These Happy Golden Years (Chaprer 20)

These Happy Golden Years

Laura Ingalls Wilder

Chapter 20
Nellie Oleson

“I declare,” Ma said. “It never rains but it pours.” For strangely enough, Tuesday evening a young man who lived on a neighboring claim came by, and asked Laura to go buggy riding with him next Sunday. On Thursday evening, another young neighbor asked her to go buggy riding with him next Sunday. And as she was walking home Saturday evening, a third young man overtook her and brought her home in his lumber wagon, and he asked her to go riding with him next day.

That Sunday Almanzo and Laura drove north past Almanzo’s two claims, to Spirit Lake. There was a small claim shanty on Almanzo’s homestead. On his tree claim there were no buildings at all, but the young trees were growing well. He had set them out carefully, and must cultivate and care for them for five years; then he could prove up on the claim and own the land. The trees were thriving much better than he had expected at first, for he said that if trees would grow on those prairies, he thought they would have grown there naturally before now.

“These government experts have got it all planned,” he explained to Laura. “They are going to cover these prairies with trees, all the way from Canada to Indian Territory. It’s all mapped out in the land offices, where the trees ought to be, and you can’t get that land except on tree claims. They’re certainly right about one thing; if half these trees live, they’ll seed the whole land and turn it into forest land, like the woods back east.”

“Do you think so?” Laura asked him in amazement. Somehow she could not imagine those prairies turned into woods, like Wisconsin.

“Well, time will show,” he answered. “Anyway, I’m doing my part. I’ll keep those trees alive if it can be done.”

Spirit Lake was beautiful and wild. There Almanzo drove along a rocky shore, where the water was deep and the waves ran foaming before the wind and dashed high on the rocks. There was an Indian mound by Spirit Lake, too. It was said to be a burial place, though no one knew what was in it. Tall cottonwoods grew there, and chokecherries smothered in wild grapevines.

On the way back, they came into town past the Olesons’ claim. It was on the section line a mile east of Almanzo’s homestead. Laura had not seen Nellie Oleson’s home before, and she felt a little sorry for her; the shanty was so small, standing among the wild grass in the wind. Mr. Oleson had no horses, only a yoke of oxen, and the place was not improved as Pa’s was. But Laura barely glanced at it, for she did not want to spoil the beautiful day by even thinking of Nellie Oleson.

“Good-by, then, till next Sunday,” Almanzo said, as he left her at her door. The whole country seemed different to her, now that she had seen Lakes Henry and Thompson, and Spirit Lake with its strange Indian mound. She wondered what next Sunday would show.

Sunday afternoon as she watched the buggy coming across Big Slough she saw, to her surprise, that someone was with Almanzo. She wondered who it could be, and if perhaps he did not intend to go for a drive that day.

When the horses stopped at the door, she saw that Nellie Oleson was with him. Without waiting for him to speak, Nellie cried, “Come on, Laura! Come with us for a buggy ride!”

“Want some help, Wilder?” Pa asked, going toward the colts’ heads, and Almanzo said that he would be obliged. So Pa held the bridles, while Almanzo waited to help Laura into the buggy, and in stupefied surprise Laura let him. Nellie moved over to make room for her, and helped her tuck the lap robe around the brown poplin.

As they drove away, Nellie began to talk. She admired the buggy; she exclaimed over the colts; she praised Almanzo’s driving; she gushed about Laura’s clothes. “Oh,” she said, “Laura, your poke bonnet is just utterly too-too!” She never stopped for an answer. She did so want to see Lakes Henry and Thompson; she had heard so much about them; she thought the weather was just utterly too-too, and the country was nice, of course not anything like New York State, but that couldn’t really be expected out west, could it?

“Why are you so quiet, Laura?” she asked without stopping and went on, with a giggle, “My tongue wasn’t made to lie still. My tongue’s made to go flippity-flop!”

Laura’s head ached; her ears rang with the continuous babble, and she was furious. Almanzo seemed to be enjoying the drive. At least, he looked as though he were being amused.

They drove to Lakes Henry and Thompson. They drove along the narrow tongue of land between them. Nellie thought the lakes were just utterly too-too; she liked lakes, she liked water, she liked trees and vines, and she just adored driving on Sunday afternoons; she thought it was just too utterly too-too.

The sun was rather low as they came back, and since Laura’s house was nearest, they stopped there first.

“I’ll be along next Sunday,” Almanzo said as he helped Laura out of the buggy, and before Laura could speak, Nellie chimed in, “Oh, yes! we will come by for you. Didn’t you have a good time! Wasn’t it fun! Till Sunday, then, don’t forget, we’ll be by, good-by, Laura, good-by!” Almanzo and Nellie drove away toward town.

All that week Laura debated with herself, to go or not to go. It was no pleasure to her to go driving with Nellie. On the other hand, if she refused to go, Nellie would be pleased; that was what Nellie wanted. Trust Nellie to find some way to go driving with Almanzo every Sunday.

Laura made up her mind to go with them.

Next Sunday’s drive began much like the one before. Nellie’s tongue went flippity-flop. She was in gay spirits, chattering and laughing to Almanzo and almost ignoring Laura. She was sure of triumph, for she knew that Laura would not long endure this situation.

“Oh, Mannie, you have those wild colts so well broken, you handle them so wonderfully,” she cooed, leaning against Almanzo’s arm.

Laura bent to tuck the dust robe more closely in at her feet, and as she straightened up again, she carelessly let the end of the robe flutter out on the strong prairie wind. The colts left the ground in one leap and ran.

Nellie screamed and screamed, clutching at Almanzo’s arm, which he very much needed to use just then. Laura quietly tucked down the end of the lap robe and sat on it.

When it was no longer flapping behind them, the colts soon quieted and went on in their well-trained trot.

“Oh, I never was so frightened, I never was so frightened in my life,” Nellie chattered and gasped. “Horses are such wild things. Oh, Mannie, why did they do it? Don’t let them do it again.”

Almanzo looked sidewise at Laura and said nothing.

“Horses are all right if you understand them,” Laura remarked. “But I suppose these are not like the horses in New York.”

“Oh, I would never understand these western horses. New York horses are quiet,” Nellie said, and then she started talking of New York.

She talked as though she knew it well. Laura knew nothing of New York State, but she knew that Nellie did not, either, and that Almanzo did.

They were nearing the turn toward home when Laura said, “We are so near the Boasts’. Don’t you think it would be nice to go see them?”

“If you like,” said Almanzo. Instead of turning west, he drove straight on north across the railroad tracks and farther out across the prairie to Mr. Boast’s homestead claim. Mr. and Mrs. Boast came out to the buggy.

“Well, well, so the buggy carries three,” Mr. Boast teased, his black eyes sparkling. “It’s a wider seat than the cutter seat. The cutter was built for two.”

“Buggies are different,” Laura told him.

“They seem…” Mr. Boast began, but Mrs. Boast interrupted. “Now, Rob!” she exclaimed. “You’d better be asking the folks to get out and stay awhile.”

“We can’t stay,” Laura said. “We only stopped for a minute.”

“We are just out for a drive,” Almanzo explained.

“Then we will turn around here,” Nellie said with authority.

Laura spoke quickly, “Let’s go a little further. I’ve never been over this road. Is there time to go a little further, Almanzo?”

“It’s a good road straight north,” Mr. Boast said. His eyes laughed at Laura. She was sure he guessed what was in her mind, and her eyes laughed back at him as Almanzo started the colts and they went on north. Beyond Mr. Boast’s claim they crossed an end of the slough that ran northeast from Silver Lake. Here a road turned toward town, but it was wet and boggy as Laura had known it would be, so they kept on driving north.

“This is stupid, this isn’t any fun; call this a good road?” Nellie fretted.

“It is good so far,” Laura said quietly.

“Well! we won’t come this way again!” Nellie snapped. Then quickly she recovered her happy vivacity, telling Almanzo how much she enjoyed driving just anywhere with such a good driver and fine team.

Another road branched to the west and Almanzo turned the team into it. Nellie’s home was only a little way ahead. As Almanzo helped her from the buggy at her door, she clung to his hand a moment, saying how much she had enjoyed the drive and, “We’ll go another way next Sunday, won’t we, Mannie?”

“Oh, it’s too bad I suggested going that way, Nellie, if you minded it so much,” said Laura, and Almanzo said only, “Good-by,” and took his place beside Laura.

There was quietness between them for a little while as they drove toward town. Then Laura said, “I am afraid I have made you late for your chores by wanting to take that road.”

“It doesn’t matter,” he reassured her. “The days and nights are as long as they ever were, and I don’t have a cow.”

Again they were silent. Laura felt that she was dull company after Nellie’s lively chatter, but she was determined that Almanzo would decide that. She would never try to hold him, but no other girl was going to edge her out little by little without his realizing it. At home again, as Almanzo and Laura stood beside the buggy, he said, “I suppose we’ll go again next Sunday?”

“We’ll not all go,” Laura answered. “If you want to take Nellie for a drive, do so, but do not come by for me. Good night.”

She went quietly into the house and shut the door.

Sometimes when she was walking to her school, past the hollow that was growing greener with violets’ leaves then blue with their blossoms, Laura wondered if Almanzo would come next Sunday. Sometimes when her three little pupils were diligently studying, she looked up from her own studies and saw the cloud shadows moving over the sunny grass beyond the windows, and wondered. If he didn’t, he didn’t; that was all. And she could only wait until next Sunday.

On Saturday she walked to town and sewed all day for Miss Bell. Pa was breaking sod at home, to make a larger wheat field, so Laura stopped at the post office to see if there were any mail, and there was a letter from Mary! She could hardly wait to get home, to hear Ma read it, for it would tell when Mary was coming home.

No one had written Mary about the new sitting room and the organ that was waiting for her there. Never had anyone in the family had such a surprise as that organ would be for Mary.

“Oh, Ma! a letter from Mary!” she cried, bursting in.

“I’ll finish the supper, Ma, you go read it,” said Carrie. So Ma took a hairpin from her hair, and as she carefully slit the envelope she sat down to read the letter. She unfolded the sheet and began to read, and it was as if all the light went out of the house.

Carrie gave Laura a frightened look, and after a moment Laura asked quietly, “What is it, Ma?”

“Mary does not want to come home,” Ma said. Then, quickly, “I do not mean that. She asks if she may spend her vacation with Blanche, at Blanche’s home. Stir the potatoes, Carrie; they’ll be too brown.”

All through supper they talked about it. Ma read the letter aloud. Mary wrote that Blanche’s home was not far from Vinton, and she very much wanted that Mary should visit it. Her mother was writing to Ma, to invite Mary. Mary would like to go, if Pa and Ma said she might.

“I think she should,” Ma said. “It will be a change for her, and do her good.”

Pa said, “Well,” and so it was settled. Mary was not coming home that year.

Later, Ma said to Laura that Mary would be at home to stay when she finished college, and it might be that she would never have another opportunity to travel. It was nice that she could have this pleasant time and make so many new friends while she was young. “She will have it to remember,” Ma said.

But that Saturday night, Laura felt that nothing would ever be right again. Next morning, though the sun was shining and the meadow larks singing, they did not mean anything, and as she rode to church in the wagon she said to herself that she would ride in a wagon all the rest of her life. She was quite sure now that Almanzo would take Nellie Oleson driving that day.

Still, at home again she did not take off her brown poplin, but put her big apron on as she had done before. Time went very slowly, but at last it was two o’clock, and looking from the window Laura saw the colts come dashing over the road from town. They trotted up and stopped at the door.

“Would you like to go for a buggy ride?” Almanzo asked as Laura stood in the doorway.

“Oh, yes!” Laura answered. “I’ll be ready in a minute.”

Her face looked at her from the mirror, all rosy and smiling, as she tied the blue ribbon bow under her left ear.

In the buggy she asked, “Wouldn’t Nellie go?”

“I don’t know,” Almanzo replied. After a pause he said in disgust, “She is afraid of horses.” Laura said nothing, and in a moment he continued, “I wouldn’t have brought her the first time, but I overtook her walking in the road. She was walking all the way to town to see someone, but she said she’d rather go along with us. Sundays at her house are so long and lonely that I felt sorry for her, and she seemed to enjoy the drive so much. I didn’t know you girls disliked each other.”

Laura was amazed, that a man who knew so much about farming and horses could know so little about a girl like Nellie. But she said only, “No, you wouldn’t know, because you did not go to school with us. I will tell you what I’d like to do, I’d like to take Ida driving.”

“We will, sometime,” Almanzo agreed. “But today is pretty fine, just by ourselves.”

It was a beautiful afternoon. The sun was almost too warm, and Almanzo said that the colts were so well broken now that they could raise the buggy top. So together, each with a hand, they raised it and pressed the hinge of the braces straight to hold it up. Then they rode in its shade with the gentle wind blowing through the open sides.

After that day, nothing was ever said about the next Sunday, but always at two o’clock Almanzo drove around the corner of Pearson’s livery barn, and Laura was ready when he stopped at the door. Pa would look up from his paper and nod good-by to her, then go on reading, and Ma would say, “Don’t be out too late, Laura.” June came and the wild prairie roses bloomed. Laura and Almanzo gathered them beside the road and filled the buggy with the fragrant blossoms.

Then one Sunday at two o’clock the corner of Pearson’s barn remained empty. Laura could not imagine what might have happened, till suddenly the colts were at the door, and Ida was in the buggy, laughing merrily. Almanzo had gone by the Reverend Brown’s, and persuaded Ida to come. Then for a surprise, he had crossed the Big Slough west of the town road; this brought them to Pa’s land a little south of the house, and while Laura watched toward the north, they had come up from the opposite direction.

They drove that day to Lake Henry, and it was the merriest of drives. The colts behaved beautifully. They stood quietly while Ida and Laura filled their arms with the wild roses and climbed back into the buggy. They nibbled at the bushes by the road while Almanzo and the girls watched the little waves ripple along the shores of the lakes on either hand.

The road was so narrow and so low that Laura said, “I should think the water might be over the road sometimes.”

“Not since I have known it,” Almanzo answered, “but perhaps, many years or ages ago, the two lakes were one.”

Then for a while, they sat in silence and Laura thought how wild and beautiful it must have been when the twin lakes were one, when buffalo and antelope roamed the prairie around the great lake and came there to drink, when wolves and coyotes and foxes lived on the banks and wild geese, swans, herons, cranes, ducks, and gulls nested and fished and flew there in countless numbers.

“Why did you sigh?” Almanzo asked.

“Did I?” said Laura. “I was thinking that wild things leave when people come. I wish they wouldn’t.”

“Most people kill them,” he said.

“I know,” Laura said. “I can’t understand why.”

“It is beautiful here,” said Ida, “but we are a long way from home and I promised Elmer I’d go to church with him tonight.”

Almanzo tightened the reins and spoke to the colts while Laura asked, “Who’s Elmer?”

“He is a young man who has a claim near Father Brown’s and he boards at our place,” Ida told her. “He wanted me to go walking with him this afternoon, but I thought I’d rather go with you, this once. You’ve never seen Elmer… McConnell,” she remembered to add.

“There are so many new people, and I can’t keep track even of the ones I know,” Laura said.

“Mary Power is going with the new clerk in Ruth’s bank,” Ida told her.

“But Cap!” Laura exclaimed. “What about Cap Garland?”

“Cap’s smitten with a new girl who lives west of town,” Almanzo told them.

“Oh, I think it’s a pity we don’t all go in a crowd any more,” Laura lamented. “What fun the sleighing parties were, and now everyone’s paired off.”

“Oh, well,” Ida said. “‘In the spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.’”

“Yes, or it’s this,” and Laura sang,

“Oh whistle and I’ll come to you, my lad,
Oh whistle and I’ll come to you, my lad,
Though father and mither and a’ should gae mad,
Oh whistle and I’ll come to you, my lad.”

“Would you?” Almanzo asked.

“Of course not!” Laura answered. “That’s only a song.”

“Better whistle for Nellie, she’d come,” Ida teased, and then she said soberly, “But she is afraid of these horses. She says they aren’t safe.”

Laura laughed delightedly. “They were a little wild, the time she was with us,” she said.

“But I can’t understand it. They are perfectly gentle,” Ida insisted.

Laura only smiled and tucked the dust robe in more securely. Then she saw Almanzo looking sidewise at her behind Ida’s head, and she let her eyes twinkle at him. She didn’t care if he did know that she had frightened the colts to scare Nellie, on purpose.

All the miles home they rode talking and singing, until they came to Laura’s home, and as she left them she asked, “Won’t you come with us next Sunday, Ida?”

Blushing, Ida answered, “I would like to, but I… I think I’m going walking with Elmer.”

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