The First Four Years (Chapter 3)
The First Four Years
Laura Ingalls Wilder
The Third Year
With the coming of cool weather, Laura proposed moving the cook-stove back into the bed-sitting room, and she could not understand why Manly put it off, until one day when he came from town with a hardcoal heater. It was a beautiful stove, the black iron nicely polished and all the nickel trimmings shining brightly.
Manly explained how buying the stove would be a saving in the end. It would take so little coal to keep it going that even though the price per ton was twelve dollars instead of the soft-coal price of six, the cost would be less. Then there would be a steady, even heat night as well as day. It would keep them from taking cold by being first warm then chilly, as with the cook-stove. The nickel top of the new stove was movable and all the cooking except baking could be done in it. On baking days a fire could be made in the summer kitchen. Rose was creeping, or rather hitching herself, around on the floor these days, and the floor must be kept warm for her.
Laura felt that they couldn’t afford the beautiful new stove, but that was Manly’s business. She need not bother about it—and he did suffer with the cold. It seemed as though he could never get clothes warm enough. She was knitting him a whole long-sleeved undershirt of fine, soft, Shetland wool yarn for a Christmas surprise. It was difficult to keep it hidden from him and get it finished, but after Christmas she could knit its mate easily.
Manly wore the new shirt when they drove in the cutter to eat Christmas dinner with the home folks.
It was dark when they started for home again and it had begun to snow. Luckily it was not a blizzard but only a snowstorm and, of course, a wind. Rose was warmly wrapped and sheltered in Laura’s arms, with blankets and robes wrapped around them both and Manly in his fur coat beside them. The going was slow against the storm in the darkness and after some time Manly stopped the horses. “I believe they’re off the road. They don’t like to face the wind,” he said. He unwrapped himself from the robes, climbed out of the cutter, and looked closely at the ground, trying to find the tracks of the road, but the snow had covered every sign of it. But finally by scraping away the snow with his feet, he found the wheel tracks of the road underneath and only a little to one side.
So Manly walked the rest of the way, keeping to the road by the faint signs of it that he could find now and then, while all around in the darkness was falling snow and empty open prairie. They were thankful when they reached home and the warmth of the hard-coal base-burner. And Manly said his new undershirt had proven its worth.
Though the weather was cold, there were no bad blizzards and the winter was slipping by very pleasantly Laura’s Cousin Peter had come up from the southern part of the state and was working for the Whiteheads, neighbors who lived several miles to the north. He often came to see them on Sunday.
To surprise Manly on his birthday Laura asked Peter and the Whiteheads to dinner, cooking and baking in the summer kitchen. It was a pleasant day and warm for winter and the dinner was a great success.
But in spite of the warm day Laura caught a severe cold and had a touch of fever so that she must stay in bed. Ma came over to see how she was and took Rose home with her for a few days. Instead of getting better, the cold got worse and settled in Laura’s throat. The doctor when he came said it was not a cold at all but a bad case of diphtheria.
Well, at least Rose was out of it and safe with Ma, if she had not taken it with her. But there were several anxious days, while Manly cared for Laura, until the doctor reported that Rose had escaped the disease. But then Manly came down with it, and on his morning visit, the doctor ordered him to bed with strict orders to stay there. He said he would send someone out from town to help them. A short time after the doctor went away, Manly’s brother Royal came out to care for them. He was a bachelor, living alone, and thought he was the one could best come.
So both in the same room, with the crudest of care, Manly and Laura spent the miserable, feverish days. Laura’s attack had been dangerous, while Manly’s was light.
At last they were both up and around again, but the doctor had given his last advice and warning against overexertion. Royal, tired and half sick himself, had gone home, and Laura and Manly, well wrapped, had spent a day in the summer kitchen while the sick room was fumigated. Then after a few days longer, Rose was brought home. She had learned to walk while she had been away and she seemed to have grown much older. But it was very pleasant to have her taking her little running steps around the room, and most of all, it was good to be well again. Laura thought the trouble was all over now. But that was not to be for many a day yet. Manly—disregarding the doctor’s warning—had worked too hard, and one cold morning he nearly fell as he got out of bed, because he could not use his legs properly. They were numb to his hips and it was only after much rubbing that he could get about with Laura’s help. But together they did the chores; after breakfast, Laura helped him hitch up the wagon and he went to town to see the doctor.
“A slight stroke of paralysis,” the doctor said, “from overexertion too soon after the diphtheria.” From that day on there was a struggle to keep Manly’s legs so that he could use them. Some days they were better and again they were worse, but gradually he improved until he could go about his usual business if he was careful. In the meantime, spring had come. Sickness with its doctor bills had been expensive. There was no money to go on until another harvest. The renter on the tree claim was moving away and Manly in his condition could not work both pieces of land. The tree claim was not proved up and the young trees must be cultivated to hold it. Something must be done. And in this emergency a buyer for the homestead came along. He would assume the eight-hundred-dollar mortgage and give Manly two hundred. And so the homestead was sold and Manly and Laura moved back to the tree claim one early spring day. The little house was in bad order, but a little paint, a few fly screens, and a good cleaning made it fresh and sweet again. Laura felt that she was back home, and it was easier for Manly to walk on the level ground to the barn than it had been for him to climb up and down the hill on the homestead. He was gradually overcoming the effect of the stroke but still would fall down if he happened to stub his toe. He could not step over a piece of board in his way but must go around it. His fingers were clumsy so that he could neither hitch up nor unhitch his team, but he could drive them once they were ready to go.
So Laura hitched up the horses and helped him get started and then was on hand ready to help him unhitch when he drove them back. The renter had taken the tree claim with the fall plowing done so he turned it back to Manly plowed. Manly had only to harrow and seed the fields. It was slow work but he finished in good time.
The rains came as needed and the wheat and oats grew well. If it would only keep on raining often—and not hail.
There were three little calves in the barn lot and two young colts running all over the place, plus the colt they had bought with Laura’s school money, now a three-year-old and grown out nicely. The little flock of hens were laying nicely. Oh, things weren’t so bad after all.
Rose was toddling about the house, playing with the kitten or clinging to Laura’s skirts as she went about the work.
It was a busy summer for Laura, what with the housework, caring for Rose, and helping Manly whenever he needed her. But she didn’t mind doing it all, for Manly was recovering the use of his hands and feet.
Slowly the paralysis was wearing off. He was spending a great deal of time working among the young trees. It had been too dry for them to grow well the summer before and they were not starting as they should this spring. Some of them had died. The dead ones Manly replaced, setting the new ones carefully. He pruned them all, dug around their roots, and then plowed all the ground between.
And the wheat and oats grew rank and green.
“We’ll be all right this year,” Manly said.
“One good crop will straighten us out and there never was a better prospect.” The horses were not working hard now. Skip and Barnum did what was necessary and the ponies, Trixy and Fly, were growing fat on their picket ropes. Manly said they should be ridden, but Laura could not leave Rose alone; neither could she take her during the day with safety and pleasure.
It was quiet and there was nothing to do after supper when Rose was put to bed. She was so tired with her play that she slept soundly for hours. So Laura and Manly came to saddling the ponies and riding them on the road before the house, on the run for a half mile south and back, then around the half-circle drive before the house, a pause to see that Rose was still sleeping, and a half mile run north and back for another look at Rose until the ponies and riders were ready to stop. Trixy and Fly enjoyed the races they ran in the moonlight and the shying at the shadow of a bunch of hay in the road or the quick jump of a jack rabbit across it.
Cousin Peter came one Sunday to tell Manly and Laura that Mr. Whitehead wanted to sell his sheep, a hundred purebred Shropshires. A presidential election was coming in the fall and it looked as though the Democrats were due to win. If they did, Mr. Whitehead, being a good Republican, was sure the country would be ruined. The tariff would be taken off, and wool and sheep would be worth nothing. Peter was sure they could be bought at a bargain. He would buy them himself if only he had a place to keep them. “How much of a bargain? What would you have to pay?” Manly asked.
Peter was sure he could buy them for two dollars apiece since Mr. Whitehead was feeling particularly uneasy about the election. “And the sale of their wool next spring ought nearly to pay for them,” he added. There were one hundred sheep. Peter had one hundred dollars due him in wages. That would be half of the money needed to buy them at two dollars each. Laura was thinking aloud. They had land enough by using the school section that lay just south of them: a whole section of land with good grazing and hay free to whoever got there first and used it. For the first time Laura was glad of the Dakota law that gave two sections in every township to the schools. And especially glad that one of them adjoined their tree claim.
“We’d have pasture and hay enough and we could build good shelter,” Manly said.
“But the other one hundred dollars?” Laura asked doubtfully.
Manly reminded her of the colt that they had bought with her school money, and said he believed he could sell it now for one hundred dollars. She could buy half the sheep if she wanted to gamble on them.
And so it was decided. If Peter could get the sheep for two hundred, Laura would pay half. Peter was to care for the sheep, herding them on the school section in summer. Together Peter and Manly would put up the hay, with Manly furnishing teams of machinery. Back of the hay barn they would build on another one for the sheep, opening onto a yard fenced with wire. Peter would live with them and help with the chores in return. A few days after the colt was sold, Peter came driving the sheep into the yard that had been built for them. There were a hundred good ewes and six old ones that had been thrown in for nothing.
Every morning after that, Peter drove the sheep out onto the school section to graze, carefully herding them away from the grass that would be mowed for hay.
The rains came frequently. It even seemed as though the winds did not blow as hard as usual, and the wheat and oats grew splendidly. The days hurried along toward harvest. Just a little while longer now and all would be well with the crop.
Fearful of hail, Manly and Laura watched the clouds. If only it would not hail.
As the days passed bringing no hailstorm, Laura found herself thinking, Everything will even up in the end; the rich have their ice in the summer but the poor get theirs in the winter. When she caught herself at it, she would laugh with a nervous catch in her throat. She must not allow herself to be under such a strain. But if only they could harvest and sell this crop, it would mean so much. Just to be free of debt and have the interest money to use for themselves would make everything so much easier through the winter that was coming soon. At last the wheat was in the milk and again Manly estimated that the yield would be forty bushels to the acre. Then one morning the wind blew strong from the south and it was a warm wind. Before noon the wind was hot and blowing harder. And for three days the hot wind blew. When it died down at last and the morning of the fourth was still, the wheat was dried and yellow. The grains were cooked in the milk, all dried and shrunken, absolutely shriveled. It was not worth harvesting as wheat but Manly hitched Skip and Barnum to the mowing machine and mowed it and the oats, to be stacked like hay and fed without threshing to the stock as a substitute for both hay and grain.
As soon as this was done, haying was begun, for they must cut the hay on the school section ahead of anyone else. It was theirs if they were the first to claim and cut it. Laura and Rose went to the hayfield again. Laura drove the mower while Manly raked the hay cut the afternoon before. And a neighbor boy was hired to herd the sheep while Peter helped Manly stack the hay. They stacked great ricks of hay all around the sheep barn and on three sides of the sheep yard, leaving the yard open on the south side only. And the twenty-fifth of August came and passed and the third year of farming was ended.