The First Four Years (Chapter 1)
The First Four Years
Laura Ingalls Wilder
The First Year
It was a hot afternoon with a strong wind from the south, but out on the Dakota prairie in 1885 no one minded the hot sunshine or the hard winds. They were to be expected: a natural part of life. And so the swiftly trotting horses drawing the shining black-top buggy swung around the corner of Pearson’s livery barn, making the turn from the end of Main Street to the country road Monday afternoon at four o’clock. Looking from a window of the low, three-room claim shanty a half mile away, Laura saw them coming. She was basting cambric lining to the bodice pieces of her new black cashmere dress and had just time to put on her hat and pick up her gloves when the brown horses and the buggy stopped at the door.
It was a pretty picture Laura made standing at the door of the rough claim shanty, the brown August grass under her feet and the young cottonwoods standing in their square around the yard.
Her dress of pink lawn with its small sprigs of blue flowers just cleared her toes. The skirt was full, and tucked to the waist. The little tight waist with long sleeves and high neck had a bit of lace at the throat. The sage-green, rough-straw poke bonnet lined with blue silk softly framed her pink cheeks and her large blue eyes with the bangs of her brown hair above them.
Manly said nothing of all this, but he helped her into the buggy and tucked the linen lap robe carefully about her to keep off the dust. Then he tightened the reins and they dashed away for an unexpected weekday afternoon drive. South twelve miles across bare prairie to lakes Henry and Thompson, along the narrow neck of land between them where chokecherries and wild grapes grew. Then over the prairie again east and north to Spirit Lake fifteen miles away. Forty or fifty miles in all, but always “around the square” to come home.
The buggy top was up to make a shade from the heat of the sun; the horses’ manes and tails flew out on the wind; jack rabbits ran and prairie chickens scuttled out of sight in the grass. Striped gophers ducked into their holes and wild ducks flew overhead from one lake to another. Breaking a somewhat lengthy silence, Manly said, “Can’t we be married soon? If you don’t want a big wedding, and you would be willing, we could be married right away. When I was back in Minnesota last winter, my sister started planning a big church wedding for us. I told her we didn’t want it, and to give up the idea, but she hasn’t changed her mind. She is coming out here with my mother, to take charge of our wedding. But harvest is right on hand. It will be an awfully busy time and I’d like us to be settled first.”
Laura twisted the bright gold ring with its pearl-and-garnet setting around and around on the forefinger of her left hand. It was a pretty ring and she liked having it, but… “I’ve been thinking,” she said. “I don’t want to marry a farmer. I have always said I never would. I do wish you would do something else. There are chances in town now while it is so new and growing.” Again there was a little silence; then Manly asked, “Why don’t you want to marry a farmer?” And Laura replied, “Because a farm is such a hard place for a woman. There are so many chores for her to do, and harvest help and threshers to cook for. Besides a farmer never has any money. He can never make any because the people in towns tell him what they will pay for what he has to sell and then they charge him what they please for what he has to buy. It is not fair.” Manly laughed. “Well, as the Irishman said,
‘Everything is evened up in this world. The rich have their ice in the summer but the poor get theirs in the winter.’”
Laura refused to make a joke of it. She said, “I don’t always want to be poor and work hard while the people in town take it easy and make money off us.”
“But you’ve got it all wrong,” Manly told her seriously. “Farmers are the only ones who are independent. How long would a merchant last if farmers didn’t trade with him? There is a strife between them to please the farmer. They have to take trade away from each other in order to make more money, while all a farmer has to do is to sow another field if he wants to make a little extra.
“I have fifty acres of wheat this year. It is enough for me, but if you will come live on the farm, I will break the ground this fall and sow another fifty acres next spring.
“I can raise more oats too and so raise more horses, and it pays to raise horses.
“You see, on a farm it all depends on what a man is willing to do. If he is willing to work and give his attention to his farm, he can make more money than the men in town and all the time be his own boss.”
Again there was a silence, a rather skeptical silence on Laura’s part, broken at last by Manly, who said, “If you’ll try it for three years and I haven’t made a success in farming by that time, I’ll quit and do anything you want me to do. I promise that at the end of three years we will quit farming if I have not made such a success that you are willing to keep on.”
And Laura consented to try it for three years. She liked the horses and enjoyed the freedom and spaciousness of the wide prairie land, with the wind forever waving the tall wild grass in the sloughs and rustling through the short curly buffalo grass, so green on the upland swells in spring and so silvery-gray and brown in summer. It was all so sweet and fresh. In early spring the wild violets carpeted and made fragrant the little hollows of the grassland, and in June the wild prairie roses blossomed everywhere. Two quarter sections of this land, each with 160 acres of rich black soil, would be theirs, for Manly had already proven up on a homestead and he also had a tree claim on which he was growing the ten acres of trees required by law to get title. The 3405 trees were planted about eight feet apart each way. Between the two claims lay a school section where anyone could cut the hay, first come first served.
It would be much more fun living on the land than on the town street with neighbors so close on each side, and if only Manly were right—Well, she had promised to try the farm anyway.
“The house on the tree claim will be finished in a couple of weeks,” Manly was saying. “Let’s be married the next week. It will be the last week in August and before the rush of harvest begins. Let’s just drive over to Reverend Brown’s and then go home to our new house.” But Laura objected to this because she would not be paid for the last month of her school teaching until October and needed the money for clothes.
“What’s the matter with the clothes you have?” Manly asked. “You always look nice and if we are married suddenly, that way we won’t need fine clothes.
“If we give Mother time enough, she and the girls will come out from the east and we will have to have a big wedding in the church. I can’t afford the expense and your one month’s salary would not be enough for you.”
This was a surprise, for Laura had not thought of such a thing. In the wild new country, the folks back east never seemed to be real and certainly were not considered in the making of plans, but she remembered with something of a shock that Manly’s folks back in eastern Minnesota were well off and that one sister had a homestead claim near by. They would be sure to come if they knew the wedding date, and his mother had asked for that in her latest letter.
She could not ask her Pa to go to any expense for the wedding. It was all he could do to keep up with the family expenses until there would be some return from their 160 acres of wild land. Nothing much could be expected from the raw sod the first year it was turned over, and his farmland was newly broke. There seemed no other way than to be married suddenly because of the help it would be to have a home and housekeeper in the rush of fall work coming on. Manly’s mother would understand and not be offended. It would be thought the right and sensible way to do it by the neighbors and friends, for they were all engaged in the same struggle to establish themselves in their homes on the new prairie land.
And so on Thursday, the twenty-fifth of August, at ten o’clock in the morning, the quickstepping brown horses and the buggy with the shining top flashed around the corner at Pearson’s livery barn, came swiftly over the half mile, and drew up at the door of the little claim house in its hollow square of young cottonwoods. Laura stood at the door, her Ma and Pa on either hand, her two sisters grouped behind her. They all gaily tried to help her into the buggy. Her wedding dress was the new black cashmere she had thought would be so serviceable, for a married woman should have a black dress. All her other clothing and a few girlhood treasures had been packed in a trunk and were waiting in Manly’s newly finished house. As Laura looked back, Ma, Pa, and Carrie and Grace were grouped among the young trees. They threw kisses and waved their hands. Bright green leaves of the cottonwoods waved too in the stronger wind of afternoon and there was a little choke in Laura’s throat for they seemed to be saying good-by, and she saw her Ma brush her hand quickly across her eyes.
Manly understood, for he covered Laura’s hand with one of his and pressed it strongly. The preacher lived on his homestead two miles away and it seemed to Laura the longest drive she had ever taken, and yet it was over all too soon. Once in the front room, the ceremony was quickly performed. Mr. Brown came hurriedly in, slipping on his coat. His wife and his daughter, Ida, Laura’s dearest friend, with her betrothed, were the witnesses and those present. Laura and Manly were married for better or worse, for richer or poorer.
Then back to the old home for a noon dinner, and in the midst of good wishes and cheerful good-bys, once more into the buggy and away for the new home on the other side of town. The first year was begun.
The summer wind blew softly, and sunshine was bright where it shone through the east windows that first morning. It was an early sun, but breakfast was even earlier, for Manly must not be late at the Webbs’ for the threshing. All the neighbors would be there. Since they would expect Mr. Webb to give them a good day’s work in exchange, as their turns with the threshers came, no one could afford to be late and hold up the gang at Webb’s place. So the first breakfast in the new home was a hurried affair. Then Manly drove away with the brown horses hitched to the lumber wagon, and Laura was alone for the day.
It would be a busy day, there was so much to do putting the little new house in order. Before beginning, Laura looked the place over with all the pride of possession.
There was the kitchen-dining-living room, all in one but so nicely proportioned and so cannily furnished that it answered all purposes delightfully. The front door in the northeast corner of the room opened onto the horseshoe-shaped drive before the house. Just south of it was the east window where the morning sun shone in. In the center of the south wall was another bright window.
The drop-leaf table stood against the west wall with one leaf raised and a chair at either end. It was covered with Ma’s bright red-and-white checked tablecloth on which stood the remains of the early breakfast. A door at the end of the table led into the storm shed, and there was Almanzo’s cook-stove with pots and frying pans on the walls. Then there was a window and a back door that opened toward the south.
Just across the corner from the door into the shed was the pantry door. And such a pantry!
Laura was so delighted with the pantry that she stood in the doorway for several minutes, admiring it. It was narrow, of course, but long. Opposite her at the far end was a full-sized window, and just outside the window stood a young cottonwood tree, its small green leaves fluttering in the morning wind. Inside before the window was a broad work shelf just the right height at which to stand. On the wall at the right a strip of board ran the whole length and in it were driven nails on which to hang dishpans, dish towels, colanders, and other kitchen utensils.
But the wall to the left was all a beautiful cabinet. Manly had found a carpenter of the old days who though old and slow did beautiful work, and the pantry had been his pride and a labor of love to Manly.
The wall was shelved the whole length. The top shelf was only a short space from the ceiling, and from it down, spaces between the shelves were wider until there was room for tall pitchers and other dishes to stand on the lower shelf. Beneath the lowest shelf was a row of drawers as well made and fitted as boughten furniture. There was a large wide drawer to hold a baking of bread. There was one drawer that already held a whole sack of white flour, a smaller one with graham flour, another with corn meal, a large shallow one for packages, and two others: one already filled with white sugar and the other one with brown. And one for Manly’s wedding present of silver knives and forks and spoons. Laura was so proud of them. Underneath the drawers was an open space to the floor and here stood the stone cookie-jar, the doughnut jar, and the jar of lard. Here also stood the tall stone churn and the dasher. The churn looked rather large when the only cow giving milk was the small fawn-colored heifer Pa had given them for a wedding present, but there would be more cream later when Manly’s cow should be fresh.
In the center of the pantry floor, a trap door opened into the cellar.
The door into the bedroom was just across the corner from the front door. On the wall at the foot of the bed was a high shelf for hats. A curtain hung from the edge of the shelf to the floor, and on the wall behind it were hooks for hanging clothes. And there was a carpet on the floor!
The pine floors of the front room and pantry were painted a bright clean yellow. The walls of all the house were white plaster, and the pine woodwork was satin-smooth and oiled and varnished in its natural color. It was a bright and shining little house and it was really all theirs, Laura thought. It belonged to just Manly and her.
The house had been built on the tree claim, looking forward to the time when the small switches of trees should be grown. Already Manly and Laura seemed to see it sitting in a beautiful grove of cottonwoods and elms and maples which were already planted along beside the road. The hopeful little trees stood in the half circle of the drive before the house. They were hovering close on each side and at the back. Oh, surely, if they were tended well, it would not be long before they sheltered and protected the little house from the summer’s heat and the winter’s cold and the winds that were always blowing! But Laura could not stand idly in the pantry dreaming and watching the cottonwood leaves blowing. There was work to be done. She cleared the breakfast table quickly. It was only a step from it to the pantry where everything was arranged on the shelves as it belonged; the dirty dishes she piled in the dishpan on the work shelf before the window. The tea kettle of hot water on the stove was handy too, and soon everything was clean and the door closed upon a pantry in perfect order.
Next Laura polished the stove with a flannel cloth, swept the floor, dropped the table leaf, and spread a clean, bright red tablecloth over it. The cloth had a beautiful border and made the table an ornament fit for anyone’s front room. In the corner between the window to the east and the window to the south was a small standtable with an easy armchair at one side and a small rocker at the other. Above it suspended from the ceiling was a glass lamp with glittering pendants. That was the parlor part of the room, and when the copies of Scott’s and Tennyson’s poems were on the stand it would be complete. She would have some geraniums growing in cans on the windows soon and then it would be simply beautiful.
But the windows must be washed. They were spattered with plaster and paint from the housebuilding. And how Laura did hate to wash windows!
Just then there was a rap at the screen door, and Hattie, the hired girl from the farm adjoining, was there. Manly had stopped as he drove to the threshing and asked that she come and wash the windows when she could be spared!
So Hattie washed the windows while Laura tidied the little bedroom and unpacked her trunk. Her hat was already on the shelf and the wedding dress hanging on its hook behind the curtain. There were only a few dresses to hang up, the fawn-colored silk with the black stripes, and the brown poplin she had made. They had been worn many times but were still nice. There was the pink lawn with the blue flowers. It would not be warm enough to wear that more than once or twice again this summer. Then there was the gray calico work dress to change with the blue she was wearing.
And her last-winter’s coat looked very good hanging on the hook beside Manly’s overcoat. It would do for the winter that was coming. She didn’t want to be an expense to Manly right at the beginning. She wanted to help him prove that farming was as good as any other business. This was such a lovely little home, so much better than living on a town street.
Oh, she did hope Manly was right, and she smiled as she repeated to herself, “Everything is evened up in this world.”
Manly was late home, for threshers worked as long as there was daylight to see by. Supper was on the table when he came in from doing the chores, and as they ate, he told Laura the threshers would come the next day, would be there at noon for dinner.
It would be the first dinner in the new home and she must cook it for the threshers! To encourage her, Manly said, “You’ll get along all right. And you can never learn younger.” Now Laura had always been a pioneer girl rather than a farmer’s daughter, always moving on to new places before the fields grew large, so a gang of men as large as a threshing crew to feed by herself was rather dismaying. But if she was going to be a farmer’s wife that was all in the day’s work.
So early next morning she began to plan and prepare the dinner. She had brought a baking of bread from homeland with some hot corn bread there would be plenty. Pork and potatoes were on hand and she had put some navy beans to soak the night before. There was a pieplant in the garden; she must make a couple of pies. The morning flew too quickly, but when the men came in at noon from the thresher, dinner was on the table.
The table was in the center of the room with both leaves raised to make room, but even then some of the men must wait for the second table. They were all very hungry but there was plenty of food, though something seemed to be wrong with the beans. Lacking her Ma’s watchful eye, Laura had not cooked them enough and they were hard. And when it came to the pie – Mr. Perry, a neighbor of Laura’s parents, tasted his first. Then he lifted the top crust, and reaching for the sugar bowl, spread sugar thickly over his piece of pie.
“That is the way I like it,” he said. “If there is no sugar in the pie, then every fellow can sweeten his own as much as he likes without hurting the cook’s feelings.”
Mr. Perry had made the meal a jolly one. He told tales of when he was a boy in Pennsylvania. His mother, he said, used to take five beans and a kettle of water to make bean soup. The kettle was so large that after they had eaten all the bean broth and bread they could, they had to take off their coats and dive for a bean if they wanted one.
Everyone laughed and talked and was very friendly, but Laura felt mortified about her beans and her pie without any sugar. She had been so hurried when she made the pies; but how could she have been so careless? Pieplant was so sour, that first taste must have been simply terrible. The wheat had turned out only ten bushels to the acre, and wheat was selling at fifty cents a bushel. Not much of a crop. It had been too dry and the price was low. But the field of oats had yielded enough to furnish grain for the horses with some to spare. There was hay in great stacks, plenty for the horses and cows and some to sell.
Manly was very cheerful and already planning for next year. He was in a great hurry to begin the fall plowing and the breaking of new sod land, for he was determined to double his acreage next year—or more, if possible. The wheat for seeds was stored in the claim shanty on the homestead, for there was no grainery on the tree claim. The rest of the wheat was sold.
Now was a busy, happy time. Manly was early in the field, plowing, and Laura was busy all day with cooking, baking, churning, sweeping, washing, ironing, and mending. The washing and ironing were hard for her to do. She was small and slender but her little hands and wrists were strong and she got it done. Afternoons, she always put on a clean dress and sat in the parlor corner of the front room sewing, or knitting on Manly’s socks.
Sundays they always went for a buggy ride and as the horses trotted along the prairie roads Laura and Manly would sing the old singing-school songs. Their favorite was “Don’t Leave the Farm, Boys.”
“You talk of the mines of Australia,
They’ve wealth in red gold, without doubt;
But, ah! there is gold on the farm, boys—:
If only you’ll shovel it out.
“Don’t be in a hurry to go!
Don’t be in a hurry to go!
Better risk the old farm awhile longer,
Don’t be in a hurry to go!”
And Laura thought of the golden wheat stored in the homestead claim shanty and she was glad.
The drives were short these days for the plowing was hard work for pretty, quick-stepping Skip and Barnum, the driving team.
Manly said they were not large enough to do all the breaking of the new sod land. One day he came home from town leading two large horses hitched behind the wagon, and they were drawing a new sulky breaking plow. Now Manly said he could hitch all four horses to the big plow. Then there would be no trouble in getting the land broke for his crops next year. The horses had been a bargain because their owner was in a hurry to sell and get away. He had sold the relinquishment of his homestead to a man from the east and was going farther west and take up another claim where government land could still be found.
The sulky plow had cost fifty-five dollars, but Manly had only paid half down and given a note for the rest to be paid next year. The plow turned a furrow sixteen inches wide in the tough grass sod and would pay for itself in the extra acres Manly could get ready for crops since he could ride instead of walking and holding a narrow walking plow.
After that Laura would go out in the morning and help hitch the four horses to the plow. She learned to drive them and handle the plow too and sometimes would plow several times around the field. She thought it great fun. Shortly after this Manly came from town again and behind the wagon was a small iron-gray pony. “Here,” he said to Laura, “is something for you to play with. And don’t let me hear any more about your father not letting you learn to ride his horses. This one is gentle and won’t hurt you.”
Laura looked at the pony and loved it. “I’ll call her Trixy,” she said. The pony’s feet were small and, her legs fine and flat. Her head was small with a fine mealy nose and ears pointed and alert. Her eyes were large and quick and gentle, and her mane and tail were long and thick. That night after supper, Laura chose her saddle from the descriptions and pictures in Montgomery Ward’s catalogue and made the order for it ready to mail the first trip to town. She could hardly wait for the saddle to come but she shortened the two weeks’ time by making friends with Trixy. It was a beautiful all-leather saddle, tan-colored and fancy-stitched with nickel trimmings.
“And now,” said Manly, “I’ll put the saddle on Trixy and you and she can learn together. I’m sure she’ll be gentle even if she never has been ridden, but better head her onto the plowed ground. It will be harder going for her—so she won’t be so frisky—and a soft place for you to light if you fall off.” So when Laura was safely in the saddle, her left foot in the leather slipper stirrup, her right knee over the saddle horn with the leaf-horn fitting snuggly about it, Manly let go the bridle and Laura and Trixy went out on the plowed ground. Trixy was good and did her best to please even though she was afraid of Laura’s skirt blowing in the wind. Laura didn’t fall off, and day after day they learned horseback riding together.
It was growing late in the fall. The nights were frosty and soon the ground would freeze. The breaking of the new fifty-acre field was nearly finished. There were no Sunday afternoon drives now. Skip and Barnum were working too hard at the plowing to be driven. They must have their day of rest. Instead, there were long horseback rides, for Manly had a saddle pony of his own, and Fly and Trixy, having nothing else to do, were always ready to go. Laura and Trixy had learned to foxtrot and to lope together. The little short lope would land them from the side of the road across the wheel track onto the grass-covered middle. Another jump would cross the other wheel track. Trixy would light so springingly on her dainty feet that there was never a jar.
One day as they were loping down a road, Manly said, “Oh, yes! Trixy can jump short and quick, but Fly can run away from her”—and Fly started. Laura bent low over Trixy’s neck, touched her with her whip, and imitated, as near as she could manage, a cowboy yell. Trixy shot ahead like a streak, leaving Fly behind. Laura stopped her and sat a little breathless until Manly came up. But when Manly protested at the sudden start she said airily, “Oh, Trixy told me she was going in plenty of time.”
After that it was proven many times that Trixy was faster—often on a twenty-mile ride over the open prairie before breakfast.
It was a carefree, happy time, for two people thoroughly in sympathy can do pretty much as they like.
To be sure, now and then Laura thought about the short crop and wondered. Once she even saved the cream carefully and sent a jar of fresh butter to town for sale, thinking it would help pay for the groceries Manly was getting. With the butter, she sent five dozen eggs, for the little flock of hens, picking their living around the barn and the straw stacks and in the fields, were laying wonderfully well. But Manly brought the butter back. Not a store in town wanted it at any price and he had been able to get only five cents a dozen for the eggs. Laura couldn’t help any in that way. But why worry? Manly didn’t.
When the breaking was finished, the hay barn back of the house was made more snug for winter. It was a warm place for the stock, with hay stacked tightly on each side against the skeleton frame. Hay was stacked even over the roof, about four feet thick at the eaves and a little thicker at the peak of the roof to give plenty of slant to shed water.
With a long hay knife, Manly had cut two holes through the haystack on the south side of the barn. Then he had put windows over the holes inside the barn for, he said, the stock must have light even with the door shut.
When the barn was made snug, it was butchering time. But Ole Larsen, the neighbor across the road, butchered first. Mr. Larsen was always borrowing. It was the cause of disagreement between Manly and Laura, for Laura objected to tools and machinery being used and broken and not returned. When she saw Manly going afoot to the back end of Ole Larsen’s field to get some machine that should have been at his own barn, she was angry, but Manly said one must be neighborly.
So when Mr. Larsen came over to borrow the large barrel in which to scald his hog in the butchering, she told him to take it. Manly was in town but she knew he would lend it. In a few minutes Mr. Larsen came back to borrow her wash boiler to heat water to scald the hog. Soon he was back again to borrow her butcher knives for the work, and again a little later to get her knife whetstone to sharpen the knives. Grimly Laura said to herself if he came next to borrow their fat hog to kill she would let him have it. But he had a hog of his own.
And after all that, he did not bring over a bit of the fresh meat as good neighbors always did. A few days later Manly butchered his fat hog and Laura had her first experience making sausage, head cheese, and lard all by herself. Hams and shoulders and spareribs were frozen in the storm shed and fat meat was salted down in a small barrel.
Laura found doing work alone very different from helping Ma. But it was part of her job and she must do it, though she did hate the smell of hot lard, and the sight of so much fresh meat ruined her appetite for any of it.
It was at this time that the directors of the school were able to pay Laura the salary for the last month she had taught. The money made Laura feel quite rich and she began planning how she should spend it. Manly told her if she bought a colt with it she could double the money in a short time by selling it when it was grown. So that was what they decided to do, and Manly bought a bay two-year-old that promised to grow out well.
Laura didn’t bother to name the colt. It was just to be sold again, so what was the use? But the animal was fed well, brushed, and cared for, to make it grow well.
One blustery day Manly started early for town, leaving Laura very much alone. She was used to being the only person on the place and thought nothing of it, but the wind was so cold and raw that she had not opened the front door. It was still locked from the night. In the middle of the morning, busy with her work, Laura looked out the front window and saw a little bunch of horsemen coming across the prairie from the southeast. She wondered why they were not traveling on the road. As they came nearer she saw there were five of them, and they were Indians.
Laura had seen Indians often, without fear, but she felt a quick jump of her heart as they came up to the house and without knocking tried to open the front door. She was glad the door was locked, and she slipped quickly into the back room and locked the outside door there.
The Indians came around the house to the back door and tried to open that. Then seeing Laura through the window they made signs for her to open the door, indicating that they would not hurt her. But Laura shook her head and told them to go away. Likely they only wanted something to eat, but still one never could tell. It was only three years ago that the Indians nearly went on the warpath a little way west, and even now they often threatened the railroad camps.
She wouldn’t open the door but watched them as they jabbered together. She couldn’t catch a word that she could understand, and she was afraid. They weren’t acting right. Why didn’t they go away!
Instead they were going to the barn—and her new saddle was hanging in the barn and Trixy was there… Trixy! Her pet and comrade!
Laura was afraid; in the house there was comparative safety, for they’d hardly break in. But now Laura was angry too, and as always, she acted quickly. Flinging the door open, she ran to the barn, and standing in the door, ordered the Indians out. One of them was feeling the leather of her beautiful saddle and one was in the stall with Trixy. Trixy was afraid too. She never liked strangers and she was pulling at her halter and trembling.
The other Indians were examining Manly’s saddle and the buggy harness with its bright nickel trimmings. But they all came and gathered around Laura just outside the door. She stormed at them and stamped her foot. Her head was bare and her long brown braids of hair blew out on the wind while her purple eyes flashed fire as always when she was angry or very much excited. The Indians only stared for a moment; then one of them grunted an unintelligible word and laid his hand on Laura’s arm. Quick as a flash she slapped his face with all her might. It made him angry and he started toward her, but the other Indians laughed, and one who seemed to be the leader stopped him. Then with signs pointing to himself, his pony, and then with a sweep of his arm toward the west, he said, “You go—me—be my squaw?”
Laura shook her head, and stamping her foot again, motioned them all to their ponies and away, telling them to go.
And they went, riding their running ponies without saddles or bridles.
But as they went their leader turned and looked back at Laura where she stood, with the wind blowing her skirts around her and her braids flying, watching them go away across the prairie into the west;
Wild geese were flying south. By day the sky was full of them flying in their V-formations, the leaders calling and their followers answering until the world seemed full of their calls. Even at night they could be heard as their seemingly endless numbers sailed ahead of the cold coming down from the north.
Laura loved to watch them high against the blue of the sky, large V’s and smaller V’s with the leader at the point, his followers streaming behind, always in perfect V-formation. She loved to hear their loud, clear honk, honk. There was something so wild and free about it, especially at night when the lonely, wild cry sounded through the darkness, calling, calling. It was almost irresistible. It made Laura long for wings so that she might follow.
Manly said, “The old saying is that ‘everything is lovely when the geese honk high,’ but I believe we will have a hard winter, the geese are flying so high and in such a hurry. They are not stopping to rest on the lakes nor to feed. They are hurrying ahead of a storm.” For several days, the wild geese hurried southward; and then one still, sunny afternoon a dark cloud line lay low on the northwest horizon. It climbed swiftly, higher and higher, until the sun was suddenly overcast, and with a howl the wind came and the world was blotted out in a blur of whirling snow.
Laura was in the house alone when the wind struck the northwest corner with such force the whole house jarred. Quickly she ran to the window but she could see only a wall of whiteness beyond the glass. Manly was in the barn, and at the sudden shriek of the storm he, too, looked out a window. Then , although it was only midafternoon, he fed the horses and cows for the night, milked the heifer in the little pail in which he had taken out some salt, and shutting the barn door carefully and tightly behind him, started for the house. As soon as he was away from the shelter of the hay at the barn door, the full force of the storm struck him. It seemed to come from every direction at once. Whichever way he turned his head he faced the wind. He knew the direction in which the house lay but he could see nothing of it. He could see nothing but a blur of white. It had grown intensely cold and the snow was a powdered dust of ice that filled his eyes and ears, and since he must breathe he felt smothered. After taking a few steps he could not see the barn. He was alone in a whirling white world.
Keeping his face in the right direction, Manly went ahead; but soon he knew he had gone far enough to be at the house, yet he could not see it. A few steps more and he stumbled against an old wagon that had been left some little distance south of the house. In spite of his guarding against it, the wind had blown him south of his way, but now he knew where he was. So again setting his face in the right direction he went on. Again, he knew he should have reached the house but he had not. If he should become hopelessly confused he might not find it at all but wander out on the open prairie to perish, or he might even freeze within a few feet of the house before the storm was over. No shout of his could be heard above the wind. Well, he might as well go on a little farther, no use standing still. Another step, and his shoulder just lightly brushed something. He put up his hand and touched the corner of a building. The house! He had almost missed it and headed out into the storm.
Keeping his hand on the wall he followed it and came to the back door.
Blown in with the storm, as he opened the door, he stood and blinked the snow from his eyes in the warmth and shelter of the house he had so nearly missed. He still clutched the milk pail. In the struggle with the storm he had not spilled the milk—because it was frozen.
For three days and nights the blizzard raged. Before Manly went to the barn again, he followed the house wall to where the long rope clothesline was tied at the corner. With his hand on the rope, he followed it to the back of the house. Unfastening it at the corner, he followed the house around to the door and fastened the rope there, and to the loose end he tied a shorter rope, the drying line he had put up in the storm shed. Now unreeling the rope as he went he could go to the haystack at the barn door, make the rope fast, and follow it back to the house safely. After that he went to the barn and cared for the stock once a day. While the blizzard shrieked and howled and raged outside, Laura and Manly both stayed indoors. Laura kept the fire going from the store of coal in the storm shed. She cooked from the stores in her pantry and cellar and she sang at her knitting in the afternoon. Old Shep and the cat lay companionably on the rug before the cookstove and there was warmth and comfort in the little house standing so sturdily in the midst of the raging elements.
Late in the afternoon of the fourth day the wind went down. It lost its whirling force and blew the loose snow scudding close to the ground, packing it into hard drifts that lay over the prairie with bare ground showing between. The sun shone again with a frosty light and huge sundogs stood guard on each side of it. And it was cold! Laura and Manly went outdoors and looked over the desolate landscape. Their ears still throbbed to the tumult of the storm, and the silence following it was somehow confusing.
“This has been very bad,” Manly said. “We will hear of plenty of damage from this.” Laura looked at the smoke rising from the stovepipe in their neighbor’s house across the road. She had not been able to see it for three days. “Larsens are all right anyway,” she said. Next day Manly drove to town to get a few supplies and to learn the news.
The house was bright and cheerful when he came home. The last rays of the afternoon sun were shining in at the south window, and Laura was ready to help him off with his coat as he came in from the barn after putting up his team and doing the night feeding. But Manly was very sober. After they ate supper he told Laura the news. A man south of town, caught at his barn by the storm as Manly had been, had missed the house going back. He had wandered out on the prairie and had been found frozen to death when the wind went down.
Three children going home from school had become lost, but found a haystack and dug into it. They had huddled together for warmth and had been drifted in. When the storm stopped, the oldest, a boy, had dug out through the snow, and searchers had found them. They were weak from hunger but not frozen.
Range cattle had drifted before the storm for a hundred miles. Blinded and confused they had gone over a high bank of the Cottonwood River, the later ones falling on top of the first, breaking through the ice of the river and floundering in the water and loose snow until they had smothered and frozen to death. Men were dragging them out of the river now, hundreds of them, and skinning them to save the hides. Anyone who had lost cattle could go look at the brands and claim his own.
The storm so early in the season was unexpected, and many people had been caught out in the snow and had frozen their hands and feet. Another storm came soon, but people were prepared now and no damage was done. It was too cold for horseback riding, and snow covered the ground, so Manly hitched the driving team to the cutter (the little one-seated sleigh) on Sunday afternoons. Then he and Laura drove here and there, over to Pa’s farm to see the home folks or to the Boasts, old friends who lived several miles to the east. But the drives were always short ones; no twenty or forty miles now. It was too dangerous, for a storm might come up suddenly and catch them away from home.
Barnum and Skip were not working now. They were fat and frisky and enjoyed the sleigh rides as much as Laura and Manly. They pranced and danced purposely to make their sleigh bells ring more merrily while their ears twitched alertly and their eyes shone.
Trixy and Fly, the saddle ponies, and Kate and Bill, the working team, were growing fat in the barn and took their exercise in the haystack-sheltered barnyard at the back. The holidays were near and something must be done about them. The Boast and the Ingalls families had spent them together whenever they could. Thanksgiving dinner at Boasts’, Christmas dinner at the Ingallses’ home. Now with Laura and Manly, there was a new family, and it was agreed to add another gathering to those two holidays. New Year’s should be celebrated at the Wilders’.
Christmas presents were hardly to be thought of, the way the crops had turned out, but Manly made handsleds for Laura’s little sisters, and they would buy Christmas candy for all.
For themselves, they decided to buy a present together, something they could both use and enjoy. After much studying of Montgomery Ward’s catalogue, they chose to get a set of glassware. They needed it for the table and there was such a pretty set advertised, a sugar bowl, spoon-holder, butter dish, six sauce dishes, and a large oval-shaped bread plate. On the bread plate raised in the glass were heads of wheat and some lettering which read “Give us this day our daily bread.”
When the box came from Chicago a few days before Christmas and was unpacked, they were both delighted with their present.
The holidays were soon over and in February Laura’s nineteenth birthday came. Manly’s twenty-ninth birthday was just a week later so they made one celebration for both on the Sunday between. It wasn’t much of a celebration, just a large birthday cake for the two of them, and a little extra pains were taken in the cooking and arranging of the simple meal of bread, meat, and vegetables.
Laura had become quite a good cook and an expert in the making of light bread. With work and play, in sunshine and storm, the winter passed. There was very little visiting or having company, for neighbors were rather far away (except for the Larsens across the road) and the days were short. Still, Laura was never lonely. She loved her little house and the housework. There were always Shep and the cat, and a visit to the horses and cows at the barn was, she thought, as good as visiting people any day. When Trixy lipped her hand or rested her soft nose on her shoulder, or Skip, the scamp, searched her pocket for a lump of sugar, she felt that they were very satisfactory friends. The wild geese were coming back from the southland. They flew overhead from one lake to the other, where they rested on the water and fed along the shores.
The ground was bare of snow, and although the nights were cold and the wind often chilly, the sunshine was warm and the spring had come. Manly was getting his plows and harrows in order for working the land to be ready for the sowing of wheat and oats. He must get an early start at the work for there were a hundred acres to sow in wheat and a fifty-acre oat field on the homestead. At the shanty on the homestead Laura held the grain sacks while he shoveled the wheat into them. He was hauling them to the home barn to be handy for the sowing. The shanty was cold. The grain sacks were coarse and rough to the touch and the wheat was dusty.
Watching the plump wheat kernels slide into the open mouth of the sack made Laura dizzy. If she took her eyes from them, they were drawn irresistibly to the newspapers pasted on the shanty walls and she read the words over and over. She was unreasonably annoyed because some of them were bottom side up but she must read them anyway. She couldn’t take her eyes from them. Words! Words! The world was full of words and sliding wheat kernels!
And then she heard Manly saying, “Sit down a minute! You’re tired.”
So she sat down, but she was not tired. She was sick. The next morning she felt much worse and Manly got his own breakfast.
For days she fainted whenever she left her bed. The doctor told her to lie quietly. He assured her she would feel much better before long and that in a few months, nine to be exact, she would be quite all right. Laura was going to have a baby.
So that was it! Well, she mustn’t shirk. She must get around and do the work in the house so that Manly could get the crops in. So much depended on this year’s crops, and there was no money to hire help.
Soon Laura was creeping around the house, doing what must be done, and whenever possible relieving her dizzy head by lying down for a few minutes. The little house grew to look rather dingy for she couldn’t give it the care it had always had. As she went so miserably about her work she would smile wryly now and then as she remembered a saying of her mother’s: “They that dance must pay the fiddler.” Well, she was paying, but she would do the work. She would help that much in spite of everything. The trees were not growing very well. The dry weather of the summer had been hard on them, and they must be given extra care, for years from now there must be the ten acres with the right numbers of growing trees in order to prove up on the tree claim and get a title to the land.
So Manly plowed around the little trees and then mulched them with manure from the barnyard. Laura missed the drives over the greening prairie in the freshness of early spring. She missed the wild violets that scented the air with their fragrance, but when wild rose time came in June she was able to ride behind Skip and Barnum along the country roads where the prairie roses on their low bushes made glowing masses of color from pale pink to deepest red and the air was full of their sweetness. On one such drive she asked abruptly out of a silence, “What shall we name the child?”
“We can’t name it now,” Manly replied, “for we don’t know if it will be a boy or a girl.” And after another silence Laura said, “It will be a girl and we will call her Rose.” It rained often that spring. It rained through the summer and the little trees took courage and waved their little green leaves in the wind while they stretched taller every day. The wild blue stem grass grew on the high prairie, and the slough grass grew rank in the sloughs where water stood in the lowest places.
And, oh, how the wheat and oats did grow! For it rained!
The days went by and by and the wheat headed tall and strong and green and beautiful. Then the grain was in the milk and in just a few days more the crop would be safe. Even if it turned dry now there would be a good crop, for the stalks would ripen the wheat.
At last one day Manly came in from the field. He had been looking it over and decided it was ready to cut.
The wheat, he said, was perfect. It would go all of forty bushels to the acre and be Number One hard. The price would start at seventy five cents a bushel delivered at the elevator in town.
“Didn’t I tell you,” he said, “that everything evens up? The rich have their ice in the summer, but the poor get theirs in the winter.” He laughed and Laura laughed with him. It was wonderful.
In the morning Manly had to go to town and buy a new binder to harvest the wheat. He had waited until he was sure there would be a good crop before buying it, for it was expensive: two hundred dollars. But he would pay half after the grain was threshed and the other half in a second payment after the threshing next year. He would only have to pay eight percent interest on the deferred payment, and could give a chattel mortgage on the machine and cows to secure the debt. Manly went early to town; he wanted to be back in time to begin cutting the grain. Laura was proud when Manly drove into the yard with the new machine. She went out and watched while he hitched on the four horses and started for the oat field. The oats were ripest and he would cut them first.
As Laura went back into the house she did a little mental arithmetic—one hundred acres at forty bushels an acre would be four thousand bushels of wheat. Four thousand bushels of wheat at seventy-five cents a bushel would be—
Oh, how much would it be? She’d get her pencil. Four thousand bushels at seventy-five cents a bushel would be three thousand dollars. It couldn’t be! Yes, that was right! Why, they would be rich! She’d say the poor did get their ice!
They could pay for the mowing machine and the hayrake Manly bought a year ago and could not pay for because the crop had been so poor. The notes of seventy-five dollars and forty dollars and the chattel mortgage on Skip and Barnum would be due after threshing. Laura did not mind the notes so much, but she hated the chattel mortgage on the horses. She’d almost as soon have had a mortgage on Manly. Well, it would soon be paid now, and the note for the sulky plow with its chattel mortgage on the cows. She thought there were some store accounts but was not sure. They couldn’t be much anyway. Perhaps she could have someone to do the work until the baby came. Then she could rest; she needed rest, for, not being able to retain her food for more than a few minutes, she had not much to live on and was very emaciated. It would be nice to let someone else do the cooking. The smell of cooking always made her feel so nauseated now. Manly cut the fifty acres of oats with the new McCormick binder that day. He was jubilant at night. It was a wonderful crop of oats and early tomorrow he would begin on the wheat. But, the next morning, when Manly had cut twice around the wheat field, he unhitched and came back to the barn with the team. The wheat would be better for standing a couple of days longer. When he came to cut into it, it was not quite so ripe as he had thought, and he would take no chance of shrunken kernels by its being cut a little green, Manly said. But it was even heavier than he had figured, and if it didn’t go above forty bushels to the acre, he was mistaken. Laura felt impatient. She was in a hurry for the wheat to be cut and safely stacked. From the window she could see the shining new binder standing at the edge of the grain and it looked impatient too, she thought.
After noon that day the DeVoes came by. Cora stopped to spend some time while her husband Walter went on to town. The DeVoes were about the same age as Laura and Manly and had been married about as long. Laura and Cora were very good friends and it was a pleasant afternoon except for being rather uncomfortable from the heat.
As the afternoon passed it grew hotter and there was no wind, which was unusual. It left one gasping for breath and feeling smothered. About three o’clock Manly came in from the barn and said it was going to rain for sure. He was glad he had not been cutting the wheat to have it lie in a rainstorm before he could get it shocked. The sunshine darkened, and the wind sighed and then fell again as it grew darker yet. Then the wind rose a little, and it grew lighter, but the light was a greenish color. Then the storm came. It rained only a little; then hailstones began to fall, at first scattering slowly, then falling thicker and faster while the stones were larger, some of them as large as hens’ eggs.
Manly and Cora watched from the windows. They could not see far into the rain and hail, but they saw Ole Larsen, across the road, come to his door and step out. Then they saw him fall, and someone reached out the door, took hold of his feet and dragged him in. Then the door shut.
“The fool,” Manly said, “he got a hailstone on the head.”
In just twenty minutes the storm was over, and when they could see as far as the field, the binder was still there but the wheat was lying flat. “It’s got the wheat, I guess,” Manly said. But Laura could not speak.
Then Manly went across the road to find out what had happened to Mr. Larsen. When he came back, in a few minutes, he said that Mr. Larsen had stepped out to pick up a hailstone so large that he wished to measure it. Just as he stooped to pick it up, another one hit him on the head. He was unconscious for several minutes after he was dragged in by the heels, but was all right now except for a sore head.
“And now let’s make some ice cream,” Manly said. “You stir it up, Laura, and I’ll gather up the hailstones to freeze it.”
Laura turned to Cora where she stood speechless, looking out of the window. “Do you feel like celebrating, Cora?” she asked. And Cora answered, “No! I want to get home and see what has happened there. Ice cream would choke me!”
The storm had lasted only twenty minutes but it left a desolate, rain-drenched and hail-battered world. Unscreened windows were broken. Where there were screens they were broken and bent. The ground was covered with hailstones so thickly, it looked covered with a sheet of ice, and they even lay in drifts here and there. Leaves and branches were stripped off the young trees and the sun shone with a feeble, watery light over the wreck. The wreck, thought Laura, of a year’s work, of hopes and plans of ease and pleasure. Well, there would be no threshers to cook for. Laura had dreaded the threshing. As Ma used to say, “There is no great loss without some small gain.” That she should think of so small a gain bothered Laura.
She and Cora sat white and silent until Walter drove up to the door, helped Cora into the wagon, and drove away almost forgetting to say good-by in their anxiety to get home and learn how bad the storm had been there.
Manly went out to look at the wheat field and came in sober enough. “There is no wheat to cut,” he said. “It is all threshed and pounded into the ground. Three thousand dollars’ worth of wheat planted, and it’s the wrong time of the year.”
Laura was muttering to herself, “The poor man gets his—”
“What’s that?” Manly asked.
“I was only saying,” Laura answered, “that the poor man got his ice in the summer this time.”
At two o’clock the next day hailstones were still lying in drifts in low places. Though plans are wrecked, the pieces must be gathered up and put together again in some shape. Winter was coming. Coal must be bought to last through. That would cost between sixty and one hundred dollars. Seed grain would have to be bought for next spring’s sowing. There were notes on the machinery coming due. There was the binder that had been used to cut only fifty acres of oats; there was the sulky plow and the mower and rake, the seeder that had sown the grain in the spring, and the new wagon. There was too the five hundred dollars still due on the building of the house. “Five hundred dollars’ debt on the house!” Laura exclaimed. “Oh, I didn’t know that!”
“No,” Manly said. “I didn’t think there was any need to bother you about that.” But something must be done about all this, and he would go to town tomorrow and see what could be done. Perhaps he could raise money with a mortgage on the homestead. That was proved up on, thank goodness. He couldn’t give a mortgage on the tree claim. That belonged to Uncle Sam until Manly had raised those trees. And Laura thought she could hear her father singing, “Our Uncle Sam is rich enough to give us all a farm!” Sometimes Laura was afraid her head was a little flighty, but that extra five hundred dollars’ debt had been something of a shock. Five hundred and two hundred was seven hundred, and the wagon and the mower… She must stop counting it or she would have her head queer.
Manly found he could renew all his machinery notes for a year by paying the interest. He could even make the first payment on the binder after the next harvest, postponing the second payment to the year after. He could sell all the wild hay he had for four dollars a ton delivered at the railroad in town. Buyers wanted it to ship to Chicago.
But he could not raise money with a mortgage on the homestead unless they were living on it. He must have money to pay the interest due, for living expenses, and for seed. There was no way to get the money except by moving to the homestead. If they were living on the homestead he could mortgage it for eight hundred dollars. A newcomer would buy Kate and Bill for more than Manly had paid for them. Manly would not need them, for he had found a renter for the tree claim on shares; Manly would furnish the seed.
Skip and Barnum, with Trixy and Fly to do the driving, could do the work on the one place. If someone else worked the tree claim, Manly could raise more crops on the homestead and have more profit from the farms than if he tried to work both claims all by himself. An addition would have to be built on the homestead claim shanty before they moved but they could do with one new room and a cellar underneath through using the original shanty for a storeroom.
So it was decided. Manly hurried to stack the oats, which the hail had threshed to the ground, but the oat straw made good animal feed to take the place of hay and that would leave more hay to sell.
When the oats were hauled to the homestead and stacked, Manly dug the hole in the ground for the cellar, and over it built the one-room addition to the claim shanty. Then he built the frame of a barn, cut slough hay, and when it was dry stacked it around the frame to make a hay barn.
Everything was ready now for the moving. Manly and Laura moved to the homestead the next day after the barn was finished. It was the twenty-fifth of August. And the winter and summer were the first year.