These Happy Golden Years Chapter 29)
These Happy Golden Years
Laura Ingalls Wilder
The heat was intense that week, and in church on Sunday morning Laura gasped for air. Shimmering heat waves quivered upward outside the windows, and the fitful little breezes were hot.
When church was over, Almanzo was waiting outside to take Laura home. As he helped her into the buggy he said, “Your mother asked me to dinner, and afterward we will exercise these horses again. It will be hot this afternoon,” he said in the buggy, “but driving will be pleasanter than sitting in the house, if it doesn’t storm.”
“My feathers are sewed on tight,” Laura laughed. “So let the wind blow.”
Soon after Ma’s good Sunday dinner, they set out, driving southward over the gently rolling, endless prairie. The sun shone fiercely, and even in the shade of the swiftly moving buggy top, the heat was oppressive. Instead of flowing smoothly and cool, the breeze came in warm puffs.
The shimmering heat-waves made a silvery appearance that retreated before them on the road ahead, like water, and phantom winds played in the grasses, twisting them in frantic writhings and passing on, up and away.
After a time, dark clouds began to gather in the northwest, and the heat grew still more intense.
“This is a queer afternoon. I think we’d better go home,” Almanzo said.
“Yes, let’s do, and hurry,” Laura urged. “I don’t like the way the weather feels.”
The black mass of clouds was rising quickly as Almanzo turned the horses toward home. He stopped them and gave the reins to Laura. “Hold them while I put on the buggy curtains. It’s going to rain,” he said.
Quickly, behind the buggy, he unbuttoned the straps that held the top’s back curtain rolled up. He let it unroll, and buttoned it at the sides and bottom, tightly closing in the back of the buggy. Then from under the seat he brought out the two side curtains, and buttoned them along their tops and sides to the sides of the buggy top, closing them in.
Then, back in his seat, he unrolled the rubber storm apron, and set the pleat in its bottom edge over the top of the dashboard, where it fitted snugly.
Laura admired the cleverness of this storm apron. There was a slot in it that fitted over the whipsocket, so the whip stood up in its place. There was a slit, through which Almanzo passed the lines; he could hold them in his hands under the storm apron, and a flap fell over the slit, to keep rain from coming in. The apron was so wide that it came down to the buggy box on either side, and it buttoned up to the side frames of the buggy top.
All this was done quickly. In a moment or two, Laura and Almanzo were snugly sheltered in a box of rubber curtains. No rain could come through the apron, the curtains, nor the buggy top overhead. Above the edge of the storm apron, that was as high as their chins, they could look out.
As Almanzo took the lines from Laura and started the horses, he said, “Now let it rain!”
“Yes,” Laura said, “if it must, but maybe we can beat the storm home.”
Almanzo was already urging the team. They went swiftly, but even more swiftly the black cloud rose, rolling and rumbling in the sky. Laura and Almanzo watched it in silence. The whole earth seemed silent and motionless in terror. The sound of the horses’ fast-trotting feet and the tiny creaks of the speeding buggy seemed small in the stillness.
The swelling great mass of clouds writhed and wrestled, twisting together as if in fury and agony. Flickers of red lightning stabbed through them. Still the air was motionless and there was no sound. The heat increased. Laura’s bangs were damp with perspiration, and uncurling on her forehead, while trickles ran down her cheeks and her neck. Almanzo urged on the horses.
Almost overhead now, the tumbling, swirling clouds changed from black to a terrifying greenish-purple. They seemed to draw themselves together, then a groping finger slowly came out of them and stretched down, trying to reach the earth. It reached, and pulled itself up, and reached again.
“How far away is that?” Laura asked.
“Ten miles, I’d say,” Almanzo replied.
It was coming toward them, from the northwest, as they sped toward the northeast. No horses, however fast they ran, could outrun the speed of those clouds. Green-purple, they rolled in the sky above the helpless prairie, and reached toward it playfully as a cat’s paw torments a mouse.
A second point came groping down, behind the first. Then another. All three reached and withdrew and reached again, down from the writhing clouds.
Then they all turned a little toward the south. One after another, quickly, all three points touched the earth, under the cloud-mass and traveling swiftly with it. They passed behind the buggy, to the west, and went on southward. A terrific wind blew suddenly, so strong that the buggy swayed, but that storm had passed. Laura drew a long, shaking breath.
“If we had been home, Pa would have sent us down cellar,” she said. “And I would have been glad to go,” she added.
“We’d have needed a cellar, if that storm had come our way. I never did run to a cyclone cellar, but if I ever meet a cloud like that, I will,” Almanzo admitted.
The wind abruptly changed. It blew from the southwest and brought a sudden cold with it.
“Hail,” Almanzo said.
“Yes.” said Laura. Somewhere, hail had fallen from that cloud.
Everyone at home was glad to see them. Laura had never seen Ma so pale, nor so thankful. Pa said that they had shown good judgment in turning back when they did. “That storm is doing bad damage,” he said.
“It’s a good idea, out here in this country, to have a cellar,” said Almanzo. He asked what Pa thought of their driving out across country, where the storm had passed, to see if anyone needed help. So Laura was left at home, while Pa and Almanzo drove away.
Though the storm was gone and the sky now clear, still they were nervous.
The afternoon passed, and Laura had changed into her weekday clothes and with Carrie’s help had done the chores, before Pa and Almanzo came back. Ma set a cold supper on the table, and while they ate they told what they had seen in the path of the storm.
One settler not far south of town had just finished threshing his wheat crop from a hundred acres. It had been a splendid crop, that would have paid all his debts and left money in the bank. He and the threshers had been working that day to finish the job, and he was on a strawstack when they saw the storm coming.
He had just sent his two young boys to return a wagon he had borrowed from a neighbor to help in the threshing. He got into his cyclone cellar just in time. The storm carried away his grain, strawstacks and machinery, wagons, stables and house; everything. Nothing was left but his bare claim.
The two boys on the mules had disappeared completely. But just before Pa and Almanzo reached the place, the older boy had come back, stark naked. He was nine years old. He said that he and his brother were riding the mules home, running, when the storm struck them. It lifted them all together and carried them around in a circle, in the air, still harnessed together side by side. They were whirled around, faster and faster and higher, until he began to get dizzy and he shouted to his little brother to hold on tight to his mule. Just then the air filled thickly with whirling straw and darkened so that he could see nothing. He felt a jerk of the harness breaking apart, and then he must have fainted. For the next thing he knew, he was alone in clear air.
He could see the ground beneath him. He was being carried around in a circle, all the time sinking a little, until finally he was not far above the earth. He tried to spring up, to get his feet under him, then struck the ground running, ran a little way, and fell. After lying there a few moments to rest, he got up and made his way home.
He had come to the ground a little more than a mile from his father’s claim. There was not a shred of clothing left on him; even his high, laced boots had disappeared, but he was not hurt at all. It was a mystery how his boots had been taken from his feet without so much as bruising them.
Neighbors were searching far and wide for the other boy and the mules, but not a trace could be found of them. There could be hardly a hope that they were alive.
“Still, if that door came through,” Almanzo said.
“What door?” Carrie wanted to know.
That was the strangest thing that Pa and Almanzo had seen that day. It happened at another settler’s claim, farther south. Everything had been stripped clean off his place, too. When this man and his family came up from their cyclone cellar, two bare spots were all that were left of stable and house. Oxen, wagon, tools, chickens, everything was gone. They had nothing but the clothes they wore, and one quilt that his wife had snatched to wrap around the baby in the cellar.
This man said to Pa, “I’m a lucky man; I didn’t have a crop to lose.” They had moved onto their claim only that spring, and he had been able to put in only a few sod potatoes.
That afternoon about sunset, as Pa and Almanzo were coming back from searching for the lost boy, they came by this place and stopped for a moment. The homesteader and his family had been gathering boards and bits of lumber that the storm had dropped, and he was figuring how much more he would have to get to build them some kind of shelter.
While they stood considering this, one of the children noticed a small dark object high in the clear sky overhead. It did not look like a bird, but it appeared to be growing larger. They all watched it. For some time it fell slowly toward them, and they saw that it was a door. It came gently down before them. It was the front door of this man’s vanished claim shanty.
It was in perfect condition, not injured at all, not even scratched. The wonder was, where it had been all those hours, and that it had come slowly down from a clear sky, directly over the place where the claim shanty had been.
“I never saw a man more chirked up than he was,” said Pa. “Now he doesn’t have to buy a door for his new shanty. It even came back with the hinges on it.”
They were all amazed. In all their lives, none of them had ever heard of a stranger thing than the return of that door. It was awesome to think how far or how high it must have gone in air during all those hours.
“It’s a queer country out here,” Pa said. “Strange things happen.”
“Yes,” said Ma. “I’m thankful that so far they don’t happen to us.”
That next week Pa heard in town that the bodies of the lost boy and the mules had been found the next day. Every bone in them was broken. The clothing had been stripped from the boy and the harness from the mules. No scrap of clothing or harness was ever found.