These Happy Golden Years (Chaprer 14)
These Happy Golden Years
Laura Ingalls Wilder
Holding Down a Claim
Uncle Tom went east on the train next morning. When Laura came home from school at noon, he was gone.
“No sooner had he gone,” said Ma, “than Mrs. McKee came. She is in distress, Laura, and asked me if you would help her out.”
“Why, of course I will, if I can,” Laura said. “What is it?”
Ma said that, hard as Mrs. McKee had worked at dressmaking all that winter, the McKees could not afford to move to their claim yet. Mr. McKee must keep his job at the lumberyard until they saved money enough to buy tools and seed and stock. He wanted Mrs. McKee to take their little girl, Mattie, and live on the claim that summer, to hold it. Mrs. McKee said she would not live out there on the prairie, all alone, with no one but Mattie; she said they could lose the claim, first.
“I don’t know why she is so nervous about it,” said Ma. “But it seems she is. It seems that being all alone, miles from anybody, scares her. So, as she told me, Mr. McKee said he would let the claim go. After he went to work, she was thinking it over, and she came to tell me that if you would go with her, she would go hold down the claim. She said she would give you a dollar a week, just to stay with her as one of the family.”
“Where is the claim?” Pa inquired.
“It is some little distance north of Manchester,” said Ma. Manchester was a new little town, west of De Smet. “Well, do you want to go, Laura?” Pa asked her.
“I guess so,” Laura said. “I’ll have to miss the rest of school, but I can make that up, and I’d like to go on earning something.”
“The McKees are nice folks, and it would be a real accommodation to them, so you may go if you want to,” Pa decided.
“It would be a pity, though, for you to miss Mary’s visit home,” Ma worried.
“Maybe if I just get Mrs. McKee settled on the claim and used to it, I could come home long enough to see Mary,” Laura pondered.
“Well, if you want to go, best go,” Ma said. “We needn’t cross a bridge till we come to it. Likely it will work out all right, somehow.”
So the next morning Laura rode with Mrs. McKee and Mattie on the train to Manchester. She had been on the cars once before, when she came west from Plum Creek, so she felt like a seasoned traveler as she followed the brakeman with her satchel, down the aisle to a seat. It was not as though she knew nothing about trains.
It was a seven mile journey to Manchester. There the trainmen unloaded Mrs. McKee’s furniture from the boxcar in front of the passenger coach, and a teamster loaded it onto his wagon. Before he had finished, the hotelkeeper was banging his iron triangle with a spike, to call any strangers to dinner. So Mrs. McKee and Laura and Mattie ate dinner in the hotel.
Soon afterward the teamster drove the loaded wagon to the door, and helped them climb up to sit on the top of the load, among the rolls of bedding, the kitchen stove, the table and chairs and trunk and boxes of provisions. Mrs. McKee rode in the seat with the teamster.
Sitting with their feet hanging down at the side of the wagon, Laura and Mattie clung to each other and to the ropes that bound the load to the wagon, as the team drew it bumping over the prairie. There was no road. The wagon wheels sank into the sod in places where it was soft from the melting snow, and the wagon and its load lurched from side to side. But it went very well until they came to a slough. Here where the ground was lower, water stood in pools among the coarse slough grass.
“I don’t know about this,” the teamster said, looking ahead. “It looks pretty bad. But there’s no way around; we’ll just have to try it. Maybe we can go across so quick the wagon won’t have time to sink down.”
As they came nearer to the slough, he said, “Hang on, everybody!”
He picked up his whip and shouted to the horses. They went fast, and faster, till urged on by his shouts and the whip they broke into a run. Water rose up like wings from the jouncing wagon wheels, while Laura hung on to the ropes and to Mattie with all her might.
Then all was quiet. Safe on the other side of the slough, the teamster stopped the horses to rest.
“Well, we made it!” he said. “The wheels just didn’t stay in one place long enough to settle through the sod. If a fellow got stuck in there, he’d be stuck for keeps.”
It was no wonder that he seemed relieved, for as Laura looked back across the slough she could see no wagon tracks. They were covered with water.
Driving on across the prairie, they came finally to a little new claim shanty, standing alone. About a mile away to the west was another, and far away to the east they could barely see a third.
“This is the place, ma’am,” the teamster said. “I’ll unload and then haul you a jag of hay to burn, from that place a mile west. Fellow that had it last summer, quit and went back east, but I see he left some haystacks there.”
He unloaded the wagon into the shanty, and set up the cook-stove. Then he drove away to get the hay.
A partition cut the shanty into two tiny rooms. Mrs. McKee and Laura set up a bedstead in the room with the cook-stove, and another in the other room. With the table, four small wooden chairs, and the trunk, they filled the little house.
“I’m glad I didn’t bring anything more,” said Mrs. McKee.
“Yes, as Ma would say, enough is as good as a feast,” Laura agreed.
The teamster came with a load of hay, then drove away toward Manchester. Now there were the two straw-ticks to fill with hay, the beds to make, and dishes to be unpacked. Then Laura twisted hay into sticks, from the little stack behind the shanty, and Mattie carried it in to keep the fire going while Mrs. McKee cooked supper. Mrs. McKee did not know how to twist hay, but Laura had learned during the Hard Winter.
As twilight came over the prairie, coyotes began to howl and Mrs. McKee locked the door and saw that the windows were fastened.
“I don’t know why the law makes us do this,” she said. “What earthly good it does, to make a woman stay on a claim all summer.”
“It’s a bet, Pa says,” Laura answered. “The government bets a man a quarter-section of land, that he can’t stay on it five years without starving to death.”
“Nobody could,” said Mrs. McKee. “Whoever makes these laws ought to know that a man that’s got enough money to farm, has got enough to buy a farm. If he hasn’t got money, he’s got to earn it, so why do they make a law that he’s got to stay on a claim, when he can’t? All it means is, his wife and family have got to sit idle on it, seven months of the year. I could be earning something, dressmaking, to help buy tools and seeds, if somebody didn’t have to sit on this claim. I declare to goodness, I don’t know but sometimes I believe in woman’s rights. If women were voting and making laws, I believe they’d have better sense. Is that wolves?”
“No,” Laura said. “It’s only coyotes, they won’t hurt anybody.”
They were all so tired that they did not light the lamp, but went to bed, Laura and Mattie in the kitchen and Mrs. McKee in the front room. When everyone was quiet, the loneliness seemed to come into the shanty. Laura was not afraid, but never before had she been in such a lonely place without Pa and Ma and her sisters. The coyotes were far away, and farther. Then they were gone. The slough was so far away that the frogs could not be heard. There was no sound but the whispering of the prairie wind to break the silence.
The sun shining in Laura’s face woke her to an empty day. The little work was soon done. There was nothing more to do, no books to study, no one to see. It was pleasant for a while. All that week Laura and Mrs. McKee and Mattie did nothing but eat and sleep, and sit and talk or be silent. The sun rose and sank and the wind blew, and the prairie was empty of all but birds and cloud shadows.
Saturday afternoon they dressed for town and walked the two miles to Manchester to meet Mr. McKee and walk home with him. He stayed until Sunday afternoon when they all walked to town again and Mr. McKee took the train back to De Smet and his work. Then Mrs. McKee and Laura and Mattie walked back to the claim for another week.
They were glad when Saturday came, but in a way it was a relief when Mr. McKee was gone, for he was such a strict Presbyterian that on Sunday no one was allowed to laugh or even smile. They could only read the Bible and the catechism and talk gravely of religious subjects. Still, Laura liked him, for he was truly good and kind and never said a cross word.
This was the pattern of the weeks that passed, one after another, all alike, until April and May were gone.
The weather had grown warmer, and on the walks to town they heard the meadow larks singing beside the road where spring flowers bloomed. One warm Sunday afternoon the walk back from Manchester seemed longer than usual and tiring, and as they lagged a little along the way Mrs. McKee said, “It would be pleasanter for you to be riding in Wilder’s buggy.”
“I likely won’t do that any more,” Laura remarked. “Someone else will be in my place before I go back.” She thought of Nellie Oleson. The Olesons’ claim, she knew, was not far from Almanzo’s.
“Don’t worry,” Mrs. McKee told her. “An old bachelor doesn’t pay so much attention to a girl unless he’s serious. You will marry him yet.”
“Oh, no!” Laura said. “No, indeed I won’t! I wouldn’t leave home to marry anybody.”
Then suddenly she realized that she was homesick. She wanted to be at home again, so badly that she could hardly bear it. All that week she fought against her longing, hiding it from Mrs. McKee, and on Saturday when they walked again to Manchester there was a letter waiting for her.
Ma had written that Mary was coming home, and Laura must come if Mrs. McKee could find anyone else to stay with her. Ma hoped she could do so, for Laura must be at home when Mary was there.
She dreaded to speak of it to Mrs. McKee, so she said nothing until at the supper table Mrs. McKee asked what was troubling her. Then Laura told what Ma had written.
“Why, of course you must go home,” Mr. McKee said at once. “I will find someone to stay here.”
Mrs. McKee was quiet for a time before she said, “I don’t want anyone but Laura to live with us. I would rather stay by ourselves. We are used to the place now, and nothing ever happens. Laura shall go home and Mattie and I will be all right alone.”
So Mr. McKee carried Laura’s satchel on the Sunday afternoon walk to Manchester, and she said good-by to Mrs. McKee and Mattie and got on the train with him, going home.
All the way she thought of them, standing lonely at the station, and walking the two miles back to the lonely shanty where they must stay, doing nothing but eating and sleeping and listening to the wind, for five months more. It was a hard way to earn a homestead, but there was no other way, for that was the law.