These Happy Golden Years (Chapter 17)
These Happy Golden Years
Laura Ingalls Wilder
Breaking the Colts
October days had come, and the wild geese were flying south, when once more Pa loaded the furniture on the wagon and they all moved back to town. Other people were moving in from the country, and the seats in the schoolhouse were filling up.
Most of the big boys were not coming to school any more. Some had moved to the claims to stay. Ben Woodworth was working in the depot, Frank Harthorn was busy in the store, and Cap Garland was working with his team, hauling hay and coal or anything he was hired to move in town or country. Still there were not seats enough in the schoolhouse, for the country was full of newcomers whose children came to school. The smaller pupils were crowded three in a seat, and it was certain now that a larger schoolhouse must be built before next winter.
One day when Laura and Carrie came from school, they found company sitting with Ma in the front room. The man was a stranger, but Laura felt that she should know the young woman who looked at her soberly. Ma was smiling; she said nothing for a moment, while Laura and the woman looked at each other.
Then the woman smiled, and Laura knew her. She was Cousin Alice! Alice, who with Ella and Peter had come to spend Christmas in the log house in the Big Woods. Alice and Mary had been the big girls then; Ella had been Laura’s playmate. Now while Laura greeted Alice with a kiss, she asked, “Did Ella come, too?”
“No, she and her husband couldn’t come,” Alice said. “But here is a cousin you haven’t met yet, my husband, Arthur Whiting.”
Arthur was tall, with dark hair and eyes; he was pleasant and Laura liked him, but though he and Alice stayed a week, he always seemed to be a stranger. Alice was so much like Mary that she belonged in the family, and Laura and Carrie hurried home from school because Alice would be sitting in the sunny front room with Ma.
In the evenings they all popped corn and made taffy, listened to Pa’s fiddle, and endlessly talked of old times and of plans for the future.
Arthur’s brother, Lee, was Ella’s husband, and they had taken adjoining claims only forty miles away. Peter was coming out in the spring.
“It has been such a long time since we were together in the Big Woods, and now we are gathering out here on the prairie,” Alice said one evening.
“If only your mother and father would come,” Ma said wistfully.
“I think they will stay in eastern Minnesota,” Alice told her. “They only came that far, and there they seem contented.”
“It’s a queer thing,” said Pa. “People always moving west. Out here it is like the edge of a wave, when a river’s rising. They come and they go, back and forth, but all the time the bulk of them keep moving on west.”
Alice and Arthur stayed only a week. Early Saturday morning, well wrapped up, with heated flatirons at their feet and hot baked potatoes in their pockets, they set out on their forty-mile sleigh ride home. “Give my love to Ella,” Laura said, as she kissed Alice again for good-by.
It was wonderful sleighing weather, clear and colder than zero, with deep snow and no sign of a blizzard cloud. But this winter there were no more sleighing parties. Perhaps the boys were working their horses too hard all the week. Now and then Laura saw Almanzo and Cap at a distance; they were breaking a pair of colts to drive and seemed to be having a busy time.
On Sunday afternoon Laura saw them passing several times. Sometimes Almanzo, and sometimes Cap, was braced in the cutter, holding with all his might to the reins, while the wild colts tried to break away and run. Pa looked up from his paper once and said, “One of those young fellows will break his neck yet. There’s not a man in town would tackle handling that team.”
Laura was writing a letter to Mary. She paused and thought how fortunate it was that during the Hard Winter, Almanzo and Cap had taken chances no one else would take, when they had gone after wheat for the starving people.
She had finished her letter and folded it, when someone knocked at the door. Laura opened it, and Cap Garland stood there. With his flashing grin that lighted his whole face, he asked, “Would you like a sleigh ride behind the colts?”
Laura’s heart sank. She liked Cap, but she did not want him to ask her to go sleigh riding, and all in an instant she thought of Mary Power and of Almanzo and she did not know what to say.
But Cap went on speaking. “Wilder asked me to ask you, because the colts won’t stand. He’ll be by here in a minute and pick you up, if you’d like to go.”
“Yes, I would!” Laura exclaimed. “I’ll be ready. Come in?”
“No thanks, I’ll tell him,” Cap replied.
Laura hurried, but the colts were pawing and prancing impatiently when she came. Almanzo was holding them with both hands, and said to her, “Sorry I can’t help you,” as she got herself into the cutter. As soon as she was seated, they dashed away down the street.
No one else was out driving, so the street was clear as the colts fought to break away from Almanzo’s grip on the lines. Far out on the road south of town they went racing.
Laura sat quietly watching their flying feet and laidback ears. This was fun. It reminded her of a time long ago when she and Cousin Lena let the black ponies run away across the prairie. The wind blew hard and cold on her face, and bits of snow pelted back onto the robes. Then the colts tossed their heads, pricked up their ears, and let Almanzo turn their frisky steps back toward town.
He looked at her curiously. “Do you know there isn’t a man in town except Cap Garland who will ride behind these colts?” he asked.
“Pa said so,” Laura replied.
“Then why did you come?” Almanzo wanted to know.
“Why, I thought you could drive them,” Laura said in surprise, and asked in her turn, “But why don’t you drive Prince and Lady?”
“I want to sell these colts, and they’ve got to be broken to drive first,” Almanzo explained.
Laura said no more as the colts tried again to run. They were headed toward home and wanted to get there quickly. It took all Almanzo’s attention and muscle to hold them to a fast and fighting trot. Main Street flashed by in a blur, and far out on the prairie to the north Almanzo quieted the colts and turned them again. Then Laura laughed, “If this is breaking them, I’m glad to help!”
They said little more until an hour had gone by and the winter sun was sinking. Then as Almanzo held the colts and Laura quickly slipped out of the cutter at Pa’s door, he said, “I’ll come for you Sunday.” The colts jumped and dashed away before Laura could reply.
“I am afraid to have you ride behind those horses,” Ma said as Laura came in.
Pa looked up from his paper. “Does seem like Wilder is trying to get you killed. But I’d say you are enjoying it the way your eyes are shining,” he added.
After this, Almanzo came on Sunday afternoons to take Laura for a sleigh ride. But he and Cap always drove the colts first, more than half the afternoon, to quiet them, and nothing that Laura could say would persuade Almanzo to let her ride before the colts were somewhat tired.
There was a Christmas tree that year at the new church. Laura and Carrie remembered a Christmas tree long ago in Minnesota, but Grace had never seen one. Laura thought the best part of that Christmas was seeing Grace’s delighted face when she looked at the Christmas tree with its lighted candles shining, the bright-colored mosquito-bar bags of candy and the presents hanging from its branches.
But while she was waiting for Grace’s Christmas doll to be brought to her from the tree, Laura was given a package which surprised her so much that she was sure there was some mistake. It was a small black leather case lined with blue silk. Against the lovely blue shone, all white, an ivory-backed hairbrush and comb. Laura looked again at the wrapping paper; her name was plainly written on it, in a handwriting she did not know.
“Whoever could have given me such a present, Ma?” she asked.
Then Pa leaned to admire it, too, and his eyes twinkled. “I could not swear who gave it to you, Laura,” he said. “But I can tell you one thing. I saw Almanzo Wilder buying that very case in Bradley’s drugstore,” and he smiled at Laura’s astonishment.