These Happy Golden Years (Chaprer 13)
These Happy Golden Years
laura Ingalls Wilder
On a Friday afternoon in April Laura and Ida and Mary Power walked slowly home from school. The air was soft and moist, the eaves were dripping, and the snow was slushy underfoot.
“Spring is almost here again,” Ida said. “Only three more weeks of school.”
“Yes, and then we’ll be moving out to the claim again,” said Mary. “You will, too, Laura, won’t you?”
“I suppose so,” Laura answered. “I declare, it seems the winter’s hardly begun, and now it’s gone.”
“Yes, if this warm spell lasts the snow will be gone tomorrow,” Mary said. That meant that there would be no more sleigh rides.
“It’s nice on the claim,” Laura said. She thought of the new calves and the baby chicks, and the garden growing, of lettuce and radishes and spring onions, and violets and the wild roses in June, and of Mary’s coming home from college.
With Carrie she crossed the slushy street and went into the house. Both Pa and Ma were in the sitting room, and there in Mary’s rocking chair sat a stranger. As Laura and Carrie stood hesitating near the door, he rose from his seat and smiled at them.
“Don’t you know me, Laura?” he asked.
Then Laura did know him. She remembered his smile, so like Ma’s.
“Oh, Uncle Tom! It’s Uncle Tom!” she cried.
Pa laughed. “I told you she’d know you, Tom.” And Ma smiled, so like his smile while he shook hands with Laura and Carrie.
Carrie did not remember him; she had been only a baby in the Big Woods of Wisconsin. But Laura had been five years old when they went to the sugaring-off dance at Grandma’s, and Uncle Tom had been there. He’d been so quiet that she had hardly thought of him since then, but now she remembered the news that Aunt Docia had told of him when she stopped at the house by Plum Creek in Minnesota.
He was a small, quiet man with a gentle smile. Looking at him across the supper table, Laura could hardly believe that for years he had been a foreman of logging crews, taking the log drives out of the Big Woods and down the rivers. Although he was so small and soft-spoken, he had bossed the rough men and handled the dangerous log drives fearlessly. Laura remembered Aunt Docia’s telling how he plunged in among the floating logs of a drive and, clinging to them, had dragged an injured man from the river to safety; this, though he could not swim.
Now he had much to tell Pa and Ma and Laura. He told of his wife Aunt Lily and their baby Helen. He told of Uncle Henry’s family, Aunt Polly, Charley and Albert. After they left Silver Lake they had not gone to Montana, after all. They had stopped in the Black Hills. They were all there yet, except Cousin Louisa. She had married and gone on to Montana. As for Aunt Eliza and Uncle Peter, they were still living in eastern Minnesota, but Alice and Ella and Cousin Peter were somewhere in Dakota territory.
Carrie and Grace listened wide-eyed. Carrie remembered nothing of all these people, and Grace had never seen the Big Woods, nor a sugaring-off dance, nor known the Christmases when Uncle Peter and Aunt Eliza came v
Laura felt sorry for her little sister who had missed so much.
Suppertime passed quickly, and when the evening lamp was lighted and the family gathered around Uncle Tom in the sitting room, Pa still kept him speaking of the lumber camps and log drives, of roaring rivers and the wild, burly men of the logging camps. He told of them mildly, speaking in a voice as soft as Ma’s, and smiling her gentle smile.
Pa said to him, “So this is your first trip west,” and Uncle Tom answered quietly, “Oh, no. I was with the first white men that ever laid eyes on the Black Hills.”
Pa and Ma were struck dumb for a moment. Then Ma asked. “Whatever were you doing there, Tom?”
“Looking for gold,” said Uncle Tom.
“Too bad you didn’t find a few gold mines,” Pa joked.
“Oh, we did,” Uncle Tom said. “Only it didn’t do us any good.”
“Mercy on us!” Ma softly exclaimed. “Do tell us all about it.”
“Well, let’s see. We started out from Sioux City, eight years ago,” Uncle Tom began. “In October of ’74. Twenty-six of us men, and one man brought along his wife and their nine-year-old boy.”
They traveled in covered wagons, with ox teams, and some saddle horses. Each man had a Winchester and small arms, and ammunition enough to last for eight months. They loaded supplies of flour, bacon, beans, and coffee into the wagons, and depended on hunting for most of their meat. Hunting was good; they got plenty of elk, antelope, and deer. The greatest trouble was lack of water on the open prairie. Luckily it was in early winter; there was plenty of snow, and they melted it at night to fill the water barrels.
The storms halted them some; during the blizzards they stayed in camp. Between storms the snow made hard going, and to lighten the loads they walked; even the woman walked a great part of the way. A good day’s journey was fifteen miles.
So they pushed on into the unknown country, seeing nothing but the frozen prairie and the storms, and now and then a few Indians at a distance, till they came to a strange depression in the land. It barred their way, and stretched as far as they could see ahead and on both sides. It looked like an impossibility to get the wagons down into it, but there was nothing to do but cross it, so with considerable trouble they got the wagons down onto this sunken plain.
From the floor of it, strange formations of bare earth towered up all around them, hundreds of feet high. Their sides were steep, sometimes overhanging, cut and whittled by the winds that blew forever. No vegetation grew on them, not a tree nor a bush nor a blade of grass. Their surface looked like dry caked mud, except in places where it was stained with different and brilliant colors. The floor of this sunken land was scattered thick with petrified shells and skulls and bones.
It was a heathenish place to be in, Uncle Torn said. The wagon wheels crunched over the bones, and those tall things seemed to turn as you went by, and some of them looked like faces, and outlandish idols. The wagons had to go between them, following the gulches or valleys. Winding around among those queer things, they got lost. It was three days before they could find their way out of that place, and it took a day’s hard work to get the wagons up on its rim.
Looking back over it, an old prospector told Uncle Tom that it must be the Bad Lands of which he had heard tales from the Indians. And he added, “I think that when God made the world He threw all the leftover waste into that hole.”
After that, they went on across the prairie until they came to the Black Hills. There they found shelter from the fierce prairie winds, but the going was hard because the valleys were full of snow and the hills were steep.
They had been traveling seventy-eight days when they made their last camp on French Creek. Here they cut pine logs from the hills, and built a stockade eighty feet square. They chopped the logs thirteen feet long, and set them upright, tightly together, sinking the bottom ends three feet into the ground. It was hard digging, the ground being frozen. On the inside of this wall, they battened it with smaller logs, pegged over every crack between the larger logs, with heavy wooden pegs. At each corner of the square stockade they made stout log bastions, standing out, to give them a crossfire along the outside of the walls. In these bastions, and also along the walls, they cut portholes. The only entrance to this blockade was a double gate, twelve feet wide, made of large logs solidly pegged together with wooden pins. It was a good stockade, when they got it finished.
Inside they built seven little log cabins, and there they lived through the winter. They hunted for their meat, and trapped for furs. The winter was bitter cold, but they pulled through, and toward spring they found gold, nuggets of it, and rich gold dust in the frozen gravel and under the ice in the creek beds. About the same time, the Indians attacked them. They could hold off the Indians all right, in that stockade. The trouble was that they would starve to death in it, if they could not get out of it to hunt. The Indians hung around, not fighting much but driving back any party that started out, and waiting for them to starve. So they cut down rations and tightened their belts, to hang on as long as they could before they had to kill their ox teams.
Then one morning they heard, far off, a bugle!
When Uncle Tom said that, Laura remembered the sound, long ago, echoing back from the Big Woods when Uncle George blew his army bugle. She cried out, “Soldiers?”
“Yes,” Uncle Tom said. They knew they were all right now; the soldiers were coming. The lookouts yelled, and everybody crowded up into the bastions to watch. They heard the bugle again. Soon they heard the fife and drum, and then they saw the flag flying, and the troops coming behind it.
They threw open the gate and rushed out, all of them, fast as they could to meet the soldiers. The soldiers took them all prisoner, there where they were, and kept them there, while some of the troops went on and burned the stockade, with everything in it. They burned the cabins and the wagons, and the furs, and killed the oxen.
“Oh, Tom!” Ma said as if she could not bear it.
“It was Indian country,” Uncle Tom said mildly. “Strictly speaking, we had no right there.”
“Had you nothing at all to show for all that work and danger?” Ma mourned.
“Lost everything I started out with, but my rifle,” said Uncle Tom. “The soldiers let us keep our guns. They marched us out on foot, prisoners.”
Pa was walking back and forth across the room. “I’ll be durned if I could have taken it!” he exclaimed. “Not without some kind of scrap.”
“We couldn’t fight the whole United States Army,” Uncle Tom said sensibly. “But I did hate to see that stockade go up in smoke.”
“I know,” Ma said. “To this day I think of the house we had to leave in Indian Territory. Just when Charles had got glass windows into it.”
Laura thought: “All this happened to Uncle Tom while we were living on Plum Creek.” For some time no one spoke, then the old clock gave its warning wheeze and slowly and solemnly it struck, only once.
“My goodness! look at the time!” Ma exclaimed. “I declare, Tom, you’ve held us spellbound. No wonder Grace is asleep. You girls hurry up to bed and take her with you, and Laura, you throw down the featherbed from my bed, and quilts, and I’ll make a bed down here for Tom.”
“Don’t rob your bed, Caroline,” Uncle Tom protested. “I can sleep on the floor with a blanket, I’ve done so, often enough.”
“I guess Charles and I can sleep on a straw-tick for once,” said Ma. “When I think how you slept cold and uncomfortable, so many nights on that trip.”
The cold winter of Uncle Tom’s story was still in Laura’s mind, so strongly that next morning it was strange to hear the Chinook softly blowing and the eaves dripping, and know that it was springtime and she was in the pleasant town. All day while she was sewing with Mrs. McKee, Pa and Ma were visiting with Uncle Tom, and next day only Laura and Carrie and Grace went to Sunday School and church. Pa and Ma stayed at home in order not to waste a moment of Uncle Tom’s short visit. He was leaving early Monday morning for his home in Wisconsin.
Only scattered patches of snow were left on the muddy ground. There would be no more sleighing parties, Laura knew, and she was sorry.
Pa and Ma and Uncle Tom were talking of people she did not know, while they all sat around the table after a late Sunday dinner, when a shadow passed the window. Laura knew the knock at the door, and she hastened to open it, wondering why Almanzo had come.
“Would you like to go for the first buggy ride of spring?” he asked. “With Cap and Mary Power and me?”
“Oh, yes!” she answered. “Won’t you come in, while I put on my hat and coat?”
“No, thank you,” he said, “I’ll wait outside.”
When she went out she saw that Mary and Cap were sitting in the back seat of Cap’s two-seated buggy. Almanzo helped her up to the front seat and took the reins from Cap as he sat down beside her. Then Prince and Lady trotted away up the street and out on the prairie road toward the east.
No one else was out driving, so this was not a party, but Laura and Mary and Cap were laughing and merry. The road was slushy. Water and bits of snow spattered the horses and buggy and the linen lap robes across their knees. But the spring wind was soft on their faces and the sun was warmly shining.
Almanzo did not join in the merry talk. He drove steadily, without a smile or a word, until Laura asked him what was the matter.
“Nothing,” he said, then he asked quickly, “Who is that young man?”
No one was in sight anywhere. Laura exclaimed, “What young man?”
“That you were talking with, when I came,” he said.
Laura was astonished. Mary burst out laughing. “Now don’t be jealous of Laura’s uncle!” she said.
“Oh, did you mean him? That was Uncle Tom, Ma’s brother,” Laura explained. Mary Power was still laughing so hard that Laura turned, just in time to see Cap snatch a hairpin from Mary’s knot of hair.
“Suppose you pay some attention to me,” Cap said to Mary.
“Oh, stop it, Cap! Let me have it,” Mary cried, trying to seize the hairpin that Cap held out of her reach, while he snatched another one.
“Don’t, Cap! Don’t!” Mary begged, putting both hands over the knot of hair at the back of her neck. “Laura, help me!”
Laura saw how desperate the situation was, for she alone knew that Mary wore a switch. Cap must be stopped, for if Mary lost any more hairpins, her beautiful large knot of hair would come off.
Just at that instant, a bit of snow flung from Prince’s foot fell into Laura’s lap. Cap’s shoulder was turned to her as he struggled with Mary. Laura nipped up the bit of snow and neatly dropped it inside his collar at the back of his neck.
“Ow!” he yelled. “Looks like you’d help a fellow, Wilder. Two girls against me is too many.”
“I’m busy driving,” Almanzo answered, and they all shouted with laughter. It was so easy to laugh in the springtime.