The First Four Years (Chapter 2)
The First Four Years
Laura Ingalls Wilder
The Second Year
It was a beautiful day, the twenty-fifth of August, 1886, when Manly and Laura moved to the homestead.
“A fine day, as fine as our wedding day just a year ago, and it’s a new start just as that was. And a new home, if it is some smaller.
“We’ll be all right now. You’ll see! ‘Everything evens up in the end. The rich man—’”
His voice trailed silent but Laura couldn’t help finishing the Irishman’s saying to herself: “The rich man has his ice in the summer and the poor man gets his in the winter.” Well, they had got theirs in that hailstorm and in the summer too. But she mustn’t think about that now. The thing to do was to get things arranged in the new home and make it cheerful for Manly. Poor Manly, he was having a hard time and doing his very best. The house wasn’t so bad. The one new room was narrow (twelve feet by sixteen) and not very long, facing the south with a door and a window on a narrow porch, closed at the west end by the old claim shanty.
There was a window in the east end of the room. The looking glass was hung beside it in the south corner and the parlor table stood under it. The head of the bed came close to the window on the other side and extended along the north wall.
The kitchen stove was in the northwest corner of the room and a kitchen cupboard stood beside it. The kitchen-dining table stood against the west wall close to the south end.
The carpet from the old bedroom was across the east end of the room, and the armchair and Laura’s little rocking chair stood on it, close to each other between the windows. The sun came in through the east window in the mornings and shone across the room. It was all very snug and pleasant.
The room that had been the claim shanty was convenient as a storage room, and the stock were comfortable in their new barn. Sheltered from the north and west by the low hill and facing south, it would be warm in winter.
The whole place was new and fresh. The wind waved the tall grass in the slough that stretched from the foot of the hill by the barn to the south and to the east line of the farm. The house was at the top of the low hill and there would always be grassland in front of it. The plowland lay to the north of the hill out of sight from the house. Laura was glad of that. She loved the sweep of unbroken prairie with the wild grasses waving in the winds. To be sure the whole place was grass land now, except for a small field. Ten acres of cultivated land were required by law before proving up on a homestead. But the grass to the north of the house was upland, blue stem, and not the tall slough grass that grew so rankly in low places. It was haying time, and every day counted in the amount of hay that could be put up before winter. Because of the hailstorm, hay would be the only crop this year. So as soon as breakfast was over on the day after the moving, Manly hitched Skip and Barnum to the mowing machine and began cutting hay. Laura left her morning’s work undone and went with him to see the work started, and then because the air was so fresh and the new-cut hay so clean and sweet, she wandered over the field, picking the wild sunflowers and Indian paintbrush. Presently she went slowly back to the house and her unfinished tasks.
She didn’t want to stay in the house. There would be so much of that after the baby came. And she felt much better out in the fresh air. So after that she did as little as possible in the house, and instead stayed out in the hayfield with Manly. When he loaded the hay in the big hayrack to haul to the barn, Laura, already in the wagon, stepped up on each forkful as it was pitched in and so gradually rose with the load until she was on the top, ready to ride to the barn. At the barn she slid down the hay into Manly’s arms and was safely on the ground.
Manly made the stacks in the field with a bull rake. The bull rake was a long wide plank with long wooden teeth set in it at intervals for the whole length. A horse was hitched at each end, and, walking one on each side of a long windrow of hay, they pulled the plank sideways. The long teeth slipped under the hay and it piled up in front of the plank and was pushed along the ground.
When there was enough of a load and it was where the stack was to be, Manly tipped the plank. It went over the top of the hay which was left in a pile. Several of these piles started the stack. Then as the horses came to it, one went on each side of the stack, the rake went on up, Manly followed it and spilled the hay on top of the stack and then went down the other end after another load.
Barnum was good and always walked along with his end of the plank on his side of the stack. But Skip stopped when he had no driver, so Laura drove Skip the length of the stack and then sat against the sweet hay on the sunny side while Manly would bring up another load with the rake. When the stack was high enough, Manly raked down the sides with his pitchfork and gathered up all the scattered hay around and against it, making it all neat and even. Then he topped the stack with a load of hay from the wagon. So the nice fall weather passed. Nights grew cooler, frost came. The haying was finished. Manly had mortgaged the homestead for eight hundred dollars, so now he could buy the coal for winter, and it was stored in the storeroom. The taxes of sixty dollars (there were no taxes on the tree claim because they had no title yet) were paid. Interest, on the notes given for machinery, was paid. There was money for seed in the spring and to live on, they hoped, until next harvest.
The hay had helped. Manly had sold thirty tons at four dollars a ton, and the $120 was a year’s income from crops.
Wild geese were late coming from the north, and when they did, seemed in no hurry to go on south. Instead they fed in the sloughs and flew from one lake to the other, where the water was nearly covered with them as they swam about. The sky was filled with their V-shaped flocks and the air rang to their calls. Manly hurried into the house for his gun one day.
“A flock of geese is coming over so low, I believe I can get one,” he told Laura. Quickly he went out the door, and forgetting that the old gun kicked, he held it up before his face, sighted, and pulled the trigger. Laura followed him just in time to see him whirl around with his hand to his face.
“Oh, did you hit a goose?” she asked.
“Yes, but I didn’t quite kill it,” he answered, as he wiped the blood from his nose. The flock of geese went on unharmed to join their kindred at the lake.
It was going to be an open winter; the geese knew there was no hurry to go south. The small field was soon plowed and the hurry of work was over.
In November, the snow came and covered the ground, making good sleighing. Manly and Laura, well bundled up and covered with robes, went often for sleigh rides on sunny afternoons. Because Laura felt so much better outdoors, Manly made a handsled and a breast-collar-harness for Old Shep. On pleasant days Laura hitched Shep to the handsled and let him pull her on it down the hill to the road. Then together they would climb the hill, Shep pulling the sled and Laura walking beside him to take another ride down until she was tired from the walking and the fun. Shep never got tired of it, and at times when the sled tipped against a drift and Laura rolled into the snow he seemed actually to laugh.
And so November passed and December came.
The sun was shining on the morning of the fifth of December, but it looked stormy in the north.
“Better play outdoors all you can today, for it may be too stormy tomorrow,” Manly said. So, soon after breakfast Laura hitched Shep to the sled and took the day’s first ride down the hill. But she stayed out only a little while.
“I don’t feel like playing,” she told Manly when he came up from the barn. “I would rather curl up by the stove.” And again after the dinner work was done she sat idly by the stove in her little rocking chair, which worried Manly. Along in the afternoon Manly went to the barn and came back with the horses hitched to the sleigh.
“I’m going for your Ma,” he said. “Keep as quiet as you can until we come.” It was snowing hard now as from the window Laura watched him drive down the road with the team trotting their best. She thought that the pace would have won them the prize at the Fourth of July races. Then she walked the floor or sat by the stove until Manly came back with her Ma.
“My goodness,” Ma exclaimed, as she warmed herself by the fire. “You should not be up. I’ll get you to bed right away.” And Laura answered, “I’ll have a long time to stay in bed. I am going to stay up now as long as I can.”
But soon she made no objections and only vaguely knew when Manly drove away again to fetch a friend of her Ma’s from town. Mrs. Power was a friendly, jolly Irish woman. The first Laura knew of her being there was hearing her say, “Sure she’ll be all right, for it’s young she is. Nineteen you say; the very age of my Mary. But we’d better have the doctor out now, I’m thinking.” When Laura could again see and know what went on around her, Ma and Mrs. Power were standing one on each side of her bed. And was that Manly at the foot? No! Manly had gone for the doctor. Then were there two Mas and two Mrs. Powers? They seemed to be all around her.
What was that old hymn Pa used to sing?
Come and around me stand,
Oh, bear me away on your snowy wings to—
She was being borne away on a wave of pain. A gust of cold, fresh air brought her back and she saw a tall man drop his snowy overcoat by the door and come toward her in the lamplight. She vaguely felt a cloth touch her face and smelled a keen odor. Then she drifted away into a blessed darkness where there was no pain. When Laura opened her eyes, the lamp was still shining brightly over the room, and Ma was bending over her with the doctor standing beside her. And in the bed by her side was a little warm bundle.
“See your little daughter, Laura! A beautiful baby, and she weighs just eight pounds,” Ma said.
“It’s a fine girl you are yourself,” Mrs. Power said from where she was sitting by the fire. “A fine, brave girl, and baby’ll be good because of it. You’ll be all right now.”
So Manly took the doctor and Mrs. Power home, but Ma stayed, and Laura went to sleep at once with her hand resting gently on little Rose. Rose was such a good baby, so strong and healthy that Ma stayed only a few days. Then Hattie Johnson came. “To wash baby this time, instead of windows,” she said. But soon Hattie went and the three, Manly, Laura, and Rose, were left by themselves in the little house atop the low hill with the sweep of the empty prairie all around it.
There was not a house near enough for neighbors, but a mile away across the slough a few buildings on the edge of town were in sight. A hundred precious dollars had gone for doctor bills and medicine and help through the summer and winter so far; but after all, a Rose in December was much rarer than a rose in June, and must be paid for accordingly.
Christmas was at hand and Rose was a grand present. Then the day before Christmas Manly hauled a load of hay to town and brought back the most beautiful clock. It stood nearly two feet high from its solid walnut base to the carved leaf at its very top. The glass door that covered the face was wreathed with a gilt vine on which four gilt birds fluttered, and the pendulum that swung to and fro behind them was the color of gold too. The clock had such a pleasant, cheerful voice as it said tick, tock, and when it struck the hours its tone was clear and sweet. Laura loved it at once.
The old round, nickel alarm clock could not be depended on to tell the right time, but still it would have answered the need, and Laura said doubtfully, “But ought you—” Then Manly told her he had traded the load of hay for it, and it would be a Christmas present for all three of them. The hay he had kept for feed was holding out so well that there would be more than enough to take the stock through the rest of the winter, and he couldn’t have sold the load of hay for money because they were not shipping anymore. Christmas was a happy time even though it was a stormy day, and they stayed quietly at home.
After the Christmas storm the weather was clear and sunny but cold—twenty-five and thirty below zero on some days.
But one day seemed unusually warm and Laura had been at home so long, she wanted to go for a sleigh ride to see Ma and Pa. Could they take the baby out safely?
They were sure they could. Some blankets were put to warming by the stove. Manly drove the cutter close to the door and made a little warm nest of them in the shelter of the dashboard. Rose was wrapped in her own warm blankets and little red cloak and hood, with a thin blue silk handkerchief lightly covering her face, and tucked tightly in among the blankets in the cutter. Then away they went, the horses stepping quickly and the sleigh bells singing merrily Several times Laura put her hand in among the blankets and touched Rose’s face to be sure that she was warm and that there was air beneath the veil.
It seemed only a few minutes until they drove up to the old homeplace and went quickly into the house, where Ma and Pa both scolded them well.
“You’re crazy!” Pa said. “Out with that baby when it is fifteen below.” And so it was by the thermometer. “She might have smothered,” Ma added.
“But I watched. She couldn’t have,” Laura answered. And Rose waggled her fingers and cooed. She was warm and happy and had had a good nap. Laura had never thought it might be dangerous to take the baby out, and she was anxious on the way home and glad when they were safely there. It seemed there was a good deal to taking care of babies.
There were no more sleigh rides for some time, and then one day that was really warm they drove the four miles to see their good friends, the Boasts.
Mr. and Mrs. Boast lived by themselves on their farm. They had no children and could hardly make fuss enough over Rose.
When at last the visit was over and Mr. Boast was standing by the buggy to see them start, he started to speak, then hesitated and finally said in a queer voice, “If you folks will let me take the baby in to Ellie for her to keep, you may take the best horse out of my stable there and lead it home.”
Manly and Laura were still in astonishment, and Mr. Boast went on. “You folks can have another baby and we can’t. We never can.” Manly gathered up the reins, and Laura said with a little gasp, “Oh, no! No! Drive on, Manly!” As they drove away, she hugged Rose tightly; but she was sorry for Mr. Boast as he stood still where they had left him, and for Mrs. Boast waiting in the house, knowing, she was sure, what Mr. Boast was going to propose to them.
The rest of the winter passed quickly. There were no more storms and the weather was warm for the season. April came and on all the farms seeding was begun.
On the twelfth of April, Manly went down to the barn to hitch up for the afternoon’s work. When he went into the barn the sun was shining warmly and he had no thought of storm. But when the horses were combed and brushed and harnessed, just as he was starting to take them out, there was a crash as of something smashing against the whole side of the barn. Then he heard the shriek of the wind and looking out could see nothing but whirling snow. A blizzard in April!
Why, it was time for spring’s work! Manly could hardly believe his eyes. He rubbed them and looked again. Then he unharnessed the team and went to the house. It was quite a little way to go and nothing whatever could be seen except the whirling snow, but there were things scattered along the path—the cutter, the wagon, the bobsled. Taking his direction from the way each stood as he came to it, he went on to the next and came safely to the porch and the house. Laura was anxiously trying to see from the window to the barn, hoping for a glimpse of Manly coming, but she couldn’t see him until the door opened. It was the worst storm of the winter and lasted two days, with no slacking of the wind which held steadily to its high wild shriek.
But all was snug at the house. The stock were safe and warm in the barn, and following the line of sleds and wagon, Manly managed to get safely to them and back once a day to give them water and fill the mangers.
When on the morning of the third day the sun rose bright and the wind came only in low gusts, it looked a wintry world. A good many people had been caught in the storm and two travelers nearby had lost their lives.
While Mr. Bowers was working in his field, two miles south of town, two strangers had come walking from town. They stopped and inquired the way to Mr. Mathews, saying they were friends of his from Illinois. Mr. Bowers pointed out Mr. Mathews’ house to them, in plain sight across the prairie, and the strangers went on their way. Soon the storm struck and Mr. Bowers went from the field to his buildings and shelter. The day the storm was over, Mr. Bowers saw Mr. Mathews passing on his way to town and inquired about his friends from Illinois. Mr. Mathews had not seen them, so the two went searching for them.
The two strange men were found in a haystack that stood by itself on the open prairie, considerably off the course they should have followed. They had pulled hay out of the stack and lighted it to make a fire. They evidently had given up the idea of keeping warm by an open fire in the wind and snow and had crawled into the hole in the haystack. There they had frozen to death. If they had kept walking, they could have “walked out” the storm, for it lasted only two days. Or if they had been properly dressed, they would not have frozen inside the haystack. But their clothes were thin, for springtime in Illinois, and not for a western blizzard.
The snow was soon gone again, and spring really came, with the singing of meadow larks and the sweetness of violets and new grass as all the prairie turned a beautiful soft green. Laura put Rose in a clothes basket with her tiny sunbonnet on her head and set the basket nearby while she and Manly planted the garden. The old dog Shep was gone. He never had become reconciled to Rose but always was jealous of her. One day he went away and never came back, and his fate was never known. But a friendly, stray Saint Bernard, a huge, black dog, had come to the house and been adopted in Shep’s place. The Saint Bernard seemed to think his special job was to watch over Rose, and wherever she was, there he would be curled around her or sitting up close against her. The cook-stove was moved into the storeroom, leaving the other room cooler for the hot weather, and in the summer kitchen Laura worked happily, with Rose and the big, black dog playing or sleeping on the floor.
There could be no horseback riding safely with a baby, but Laura did not miss it so much, because Manly fastened a drygoods box in the front of the road-cart, leaving just enough room for Laura’s feet at the end where the driver sat.
When the work was done after dinner, Laura would hitch Barnum to the road-cart and with Rose in her pink sunbonnet sitting in the box would drive away wherever she cared to go. Sometimes she went to town, but more often to see her Ma and the girls.
At first Ma was afraid to have Rose travel that way, but soon she became used to it. Although Barnum was a fast driver, he was as gentle as a kitten, and the cart on its two wheels was light and safe. Rose could not fall out of the box, and Laura was a good driver. She never had a moment’s uneasiness with Barnum hitched to the road-cart.
And Manly didn’t care how often she went, just so she came home in time to get supper. With housework, garden work, caring for and driving with Rose, the summer soon passed and it was haying time again. Now Rose sat in the shelter of a windrow of hay and watched while Laura drove Skip on the bull rake.
Laura and Manly both liked to stay out in the sunny hayfield, and leaving Rose asleep with the big dog watching over her, Laura sometimes drove Skip and Barnum on the mowing machine while Manly raked hay with Fly and Trixy. There were no threshers to cook for this fall, for the renters on the tree claim had the threshing done.
The yield of grain was not nearly so much as it should have been. The season had been too dry. And the price of wheat was lower—only fifty cents a bushel.
Still there was money enough to pay all the interest and some of the smaller notes, those for the mowing machine and horse rake and for the sulky plow, and the first payment was made on the harvester. There were still the wagon note and the five hundred dollars due on the house and the eight-hundred-dollar mortgage on the homestead. Seed must be kept for the next sowing, taxes must be paid, the coal must be bought, and they must live until after the next harvest. There would also be the hay again, and this year there were two steers to sell. They were nice large two-year-olds, and they would sell for twelve dollars each; twenty-four dollars would help buy groceries.
They hadn’t done so badly, considering the season.
The twenty-fifth of August had come again, and this winter and summer were the second year.