Little Town on the Prairie (Chapter 2)
Little Town on the Prairie
Laura Ingalls Wilder
Springtime on the Claim
After the October Blizzard last fall, they had all moved to town and for a little while Laura had gone to school there. Then the storms had stopped school, and all through that long winter the blizzards had howled between the houses, shutting them off from each other so that day after day and night after night not a voice could be heard and not a light could be seen through the whirling snow.
All winter long, they had been crowded in the little kitchen, cold and hungry and working hard in the dark and the cold to twist enough hay to keep the fire going and to grind wheat in the coffee mill for the day’s bread.
All that long, long winter, the only hope had been that sometime winter must end, sometime blizzards must stop, the sun would shine warm again and they could all get away from the town and go back to the homestead claim.
Now it was springtime. The Dakota prairie lay so warm and bright under the shining sun that it did not seem possible that it had ever been swept by the winds and snows of that hard winter. How wonderful it was, to be on the claim again! Laura wanted nothing more than just being outdoors. She felt she never could get enough sunshine soaked into her bones.
In the dawns when she went to the well at the edge of the slough to fetch the morning pail of fresh water, the sun was rising in a glory of colors. Meadow larks were flying, singing, up from the dew-wet grass. Jack rabbits hopped beside the path, their bright eyes watching and their long ears twitching as they daintily nibbled their breakfast of tender grass tips.
Laura was in the shanty only long enough to set down the water and snatch the milk pail. She ran out to the slope where Ellen, the cow, was cropping the sweet young grass. Quietly Ellen stood chewing her cud while Laura milked.
Warm and sweet, the scent of new milk came up from the streams hissing into the rising foam, and it mixed with the scents of springtime. Laura’s bare feet were wet and cool in the dewy grass, the sunshine was warm on her neck, and Ellen’s flank was warmer against her cheek. On its own little picket rope, Ellen’s baby calf bawled anxiously, and Ellen answered with a soothing moo.
When Laura had stripped the last creamy drops of milk, she lugged the pail to the shanty. Ma poured some of the warm new milk into the calf’s pail. The rest she strained through a clean white cloth into tin milk pans, and Laura carefully carried them down cellar while Ma skimmed thick cream from last night’s milk. Then she poured the skimmed milk into the calf’s pail, and Laura carried it to the hungry calf.
Teaching the calf to drink was not easy, but always interesting. The wobbly-legged baby calf had been born believing that it must butt hard with its little red poll, to get milk. So when it smelled the milk in the pail, it tried to butt the pail.
Laura must keep it from spilling the milk, if she could, and she had to teach it how to drink, because it didn’t know. She dipped her fingers into the milk and let the calf’s rough tongue suck them, and gently she led its nose down to the milk in the pail. The calf suddenly snorted milk into its nose, sneezed it out with a whoosh that splashed milk out of the pail, and then with all its might it butted into the milk. It butted so hard that Laura almost lost hold of the pail. A wave of milk went over the calf’s head and a splash wet the front of Laura’s dress.
So, patiently she began again, dipping her fingers for the calf to suck, trying to keep the milk in the pail and to teach the calf to drink it. In the end, some of the milk was inside the calf.
Then Laura pulled up the picket pins. One by one, she led Ellen, the baby calf and the yearling calf to fresh places in the soft, cool grass. She drove the iron pins deep into the ground. The sun was fully up now, the whole sky was blue, and the whole earth was waves of grass flowing in the wind. And Ma was calling.
“Hurry, Laura! Breakfast’s waiting!”
In the shanty, Laura quickly washed her face and hands at the washbasin. She threw out the water in a sparkling curve falling on grass where the sun would swiftly dry it. She ran the comb through her hair, over her head to the dangling braid. There was never time before breakfast to undo the long braid, brush her hair properly, and plait it again. She would do that after the morning’s work was done.
Sitting in her place beside Mary, she looked across the clean, red-checked tablecloth and the glinting dishes at little sister Carrie and baby sister Grace, with their soap-shining morning faces and bright eyes. She looked at Pa and Ma so cheerful and smiling. She felt the sweet morning wind from the wide-open door and window, and she gave a little sigh.
Pa looked at her. He knew how she felt. “I think, myself, it’s pretty nice,” he said.
“It’s a beautiful morning,” Ma agreed.
Then after breakfast Pa hitched up the horses, Sam and David, and drove them out on the prairie east of the shanty, where he was breaking ground for sod corn. Ma took charge of the day’s work for the rest of them, and best of all Laura liked the days when she said, “I must work in the garden.”
Mary eagerly offered to do all the housework, so that Laura could help Ma. Mary was blind. Even in the days before scarlet fever had taken the sight from her clear blue eyes, she had never liked to work outdoors in the sun and wind. Now she was happy to be useful indoors. Cheerfully she said, “I must work where I can see with my fingers. I couldn’t tell the difference between a pea vine and a weed at the end of a hoe, but I can wash dishes and make beds and take care of Grace.”
Carrie was proud, too, because although she was small she was ten years old and could help Mary do all the housework. So Ma and Laura went out to work in the garden.
People were coming from the East now, to settle all over the prairie. They were building new claim shanties to the east and to the south, and west beyond Big Slough. Every few days a wagon went by, driven by strangers going across the neck of the slough and northward to town, and coming back. Ma said there would be time to get acquainted when the spring work was done. There is no time for visiting in the spring.
Pa had a new plow, a breaking plow. It was wonderful for breaking the prairie sod. It had a sharp-edged wheel, called a rolling coulter, that ran rolling and cutting through the sod ahead of the plowshare. The sharp steel plowshare followed it, slicing underneath the matted grass roots, and the moldboard lifted the long, straight-edged strip of sod and turned it upside down. The strip of sod was exactly twelve inches wide, and as straight as if it had been cut by hand.
They were all so happy about that new plow. Now, after a whole day’s work, Sam and David gaily lay down and rolled, and pricked their ears and looked about the prairie before they fell to cropping grass. They were not being worn down, sad and gaunt, by breaking sod that spring. And at supper, Pa was not too tired to joke.
“By jingo, that plow can handle the work by itself,” he said. “With all these new inventions nowadays, there’s no use for a man’s muscle. One of these nights that plow’ll take a notion to keep on going, and we’ll look out in the morning and see that it’s turned over an acre or two after the team and I quit for the night.”
The strips of sod lay bottom-side-up over the furrows, with all the cut-off grass roots showing speckled in the earth. The fresh furrow was delightfully cool and soft to bare feet, and often Carrie and Grace followed behind the plow, playing. Laura would have liked to, but she was going on fifteen years old now, too old to play in the fresh, clean-smelling dirt. Besides, in the afternoons Mary must go for a walk to get some sunshine.
So when the morning’s work was done, Laura took Mary walking over the prairie. Spring flowers were blossoming and cloud-shadows were trailing over the grassy slopes.
It was odd that when they were little, Mary had been the older and often bossy, but now that they were older they seemed to be the same age. They liked the long walks together in the wind and sunshine, picking violets and buttercups and eating sheep sorrel. The sheep sorrel’s lovely curled lavender blossoms, the clover-shaped leaves and thin stems had a tangy taste.
“Sheep sorrel tastes like springtime,” Laura said.
“It really tastes a little like lemon flavoring, Laura,” Mary gently corrected her. Before she ate sheep sorrel she always asked, “Did you look carefully? You’re sure there isn’t a bug on it?”
“There never are any bugs,” Laura protested. “These prairies are so clean! There never was such a clean place.”
“You look, just the same,” said Mary. “I don’t want to eat the only bug in the whole of Dakota Territory.”
They laughed together. Mary was so light-hearted now that she often made such little jokes. Her face was so serene in her sunbonnet, her blue eyes were so clear and her voice so gay that she did not seem to be walking in darkness.
Mary had always been good. Sometimes she had been so good that Laura could hardly bear it. But now she seemed different. Once Laura asked her about it.
“You used to try all the time to be good,” Laura said. “And you always were good. It made me so mad sometimes, I wanted to slap you. But now you are good without even trying.”
Mary stopped still. “Oh, Laura, how awful! Do you ever want to slap me now?”
“No, never,” Laura answered honestly.
“You honestly don’t? You aren’t just being gentle to me because I’m blind?”
“No! Really and honestly, no, Mary. I hardly think about your being blind. I—I’m just glad you’re my sister. I wish I could be like you. But I guess I never can be,” Laura sighed. “I don’t know how you can be so good.”
“I’m not really,” Mary told her. “I do try, but if you could see how rebellious and mean I feel sometimes, if you could see what I really am, inside, you wouldn’t want to be like me.”
“I can see what you’re like inside,” Laura contradicted. “It shows all the time. You’re always perfectly patient and never the least bit mean.”
“I know why you wanted to slap me,” Mary said. “It was because I was showing off. I wasn’t really wanting to be good. I was showing off to myself, what a good little girl I was, and being vain and proud, and I deserved to be slapped for it.”
Laura was shocked. Then suddenly she felt that she had known that, all the time. But, nevertheless, it was not true of Mary. She said, “Oh no, you’re not like that, not really. You are good.”
“We are all desperately wicked and inclined to evil as the sparks fly upwards,” said Mary, using the Bible words. “But that doesn’t matter.”
“What!” cried Laura.
“I mean I don’t believe we ought to think so much about ourselves, about whether we are bad or good,” Mary explained.
“But, my goodness! How can anybody be good without thinking about it?” Laura demanded.
“I don’t know, I guess we couldn’t,” Mary admitted. “I don’t know how to say what I mean very well. But—it isn’t so much thinking, as—as just knowing. Just being sure of the goodness of God.”
Laura stood still, and so did Mary, because she dared not step without Laura’s arm in hers guiding her. There Mary stood in the midst of the green and flowery miles of grass rippling in the wind, under the great blue sky and white clouds sailing, and she could not see. Everyone knows that God is good. But it seemed to Laura then that Mary must be sure of it in some special way.
“You are sure, aren’t you?” Laura said.
“Yes, I am sure of it now all the time,” Mary answered. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures, He leadeth me beside the still waters. I think that’s the loveliest Psalm of all. Why are we stopping here? I don’t smell the violets.”
“We came by the buffalo wallow, talking,” said Laura. “We’ll go back that way.”
When they turned back, Laura could see the low swell of land sloping up from the coarse grasses of Big Slough to the little claim shanty. It looked hardly larger than a hen coop, with its half-roof slanting up and stopping. The sod stable hardly showed in the wild grasses. Beyond them Ellen and the two calves were grazing, and to the east Pa was planting corn in the newly broken sod.
He had broken all the sod he had time to, before the ground grew too dry. He had harrowed the ground he had broken last year, and sowed it to oats. Now with a sack of seed corn fastened to a shoulder harness, and the hoe in his hand, he was going slowly across the sod field.
“Pa is planting the corn,” Laura told Mary. “Let’s go by that way. Here’s the buffalo wallow now.”
“I know,” said Mary. They stood a moment, breathing in deeply the perfume of warm violets that came up as thick as honey. The buffalo wallow, perfectly round and set down into the prairie like a dish three or four feet deep, was solidly paved with violets. Thousands, millions, crowded so thickly that they hid their own leaves.
Mary sank down among them. “Mmmmmm!” she breathed. Her fingers delicately felt over the masses of petals, and down the thin stems to pick them.
When they passed by the sod field Pa breathed in a deep smell of the violets, too. “Had a nice walk, girls?” he smiled at them, but he did not stop working. He mellowed a spot of earth with the hoe, dug a tiny hollow in it, dropped four kernels of corn in the hollow, covered them with the hoe, pressed the spot firm with his boot, then stepped on to plant the next hill.
Carrie came hurrying to bury her nose in the violets.
She was minding Grace, and Grace would play nowhere but in the field where Pa was. Angleworms fascinated Grace. Every time Pa struck the hoe into the ground she watched for one, and chuckled to see the thin, long worm make itself fat and short, pushing itself quickly into the earth again.
“Even when it’s cut in two, both halves do that,” she said. “Why, Pa?”
“They want to get into the ground, I guess,” said Pa.
“Why, Pa?” Grace asked him.
“Oh, they just want to,” said Pa.
“Why do they want to, Pa?”
“Why do you like to play in the dirt?” Pa asked her.
“Why, Pa?” Grace said. “How many corns do you drop, Pa?”
“Kernels,” said Pa. “Four kernels. One, two, three, four.”
“One, two, four,” Grace said. “Why, Pa?”
“That’s an easy one,” said Pa.
“One for the blackbird,
One for the crow,
And that will leave
Just two to grow.”
The garden was growing now. In tiny rows of different greens, the radishes, lettuce, onions, were up. The first crumpled leaves of peas were pushing upward. The young tomatoes stood on thin stems, spreading out their first lacy foliage.
“I’ve been looking at the garden, it needs hoeing,” Ma said, while Laura set the violets in water to perfume the supper table. “And I do believe the beans will be up any day now, it’s turned so warm.”
All one hot morning, the beans were popping out of the ground. Grace discovered them and came shrieking with excitement to tell Ma. All that morning she could not be coaxed away from watching them. Up from the bare earth, bean after bean was popping, its stem uncoiling like a steel spring, and up in the sunshine the halves of the split bean still clutched two pale twinleaves. Every time a bean popped up, Grace squealed again.
Now that the corn was planted, Pa built the missing half of the claim shanty. One morning he laid the floor joists. Then he made the frame, and Laura helped him raise it and hold it straight to the plumb line while he nailed it. He put in the studding, and the frames for two windows. Then he laid the rafters, to make the other slant of the roof that had not been there before.
Laura helped him all the time, Carrie and Grace watched, and picked up every nail that Pa dropped by mistake. Even Ma often spent minutes in idleness, looking on. It was exciting to see the shanty being made into a house.
When it was done, they had three rooms. The new part was two tiny bedrooms, each with a window. Now the beds would not be in the front room any more.
“Here’s where we kill two birds with one stone,” said Ma. “We’ll combine spring housecleaning and moving.”
They washed the window curtains and all the quilts and hung them out to dry. Then they washed the new windows till they shone, and hung on them new curtains made of old sheets and beautifully hemmed with Mary’s tiny stitches. Ma and Laura set up the bedsteads in the new rooms all made of fresh, clean-smelling boards. Laura and Carrie filled the straw ticks with the brightest hay from the middle of a haystack, and they made up the beds with sheets still warm from Ma’s ironing and with the clean quilts smelling of the prairie air.
Then Ma and Laura scrubbed and scoured every inch of the old shanty, that was now the front room. It was spacious now, with no beds in it, only the cookstove and cupboards and table and chairs and the whatnot. When it was perfectly clean, and everything in place, they all stood and admired it.
“You needn’t see it for me, Laura,” Mary said. “I can feel how large and fresh and pretty it is.”
The fresh, starched white curtains moved softly in the wind at the open window. The scrubbed board walls and the floor were a soft yellow-gray. A bouquet of grass flowers and windflowers that Carrie had picked and put in the blue bowl on the table, seemed to bring springtime in. In the corner the varnished brown whatnot stood stylish and handsome.
The afternoon light made plain the gilded titles of the books on the whatnot’s lower shelf, and glittered in the three glass boxes on the shelf above, each with tiny flowers painted on it. Above them, on the next shelf, the gilt flowers shone on the glass face of the clock and its brass pendulum glinted, swinging to and fro. Higher still, on the very top shelf, was Laura’s white china jewel box with the wee gold cup and saucer on its lid, and beside it, watching over it, sat Carrie’s brown and white china dog.
On the wall between the doors of the new bedrooms, Ma hung the wooden bracket that Pa had carved for her Christmas present, long ago in the Big Woods of Wisconsin. Every little flower and leaf, the small vine on the edge of the little shelf, and the larger vines climbing to the large star at the top, were still as perfect as when he had carved them with his jackknife. Older still, older than Laura could remember, Ma’s china shepherdess stood pink and white and smiling on the shelf.
It was a beautiful room.