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Little Town on the Prairie, Page 4

Laura Ingalls Wilder

  The town was like a sore on the beautiful, wild prairie. Old haystacks and manure piles were rotting around the stables, the backs of the stores’ false fronts were rough and ugly. The grass was worn now even from Second Street, and gritty dust blew between the buildings. The town smelled of staleness and dust and smoke and a fatty odor of cooking. A dank smell came from the saloons and a musty sourness from the ground by the back doors where the dishwater was thrown out. But after you had been in town a little while you did not smell its smells, and there was some interest in seeing strangers go by.

  The boys and girls that Laura had met in town last winter were not there now. They had gone out to stay on homestead claims. The storekeepers stayed in town to run their stores and bach in the rooms behind them, while wives and children lived all summer out on the prairie in claim shanties. For the law was that a man could not keep a homestead claim unless his family lived on it, six months of every year for five years. Also he must keep ten acres of the sod broken up and planted to crops for five years, before the Government would give him a title to the land. But nobody could make a living from that wild land. So the women and girls stayed all summer in claim shanties to satisfy the law, and the boys broke the sod and planted crops, while the fathers built the town and tried to make money enough to buy food and tools from the East.

  The more Laura saw of the town, the more she realized how well off her own family was. That was because Pa had got a whole year’s start ahead of the others. He had broken sod last year. Now they had the garden, and the oatfield, and the second planting of corn was growing quite well in the sod. Hay would feed the stock through the winter, and Pa could sell the corn and oats, to buy coal. All the new settlers were beginning now where Pa had begun a year ago.

  When Laura looked up from her work she could see almost the whole town, because nearly all the buildings were in the two blocks across the street. All their false fronts stood up, square-cornered at heights, trying to make believe that the buildings were two stories high.

  Mead’s Hotel at the end of the street, and Beardsley’s Hotel almost opposite Laura, and Tinkham’s Furniture Store near the middle of the next block, really did have two stories. Curtains fluttered at their upstairs windows and showed how honest those buildings were, in that row of false fronts.

  That was the only difference between them and the other buildings. They were all of pine lumber beginning to weather gray. Each building had two tall glass windows in its front, and a door between them. Every door was open to the warm weather, and every doorway was filled with a strip of faded pink mosquito netting tacked onto a framework to make a screen door.

  In front of them all ran the level board sidewalk, and all along its edge were hitching posts. There were always a few horses in sight, tied here and there to the posts, and sometimes a wagon with a team of horses or oxen.

  Once in a while, when she bit off a thread, Laura saw a man cross the sidewalk, untie his horse, swing onto it and ride away. Sometimes she heard a team and wagon, and when the sounds were loudest she glanced up and saw it passing by.

  One day an outburst of confused shouting startled her. She saw a tall man come bursting out of Brown’s saloon. The screen door loudly slammed shut behind him.

  With great dignity the man turned about. He looked haughtily at the screen door, and lifting one long leg he thrust his foot contemptuously through the pink mosquito netting. It tore jaggedly from top to bottom. A yell of protest came out of the saloon.

  The tall man paid no attention whatever to the yell. He turned haughtily away, and saw in front of him a round little short man. The short man wanted to go into the saloon. The tall man wanted to walk away. But each was in front of the other.

  The tall man stood very tall and dignified. The short man stood puffed out with dignity.

  In the doorway the saloonkeeper complained about the torn screen door. Neither of them paid any attention to him. They looked at each other and grew more and more dignified.

  Suddenly the tall man knew what to do. He linked his long arm in the little man’s fat arm, and they came down the sidewalk together, singing.

  “Pull for the shore, sailor!

  Pull for the shore!

  Heed not the stormy winds—”

  The tall man solemnly lifted his long leg and thrust his foot through Harthorn’s screen door. A yell came out. “Hey, there! What the—”

  The two men came on, singing.

  “Though loudly they roar!

  Pull for the shore, sailor—”

  They were as dignified as could be. The tall man’s long legs made the longest possible steps. The puffed-out little man tried with dignity to stretch his short legs to steps as long.

  “Heed not the stormy winds—”

  The tall man gravely thrust his foot through the mosquito-netting door of Beardsley’s Hotel. Mr. Beardsley came boiling out. The man marched solemnly on.

  “Though loudly they roar!”

  Laura was laughing so that tears ran out of her eyes. She saw the long, solemn leg rip the mosquito netting in the door of Barker’s grocery. Mr. Barker popped out, protesting. The long legs stalking and the fat short legs gravely stretching went away from him haughtily.

  “Pull for the shore!”

  The tall man’s foot pushed through the screen door of Wilder’s Feed Store. Royal Wilder yanked it open and said what he thought.

  The two men stood listening gravely until he stopped for breath. Then the fat little man said with great dignity, “My name is Tay Pay Pryor and I’m drunk.”

  They went on, arm in arm, chanting those words. First the pudgy little man,

  “My name is Tay Pay Pryor—”

  Then both of them together, like bullfrogs,

  “—and I’m drunk!”

  The tall man would not say that his name was T. P. Pryor but he always came in solemnly, “—and I’m DRUNK!”

  They wheeled square about and marched into the other saloon. Its screen door slammed loudly behind them. Laura held her breath, but that one door’s mosquito netting stayed smooth and whole.

  Laura laughed till her sides ached. She could not stop when Mrs. White snapped out that it was a disgrace to snakes, what men would do with liquor in them.

  “Think of the cost of all those screen doors,” Mrs. White said. “I’m surprised at you. Young folks nowadays seem to have no realizing sense.”

  That evening when Laura tried to describe those two men so that Mary could see them, no one laughed.

  “Goodness gracious, Laura. How could you laugh at drunken men?” Ma wanted to know.

  “I think it is dreadful,” Mary added.

  Pa said, “The tall one was Bill O’Dowd. I know for a fact that his brother brought him to a claim out here, to keep him from drinking. Two saloons in this town are just two saloons too many.”

  “It’s a pity more men don’t say the same,” said Ma. “I begin to believe that if there isn’t a stop put to the liquor traffic, women must bestir themselves and have something to say about it.”

  Pa twinkled at her. “Seems to me you have plenty to say, Caroline. Ma never left me in doubt as to the evil of drink, nor you either.”

  “Be that as it may be,” said Ma. “It’s a crying shame that such things can happen before Laura’s very eyes.”

  Pa looked at Laura, and his eyes were still twinkling. Laura knew that he didn’t blame her for laughing.

  Chapter 7

  Nine Dollars

  Mr. Clancy was not getting so many orders for shirts. It seemed that most of the men who could buy shirts that year had bought them.

  One Saturday evening Mrs. White said, “The spring rush seems to be over.”

  “Yes, ma’am,” said Laura.

  Mrs. White counted out a dollar and fifty cents and gave it to her. “I won’t be needing you any more, so you needn’t come in Monday morning,” she said. “Good-by.”

  “Good-by,” Laura said.

  She had worked six weeks and
earned nine dollars. One dollar had seemed a great deal of money only six weeks ago, but now nine dollars was not enough. If she could have earned only one more week’s wages, that would have made ten dollars and a half, or two weeks would have made a whole twelve dollars.

  She knew how good it would be to stay at home again, to help with the housework and do the chores and work in the garden, to go walking with Mary and gather wild flowers, and to look forward to Pa’s homecoming at night. But somehow she felt cast out, and hollow inside.

  Slowly she went along the path beside Main Street. Pa was working now on the building at the corner of Second. He stood by a stack of shingles, waiting for Laura, and when he saw her he sang out, “Look what we’ve got, to take home to your Ma!”

  In the shade of the shingles stood a bushel basket covered with a grain sack. Inside it there was a small rasping of claws, and a cheeping chorus. The chickens!

  “Boast brought ’em in today,” said Pa. “Fourteen of ’em, all healthy and thriving.” His whole face was beaming with anticipation of Ma’s delight.

  He told Laura, “The basket’s not heavy. You take one handle and I’ll take the other, and we’ll carry them level, between us.”

  They went down Main Street and out on the road toward home, carrying the basket carefully between them. Sunset was flaming in crimson and burning gold over the whole sky. The air was filled with golden light and Silver Lake to the east was blazing like fire. Up from the basket came the chickens’ wondering and anxious cheeping.

  “Pa, Mrs. White doesn’t want me any more,” Laura said.

  “Yes, I guess the spring rush is about over,” said Pa.

  Laura had not thought that Pa’s job might end.

  “Oh, Pa, won’t there be any more carpentering, either?” she asked.

  “We couldn’t expect it to last all summer,” said Pa. “Anyway, I’ll have to be making hay pretty soon.”

  After a while Laura said, “I only earned nine dollars, Pa.”

  “Nine dollars is nothing to sneeze at,” said Pa. “You’ve done good work, too, and fully satisfied Mrs. White, haven’t you?”

  “Yes,” Laura answered honestly.

  “Then it’s a good job well done,” said Pa.

  It was true that that was some satisfaction. Laura felt a little better. Besides, they were taking the chickens to Ma.

  Ma was delighted when she saw them. Carrie and Grace crowded to peep at them in the basket, and Laura told Mary about them. They were healthy, lively chicks, with bright black eyes and bright yellow claws. Already the down was coming off them, leaving naked patches on their necks, and the sprouting feathers were showing on their wings and tails. They were every color that chickens are, and some were spotted.

  Ma lifted each one carefully into her apron. “Mrs. Boast can’t have got these all from one hatching,” she said. “I do believe there’s not more than two cockerels among them.”

  “The Boasts have got such a head-start with chickens, likely they’re planning to eat friers this summer,” said Pa. “It may be she took a few cockerels out of this flock, looking on them as meat.”

  “Yes, and replaced them with pullets that will be layers,” Ma guessed. “It would be Mrs. Boast all over. A more generous woman never lived.”

  She carried the chicks in her apron, to set them one by one into the coop that Pa had already made. It had a front of laths, to let in air and sun, and a little door with a wooden button to fasten it. It had no floor, but was set on clean grass that the chicks could eat, and when the grass grew trampled and dirty, the coop could be moved to fresh grass.

  In an old pie pan Ma mixed a crumbly bran mash, well peppered. She set it in the coop, and the chicks crowded onto it, gobbling the bran mash so greedily that sometimes they tried to swallow their own toes by mistake. When they could eat no more, they perched on the edge of the water pan, and scooping up water in their beaks they stretched up their necks and tilted back their heads, to swallow it.

  Ma said it would be Carrie’s task to feed them often and to keep their water pan filled with cool, fresh water. Tomorrow she would let the chicks out to run, and it would be Grace’s part to keep a sharp lookout for hawks.

  After supper that evening she sent Laura to make sure that the chicks were sleeping safely. All the stars were shining over the dark prairie and a sickle moon was low in the west. The grasses were breathing softly, asleep in the quiet night.

  Laura’s hand felt gently over the sleeping chicks, huddled warm together in a corner of the coop. Then she stood looking at the summer night. She did not know how long she had stood there, until she saw Ma coming from the house.

  “Oh, there you are, Laura,” Ma softly said. As Laura had done, she knelt and put her hand through the coop’s door to feel the huddled chicks. Then she, too, stood looking.

  “The place begins to look like a farm,” she said. The oatfield and the cornfield were shadowy pale in the darkness, and the garden was bumpy with lumps of dark leaves. Like pools of faint star-shine among them spread the cucumber vines and the pumpkins. The low sod stable could hardly be seen, but from the house window a warm yellow light shone out.

  Suddenly, without thinking at all, Laura said, “Oh, Ma, I do wish Mary could go to college this fall.”

  Unexpectedly Ma replied, “It may be that she can. Your Pa and I have been talking of it.”

  Laura could not speak for a minute. Then she asked, “Have you—have you said anything to her?”

  “Not yet,” said Ma. “We must not raise hopes only to be disappointed. But with Pa’s wages, and the oats and the corn, if nothing goes wrong, we think she can go this fall. We must trust ourselves to contrive to keep her there till she finishes the full seven years’ course, both college and manual training.”

  Then for the first time Laura realized that when Mary went to college, she would go away. Mary would be gone. All day long, Mary would not be there. Laura could not think what living would be, without Mary.

  “Oh, I wish—” she began, and stopped. She had been so eagerly hoping that Mary could go to college.

  “Yes, we will miss her,” Ma said steadily. “But we must think what a great opportunity it will be for her.”

  “I know, Ma,” Laura said miserably.

  The night was large and empty now. The light shining from the house was warm and steady, but even home would not be the same when Mary was not there.

  Then Ma said, “Your nine dollars are a great help, Laura. I have been planning, and I do believe that with nine dollars I can buy the goods for Mary’s best dress, and perhaps the velvet to make her a hat.”

  Chapter 8

  Fourth of July


  Laura was jerked out of sleep. The bedroom was dark. Carrie asked in a thin, scared whisper, “What was that?”

  “Don’t be scared,” Laura answered. They listened. The window was hardly gray in the dark, but Laura could feel that the middle of the night was past.

  BOOM! The air seemed to shake.

  “Great guns!” Pa exclaimed sleepily.

  “Why? Why?” Grace demanded. “Pa, Ma, why?”

  Carrie asked, “Who is it? What are they shooting?” “What time is it?” Ma wanted to know.

  Through the partition Pa answered, “It’s Fourth of July, Carrie.” The air shook again. BOOM!

  It was not great guns. It was gunpowder exploded under the blacksmith’s anvil, in town. The noise was like the noise of battles that Americans fought for independence. Fourth of July was the day when the first Americans declared that all men are born free and equal. BOOM!

  “Come, girls, we might as well get up,” Ma called.

  Pa sang, “‘Oh, say, can you see, by the dawn’s early light?’”

  “Charles!” Ma protested, but she was laughing, because it really was too dark to see.

  “It’s nothing to be solemn about!” Pa jumped out of bed. “Hurray! We’re Americans!” He sang:

  “Hurray! Hurray! We’ll sing t
he jubilee! Hurray!

  Hurray! The flag that sets men free!”

  Even the sun, as it rose shining into the clearest of skies, seemed to know this day was the glorious Fourth. At breakfast Ma said, “This would be a perfect day for a Fourth of July picnic.”

  “Maybe the town’ll be far enough along to have one, come next July,” said Pa.

  “We couldn’t hardly have a picnic this year, anyway,” Ma admitted. “It wouldn’t seem like a picnic, without fried chicken.”

  After such a rousing beginning, the day did seem empty. Such a special day seemed to expect some special happening, but nothing special could happen.

  “I feel like dressing up,” Carrie said while they did the dishes.

  “So do I, but there’s nothing to dress up for,” Laura replied.

  When she carried out the dishwater to throw it far from the house, she saw Pa looking at the oats. They were growing thick and tall, gray-green and smoothly rippling in the wind. The corn was growing lustily, too. Its long, yellow-green, fluttering leaves almost hid the broken sod. In the garden the cucumber vines were reaching out, their crawling tips uncurling beyond patches of spreading big leaves. The rows of peas and beans were rounding up, the carrot rows were feathery green and the beets were thrusting up long, dark leaves on red stems. The ground-cherries were already small bushes. Through the wild grasses the chickens were scattered, chasing insects to eat.

  All this was satisfaction enough for an ordinary day, but for Fourth of July there should be something more.

  Pa felt the same way. He had nothing to do, for on Fourth of July no work could be done except the chores and housework. In a little while he came into the house and said to Ma, “There’s a kind of celebration in town today, would you like to go?”