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Little Town on the Prairie

Laura Ingalls Wilder

  His long brown whiskers were as they had always been.

  “What did you do with your whiskers?” Laura cried.

  Pa pretended to be surprised and puzzled, asking, “Why, what is wrong with my whiskers?”

  “Charles, you’ll be the death of me,” Ma said, helplessly laughing. But looking closely, Laura saw the smallest white smudge in the laughing-wrinkles at the corner of his eye, and she found a very little black grease in his whiskers.

  “I know! You blacked them and smoothed them down behind that high coat-collar!” she accused him, and he could not deny it. He had been the darky who rattled the bones.

  Such an evening came once in a lifetime, Ma said, and they all sat up late, talking about it. There would be no more Literaries that winter, for spring was coming soon.

  “We’ll move back to the claim as soon as school lets out,” Pa said. “How will all of you like that?”

  “I must be looking over my garden seeds,” Ma said thoughtfully.

  “I’ll be glad to go. Grace and I’ll pick violets again,” said Carrie. “Won’t you be glad, Grace?” But Grace was almost asleep in Ma’s lap in the rocking chair. She only opened one eye and murmured, “Vi’lets.”

  “How about you, Laura?” Pa asked. “I’ve been thinking that by now you might want to stay in town.”

  “I might,” Laura admitted. “I do like living in town better than I ever thought I would. But everyone will be moving out to hold down claims all summer, and we’ll come back to town next winter, won’t we?”

  “Yes, I really think we will,” said Pa. “We might as well, as long as I can’t rent this building, and it is safer for you girls going to school. Though we might as well have stayed on the claim this winter. Well, that’s the way it goes. Get ready for a hard winter, and there’s not so much as one blizzard.”

  He said it so comically that they all burst out laughing at the joke on them.

  After that, there was moving to think about, and in the warming air scented with damp earth, Laura felt less than ever like studying. She knew she could pass the examinations, even if her grades were not as high as they should be.

  When her conscience pricked her, she thought rebelliously that she wouldn’t see Ida and Mary Power and Minnie and the boys again, all summer long. She promised herself that she would study really hard, next summer.

  In the examinations she did not make one perfect grade. Her history grade was only 99, and in arithmetic she earned only 92 plus. That was her record, and she could never change it now.

  Then suddenly she knew that there must be no more self-indulgence. There were only ten months left, before she would be sixteen years old. Summer was before her, with blue skies and great blowing white clouds, the violets blooming in the buffalo wallow and the wild roses spangling the prairie grasses, but she must stay in the house and study. She must. If she did not, perhaps next spring she could not get a teacher’s certificate, and Mary might have to leave college.

  Chapter 22

  Unexpected In April

  Everything was settled in the little house on the homestead. Outdoors the snow was all gone, a green mist of new grass lay over the prairie, and plowed land spread black and sweet-smelling under the warm sun.

  For two hours that morning Laura had studied. Now as she cleared away the dinner dishes she saw her slate and schoolbooks waiting and she felt the soft breeze beguiling her to go walking with Carrie and Grace in the spring weather. She knew she had to study.

  “I think I’ll go to town this afternoon,” said Pa as he put on his hat. “Is there anything you want me to get, Caroline?”

  Suddenly the breeze was icy cold, and Laura looked quickly from the window. She exclaimed, “Pa! There’s a blizzard cloud!”

  “Why, it can’t be! This late in April?” Pa turned to see for himself.

  The sunlight went out, the sound of wind changed as it rose. The storm struck the little house. A whirling whiteness pressed against the window and the cold came in.

  “On second thought,” said Pa, “I believe I’d rather stay home this afternoon.”

  He drew a chair close to the stove and sat down. “I’m glad all the stock is in the stable. I was going to get picket ropes in town,” he added.

  Kitty was frantic. This was the first blizzard she had known. She did not know what to make of it, when all of her fur stood up and crackled. Trying to soothe her, Grace discovered that a spark would snap from her wherever she was touched. Nothing could be done about that, except not to touch her.

  Three days and nights the blizzard raged. Pa put the hens in the stable lest they freeze. It was so cold that the dismal days were spent close to the stove, and though the light was dim, Laura doggedly studied arithmetic. “At least,” she thought, “I don’t want to go walking.”

  On the third day, the blizzard left the prairie covered with fine, hard snow. It was still frozen when Pa walked to town next day. He brought back news that two men had been lost in that blizzard.

  They had come from the east on the train, in the warm spring morning. They had driven out to see friends on a claim south of town, and just before noon they had set out to walk to another claim two miles away.

  After the blizzard, the whole neighborhood turned out to search for them, and they were found beside a haystack, frozen to death.

  “Being from the east, they didn’t know what to do,” said Pa. If they had dug into the haystack and plugged the hole behind them with hay, they might have lived through the blizzard.

  “But whoever could have expected such a blizzard, so late,” said Ma.

  “Nobody knows what will happen,” Pa said. “Prepare for the worst and then you’ve some grounds to hope for the best, that’s all you can do.”

  Laura objected. “You were all prepared for the worst last winter, Pa, and all that work was wasted. There wasn’t one blizzard till we were back here and not prepared for it.”

  “It does seem that these blizzards are bound to catch us, coming or going,” Pa almost agreed.

  “I don’t see how anybody can be prepared for anything,” said Laura. “When you expect something, and then something else always happens.”

  “Laura,” said Ma.

  “Well, it does, Ma,” Laura protested.

  “No,” Ma said. “Even the weather has more sense in it than you seem to give it credit for. Blizzards come only in blizzard country. You may be well prepared to teach school and still not be a schoolteacher, but if you were not prepared, it’s certain that you won’t be.”

  That was so. Later Laura remembered that Ma had once been a schoolteacher. That evening when she had put away her books to help Ma get supper, she asked, “How many terms of school did you teach, Ma?”

  “Two,” said Ma.

  “What happened then?” Laura asked.

  “I met your Pa,” Ma answered.

  “Oh,” Laura said. Hopefully she thought that she might meet somebody. Maybe, after all, she would not have to be a schoolteacher always.

  Chapter 23

  Schooltime Begins Again

  Afterward it seemed to Laura that she did nothing but study that whole summer long. Of course this was not true. She brought water from the well in the mornings, she milked and moved the picket pins and taught the new calf to drink. She worked in the garden and in the house, and in haying time she trod down the great loads of hay that Pa drove away to town. But the long, hot, sticky hours with schoolbooks and slate seemed to overshadow all else. She didn’t go to town even for Fourth of July. Carrie went with Pa and Ma but Laura stayed at home to take care of Grace and study the Constitution.

  Letters came often from Mary, and every week a long letter went to her in return. Even Grace was able to write little letters, as Ma taught her, and these were always sent to Mary with the others.

  The hens were laying now. Ma saved the best eggs for setting, and twenty-four chicks hatched. The smallest pullet eggs Ma used in cooking, and for one Sunday dinner, with the first gre
en peas and new potatoes, they ate fried chickens. The other cockerels Ma let grow up. They would be larger to eat, later on.

  The gophers came again, and Kitty grew fat in the cornfield. She caught more gophers than she could eat, and at all hours of the day she could be heard mrreowling proudly as she brought a fresh-killed one to lay at Ma’s feet or Laura’s or Carrie’s or Grace’s. She wanted to share her good food, and her puzzled look showed plainly that she could not understand why the whole family did not eat gophers.

  The blackbirds came again. Though they were not so many this year, and Kitty caught some of them, still they did damage enough. Again the mellow fall weather came, and Laura and Carrie walked to school.

  There were more people in town now, and in all the country around. The school was so crowded that all the seats were filled, and in some of the front seats three of the smaller pupils sat.

  There was a new teacher, Mr. Owen, a son of the Mr. Owen whose bay horses had almost won the Fourth of July race. Laura liked and respected him very much. He was not very old, but he was serious and industrious and enterprising.

  From the first day, he ruled with a firm hand. Every pupil was obedient and respectful, every lesson was thoroughly learned. On the third day of school, Mr. Owen whipped Willie Oleson.

  For some time, Laura did not quite know what she thought about that whipping. Willie was bright enough, but he had never learned his lessons. When he was called upon to recite, he let his mouth fall open and all the sense went out of his eyes. He looked less than half-witted, he hardly looked human. It made anyone turn sick to see him.

  He had begun doing this, to tease Miss Wilder. He seemed unable to collect his scattered mind enough to understand anything she said to him. At recess he would do this again, to amuse the other boys. When Mr. Clewett taught, he thought that Willie was a halfwit, and required nothing of him. The habit had grown on Willie, until now at any time he could be seen mooning about with his mouth dropped open and his eyes empty. Laura really thought that Willie’s mind completely left him at these times.

  The first time that Willie goggled at Mr. Owen was when his name was asked for the school record. Mr. Owen was startled, and Nellie spoke up. “He’s my brother, Willie Oleson, and he can’t answer questions, they confuse him.”

  Several times that day and the next, Laura saw Mr. Owen glance sharply at Willie. Willie was always drooling and staring blankly. When he was called upon to recite, Laura could not bear to see his idiot face. On the third day, Mr. Owen quietly said, “Come with me, Willie.”

  He had a pointer in his hand. With the other hand firmly on Willie’s shoulder, he took Willie into the entry and shut the door. He did not say anything. From their seat nearest the door, Ida and Laura heard the swish and thud of the pointer. Everyone heard Willie’s howls.

  Mr. Owen came quietly in with Willie. “Stop blubbering,” he said. “Go to your seat and study. I expect you to know and recite your lessons.”

  Willie stopped blubbering and went to his seat. After that, one look from Mr. Owen cleared some of the idiot look from Willie’s face. He seemed to be trying to think, and to act like other boys. Laura often wondered whether he could pull his mind together after he had let it go to pieces so, but at least Willie was trying. He was afraid not to try.

  Laura and Ida, Mary Power and Minnie, and Nellie Oleson had kept their old seats. They were all tanned brown from the summer sun, except Nellie, who was paler and more ladylike than ever. Her clothes were so beautiful, though her mother did make them from castoffs, that Laura grew dissatisfied with her brown school dress and her blue cashmere for best. She did not complain, of course, but she wanted to.

  Hoops had finally come in, and Ma bought a set for Laura. She let down the hem of the brown dress, and made it over so cleverly that it could be worn over hoops perfectly well, and the full blue cashmere needed no changing. Still, Laura felt that all the other girls were better dressed.

  Mary Power had a new school dress. Minnie Johnson had a new coat and new shoes. Ida’s clothes came out of a missionary barrel, but Ida was so sweet and merry that she looked perfectly dear in anything. When Laura dressed for school, it seemed to her that the more she fussed with her appearance the more dissatisfying it was.

  “Your corset is too loose,” Ma tried to help her one morning. “Pull the strings tighter and your figure will be neater. And I can’t think that a lunatic fringe is the most becoming way to do your hair. It makes any girl’s ears appear larger to comb the hair up back of them and to have that mat of bangs above the forehead.”

  Ma was anxiously helpful, but some sudden thought made her laugh softly to herself.

  “What is it, Ma? Tell us!” Laura and Carrie begged.

  “I was only thinking of the time your Aunt Eliza and I combed our hair up off our ears and went to school that way. The teacher called us up front and shamed us before the whole school, for being so unladylike and bold as to let our ears be seen.” Ma laughed softly again.

  “Is that the reason you always wear those soft wings of hair down over your ears?” Laura cried.

  Ma looked a little surprised. “Yes, I suppose it is,” she answered, still smiling.

  On the way to school Laura said, “Carrie, do you know I’ve never once seen Ma’s ears?”

  “They’re probably pretty ears, too,” said Carrie. “You look like her, and your ears are little and pretty.”

  “Well,” Laura began; then she stopped and spun around and round, for the strong wind blowing against her always made the wires of her hoop skirt creep slowly upward under her skirts until they bunched around her knees. Then she must whirl around and around until the wires shook loose and spiraled down to the bottom of her skirts where they should be.

  As she and Carrie hurried on she began again. “I think it was silly, the way they dressed when Ma was a girl, don’t you? Drat this wind!” she exclaimed as the hoops began creeping upward again.

  Quietly Carrie stood by while Laura whirled. “I’m glad I’m not old enough to have to wear hoops,” she said. “They’d make me dizzy.”

  “They are rather a nuisance,” Laura admitted. “But they are stylish, and when you’re my age you’ll want to be in style.”

  Living in town was so exciting that fall that Pa said there was no need of Literaries. There was church every Sunday, prayer meeting every Wednesday night. The Ladies’ Aid planned two sociables, and there was talk of a Christmas tree. Laura hoped there would be one, for Grace had never seen a Christmas tree. In November, there was to be a week of revival meetings at the church, and Mr. Owen, with the school board’s approval, was planning a School Exhibition.

  School would go on without interruption until the School Exhibition just before Christmas. So the big boys did not wait until winter, but came to school in November. More smaller pupils had to be crowded three in a seat to make room for them.

  “This school needs a larger building,” Mr. Owen said to Laura and Ida one day at recess. “I am hoping that the town can afford to build one next summer. There really is a need for a graded school, even. I am counting a great deal upon the showing we make at the School Exhibition, to acquaint the people with the school and its needs.”

  After that, he told Laura and Ida that their part in the Exhibition would be to recite the whole of American history, from memory.

  “Oh, do you think we can do it, Laura?” Ida gasped when he had left them.

  “Oh, yes!” Laura answered. “You know we like history.”

  “I’m glad you’ve got the longer part, anyway,” said Ida. “I’ve only got to remember from John Quincy Adams to Rutherford B. Hayes, but you’ve got all that about the discoveries and the map and the battles, and the Western Reserve and the Constitution. My! I don’t know how you ever can!”

  “It’s longer, but we’ve studied it more and reviewed it oftener,” said Laura. She was glad to have that part; she thought it more interesting.

  The other girls were talking eagerly about the
revival meetings. Everyone in town and from all the near-by country would go to them. Laura did not know why, for she had never been to a revival meeting, but when she said she should stay home and study, Nellie exclaimed in horror, “Why, people who don’t go to revival meetings are atheists!”

  The others did not say a word in Laura’s defense, and Ida’s brown eyes pleaded anxiously when she said, “You are coming, aren’t you, Laura?”

  The revival meetings would last a whole week, and besides the daily lessons, there was the School Exhibition to prepare for. Monday night Laura hurried home from school to study till supper time; she thought about history while she washed the dishes, and then snatched a little time with her books while Pa and Ma were dressing.

  “Hurry, Laura, or we’ll be late! It’s church time now,” said Ma.

  Standing before the glass, Laura hurriedly set her darling brown velvet hat evenly on her bangs, and fluffed them out. Ma waited by the door with Carrie and Grace. Pa shut the stove’s draft and turned down the lamp wick.

  “Are you all ready?” he asked; then he blew out the lamp. By his lantern light they all went out, and he locked the door. Not a window on Main Street was lighted. Behind Fuller’s Hardware the last lanterns were bobbing across the vacant lots toward the brightly lighted church, and wagons, buggies, and blanketed horses stood thick in the shadows around it.

  The church was crowded, and hot from the dazzling lamps and the coal heater. Graybeards sat close around the pulpit, families were in the middle seats, and young men and boys filled the back seats. Laura saw everyone she knew and many strangers, as Pa led the way up the aisle, looking for a vacant place. He stopped next to the front seat, and Ma with Grace, then Carrie and Laura, edged past knees and sat down.

  Reverend Brown rose from his chair behind the pulpit and gave out a hymn, Number 154. Mrs. Brown played the organ, and everyone stood up and sang.

  “There were ninety and nine that safely lay