Little Town on the Prairie (Chaprer 7)
Little Town on the Prairie
Laura Ingalls Wilder
Mr. Clancy was not getting so many orders for shirts. It seemed that most of the men who could buy shirts that year had bought them.
One Saturday evening Mrs. White said, “The spring rush seems to be over.”
“Yes, ma’am,” said Laura.
Mrs. White counted out a dollar and fifty cents and gave it to her. “I won’t be needing you any more, so you needn’t come in Monday morning,” she said. “Good-by.”
“Good-by,” Laura said.
She had worked six weeks and earned nine dollars. One dollar had seemed a great deal of money only six weeks ago, but now nine dollars was not enough. If she could have earned only one more week’s wages, that would have made ten dollars and a half, or two weeks would have made a whole twelve dollars.
She knew how good it would be to stay at home again, to help with the housework and do the chores and work in the garden, to go walking with Mary and gather wild flowers, and to look forward to Pa’s homecoming at night. But somehow she felt cast out, and hollow inside.
Slowly she went along the path beside Main Street. Pa was working now on the building at the corner of Second. He stood by a stack of shingles, waiting for Laura, and when he saw her he sang out, “Look what we’ve got, to take home to your Ma!”
In the shade of the shingles stood a bushel basket covered with a grain sack. Inside it there was a small rasping of claws, and a cheeping chorus. The chickens!
“Boast brought ’em in today,” said Pa. “Fourteen of ’em, all healthy and thriving.” His whole face was beaming with anticipation of Ma’s delight.
He told Laura, “The basket’s not heavy. You take one handle and I’ll take the other, and we’ll carry them level, between us.”
They went down Main Street and out on the road toward home, carrying the basket carefully between them. Sunset was flaming in crimson and burning gold over the whole sky. The air was filled with golden light and Silver Lake to the east was blazing like fire. Up from the basket came the chickens’ wondering and anxious cheeping.
“Pa, Mrs. White doesn’t want me any more,” Laura said.
“Yes, I guess the spring rush is about over,” said Pa.
Laura had not thought that Pa’s job might end.
“Oh, Pa, won’t there be any more carpentering, either?” she asked.
“We couldn’t expect it to last all summer,” said Pa. “Anyway, I’ll have to be making hay pretty soon.”
After a while Laura said, “I only earned nine dollars, Pa.”
“Nine dollars is nothing to sneeze at,” said Pa. “You’ve done good work, too, and fully satisfied Mrs. White, haven’t you?”
“Yes,” Laura answered honestly.
“Then it’s a good job well done,” said Pa.
It was true that that was some satisfaction. Laura felt a little better. Besides, they were taking the chickens to Ma.
Ma was delighted when she saw them. Carrie and Grace crowded to peep at them in the basket, and Laura told Mary about them. They were healthy, lively chicks, with bright black eyes and bright yellow claws. Already the down was coming off them, leaving naked patches on their necks, and the sprouting feathers were showing on their wings and tails. They were every color that chickens are, and some were spotted.
Ma lifted each one carefully into her apron. “Mrs. Boast can’t have got these all from one hatching,” she said. “I do believe there’s not more than two cockerels among them.”
“The Boasts have got such a head-start with chickens, likely they’re planning to eat friers this summer,” said Pa. “It may be she took a few cockerels out of this flock, looking on them as meat.”
“Yes, and replaced them with pullets that will be layers,” Ma guessed. “It would be Mrs. Boast all over. A more generous woman never lived.”
She carried the chicks in her apron, to set them one by one into the coop that Pa had already made. It had a front of laths, to let in air and sun, and a little door with a wooden button to fasten it. It had no floor, but was set on clean grass that the chicks could eat, and when the grass grew trampled and dirty, the coop could be moved to fresh grass.
In an old pie pan Ma mixed a crumbly bran mash, well peppered. She set it in the coop, and the chicks crowded onto it, gobbling the bran mash so greedily that sometimes they tried to swallow their own toes by mistake. When they could eat no more, they perched on the edge of the water pan, and scooping up water in their beaks they stretched up their necks and tilted back their heads, to swallow it.
Ma said it would be Carrie’s task to feed them often and to keep their water pan filled with cool, fresh water. Tomorrow she would let the chicks out to run, and it would be Grace’s part to keep a sharp lookout for hawks.
After supper that evening she sent Laura to make sure that the chicks were sleeping safely. All the stars were shining over the dark prairie and a sickle moon was low in the west. The grasses were breathing softly, asleep in the quiet night.
Laura’s hand felt gently over the sleeping chicks, huddled warm together in a corner of the coop. Then she stood looking at the summer night. She did not know how long she had stood there, until she saw Ma coming from the house.
“Oh, there you are, Laura,” Ma softly said. As Laura had done, she knelt and put her hand through the coop’s door to feel the huddled chicks. Then she, too, stood looking.
“The place begins to look like a farm,” she said. The oatfield and the cornfield were shadowy pale in the darkness, and the garden was bumpy with lumps of dark leaves. Like pools of faint star-shine among them spread the cucumber vines and the pumpkins. The low sod stable could hardly be seen, but from the house window a warm yellow light shone out.
Suddenly, without thinking at all, Laura said, “Oh, Ma, I do wish Mary could go to college this fall.”
Unexpectedly Ma replied, “It may be that she can. Your Pa and I have been talking of it.”
Laura could not speak for a minute. Then she asked, “Have you—have you said anything to her?”
“Not yet,” said Ma. “We must not raise hopes only to be disappointed. But with Pa’s wages, and the oats and the corn, if nothing goes wrong, we think she can go this fall. We must trust ourselves to contrive to keep her there till she finishes the full seven years’ course, both college and manual training.”
Then for the first time Laura realized that when Mary went to college, she would go away. Mary would be gone. All day long, Mary would not be there. Laura could not think what living would be, without Mary.
“Oh, I wish—” she began, and stopped. She had been so eagerly hoping that Mary could go to college.
“Yes, we will miss her,” Ma said steadily. “But we must think what a great opportunity it will be for her.”
“I know, Ma,” Laura said miserably.
The night was large and empty now. The light shining from the house was warm and steady, but even home would not be the same when Mary was not there.
Then Ma said, “Your nine dollars are a great help, Laura. I have been planning, and I do believe that with nine dollars I can buy the goods for Mary’s best dress, and perhaps the velvet to make her a hat.”