” said Pa. “It won’t take us long to get settled in.”
He untied Ellen, the cow, and her big calf from behind the wagon, and Laura led them to their stalls in the stable, while Pa unloaded the wagon. Then he drove it on to the stable and began to unhitch the horses.
The lean-to’s inside door opened under the stairs that went up from the back room. The narrow, back room would be the kitchen, of course, and it had a window, in its other end, looking out across the road that was Second Street and on across vacant lots to the side of a little vacant store. Farther over the prairie to the northeast, Laura could see the two-story depot.
Ma stood in the bare front room, looking at it and thinking where to put all their things.
In the big, empty room stood a coal heater and a shiny boughten desk and boughten chair.
“Why, where did that desk and chair come from?” Laura exclaimed.
“They’re Pa’s,” said Ma. “Judge Carroll’s new partner has a desk so Judge Carroll let Pa have his old desk and chair and the coal heater for part of the rent.”
The desk had drawers and a top with pigeonholes under a marvelous flexible cover made of narrow slats of wood that could be pulled, curving down, or pushed up again. When it was pushed up it disappeared.
“We’ll put the rocking chairs by the other window,” Ma went on. “Then Mary’ll have the sunshine all afternoon and I can see to read to us until sundown. We’ll do that first thing, Mary, so you can settle down and keep Grace out of our way.”
Ma and Laura set the rocking chairs by the window. Then they edged the table through the doorways and put it between the coal heater and the door to the kitchen. “That will be the warm place to eat,” said Ma.
“Can we put up the curtains now?” Laura asked. The two windows were like strange eyes looking in. Strangers went by in the street, and across the street stood the staring store buildings. Fuller’s Hardware was there, with the drugstore beside it, and Power’s Tailor Shop, and Loftus’ Groceries, Dry Goods and General Merchandise.
“Yes, the sooner the better,” said Ma. She unpacked the muslin curtains and she and Laura put them up. A wagon went by while they did it and suddenly five or six boys came down Second Street and after a moment as many girls.
“School’s out for the day,” said Ma. “You and Carrie’ll be going to school tomorrow.” Her voice was glad.
Laura did not say anything. No one knew how she dreaded meeting strangers. No one knew of the fluttering in her breast and the gone feeling in her stomach when she had to meet them. She didn’t like town; she didn’t want to go to school.
It was so unfair that she had to go! Mary wanted to be a schoolteacher, but she couldn’t be because she was blind, Laura didn’t want to teach, but she must do it to please Ma. Probably all her life she must go among strange people and teach strange children; she would always be scared and she must never show it.
No! Pa had said she must never be afraid and she would not be. She would be brave if it killed her. But even if she could get over being afraid, she could not like strange people. She knew how animals would act, she understood what animals thought, but you could never be sure about people.
Anyway, the curtains at the windows kept strangers from looking in. Carrie had set the plain chairs around the table. The floor was bright, clean pine boards, and the large room looked very pleasant when Laura and Ma had laid a braided-rag rug before each door.
Pa was setting up the cookstove in the kitchen. When he had put the stovepipe together, straight and solid, he brought in the dry-goods-box cupboard and set it against the wall on the other side of the doorway.
“There!” he said. “The stove and the cupboard’ll both be handy to the table in the other room.”
“Yes, Charles, that’s well thought out,” Ma praised him. “Now, when we get the beds upstairs, we’ll soon be through.
Pa handed up the pieces of the bedsteads while Ma and Laura drew them through the trap-door at the top of the stairs. He crowded the fat featherbeds through, and the blankets, quilts, and pillows, and then he and Carrie went to fill the strawticks from the haystack. They must fill the strawticks with hay, because there was no straw in this new country where no grain had yet been raised.
Under the attic roof, a building-paper partition made two rooms. One had a window to the west and one to the east. From the eastern window at the top of the stairs, Ma and Laura could see the far sky line and the prairie, the new house and the stable, and Pa and Carrie busily stuffing hay into the strawticks.
“Pa and I will have this room at the head of the stairs,” Ma decided. “You girls can have the front one.”
They set up the bedsteads and laid in the slats. Then Pa pushed the fat, crackling strawticks up to them and Laura and Carrie made the beds while Ma went down to get supper.
The sunset was shining on the western window and flooding the whole room with golden light while they leveled the sweet-smelling, crackling hay in the strawticks and laid the featherbeds on top and stroked them softly smooth. Then, one on each side of a bed, they spread the sheets and the blankets and quilts, drawing them even and folding and tucking them in square at the corners. Then each plumped up a pillow and set it in place and the bed was made.
When the three beds were done, there was nothing more to do.
Laura and Carrie stood in the warm-colored, chilly sunset light, looking out of the window. Pa and Ma were talking in the kitchen downstairs and two strange men were talking in the street. Farther away, but not very far, someone was whistling a tune and there were many little sounds besides that, all together, made the sound of a town.
Smoke was coming up from behind the store fronts. Past Fuller’s Hardware, Second Street went west on the prairie to a lonely building standing in the dead grasses. It had four windows and the sunset was shining through them, so there must be even more windows on the other side. It had a boarded-in entry, like a nose, in its front-gable end and a stovepipe that was not smoking. Laura said, “I guess that’s the schoolhouse.”
“I wish we didn’t have to go,” Carrie almost whispered.
“Well, we do have to,” said Laura.
Carrie looked at her wonderingly. “Aren’t you… scared?”
“There’s nothing to be scared of!” Laura answered boldly. “And if there was, we wouldn’t be scared.”
Downstairs was warm from the fire in the cookstove, and Ma was saying that this place was so well-built that it took hardly any fire to heat it. She was getting supper, and Mary was setting the table.
“I don’t need any help,” Mary said happily. “The cupboard is in a different place, but Ma put all the dishes in the same places in the cupboard, so I find them just as easily as ever.”
The front room was spacious in the lamplight when Ma set the lamp on the supper-table. The creamy curtains, the varnished yellow desk and chair, the cushions in the rocking chairs, the rag rugs and the red tablecloth, and the pine color of the floor and walls and ceiling were gay. The floor and the walls were so solid that not the smallest cold draft came in.
“I wish we had a place like this out on the claim,” Laura said.
“I’m glad we have it in town where you girls can go to school this winter,” said Ma. “You couldn’t walk in from the claim every day, if the weather was bad.”
“It’s a satisfaction to me to be where we’re sure of getting coal and supplies,” Pa declared. “Coal beats brushwood all hollow for giving steady heat. We’ll keep enough coal in the lean-to to outlast any blizzard, and I can always get more from the lumberyard. Living in town, we’re in no danger of running short of any kind of supplies.”
“How many people are there in town now?” Ma asked him.
Pa counted up. “Fourteen business buildings and the depot; and then Sherwood’s and Garland’s and Owen’s houses—that’s eighteen families, not counting three or four shacks on the back streets. Then the Wilder boys are baching in the feed store, and there’s a man named Foster moved in with his ox team and staying at Sherwood’s. Count them all, there must be as many as seventy-five or eighty people living here in town.”
“And to think there wasn’t a soul here this time last fall,” said Ma. Then she smiled at Pa. “I’m glad you see some good at last, Charles, in staying in a settled place.”
Pa had to admit that he did. But he said, “On the other hand, all this costs money and that’s scarcer than hen’s teeth. The railroad’s the only place a man can get a dollar for a day’s work and it’s not hiring anybody. And the only hunting left around here is jackrabbits. Oregon’s the place to be nowadays. The country out there’ll be settled up, too, pretty soon.”
“Yes, but now is the time for the girls to be getting some schooling,” Ma said firmly.