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Little Town on the Prairie, Page 5

Laura Ingalls Wilder

  “What kind of celebration?” Ma asked.

  “Well, mostly horse racing, but they took up a collection for lemonade,” Pa replied.

  “Women are not likely to be at a horse race,” Ma said. “And I couldn’t go calling, uninvited, on Fourth of July.”

  Laura and Carrie stood almost bursting with eagerness while Ma considered, and shook her head. “You go along, Charles. It would be too much for Grace, anyway.”

  “It is much nicer at home,” said Mary.

  Then Laura spoke. “Oh Pa, if you go, can’t Carrie and I?”

  Pa’s doubtful eyes brightened, and twinkled at her and Carrie. Ma smiled on them.

  “Yes, Charles, it will be a nice outing for you all,” she said. “Run down cellar and bring up the butter, Carrie, and while you’re dressing I’ll put up some bread-and-butter for you to take along.”

  Suddenly the day seemed really Fourth of July. Ma made sandwiches, Pa blacked his boots, Laura and Carrie hurriedly dressed up. Luckily Laura’s sprigged calico was freshly washed and ironed. She and Carrie took turns scrubbing their faces and necks and ears pink. Over their unbleached muslin union suits they put on crackling stiff petticoats of bleached muslin. They brushed and braided their hair. Laura wound her heavy braids around her head and pinned them. She tied the Sunday hair ribbon on the ends of Carrie’s braids. Then she put on her fresh sprigged calico and buttoned it up the back. The full ruffle on the bottom of the full skirt came down to the tops of her shoes.

  “Please button me up,” Carrie asked. In the middle of her back there were two buttons that she couldn’t reach. She had buttoned all the others outside-in.

  “You can’t wear your buttons turned inside, at a Fourth of July celebration,” said Laura, unbuttoning them all and buttoning them again properly.

  “If they’re outside, they keep pulling my hair,” Carrie protested. “My braids catch on them.”

  “I know. Mine always did,” said Laura. “But you just have to stand it till you’re big enough to put your hair up.”

  They put on their sunbonnets. Pa was waiting, holding the brown-paper packet of sandwiches. Ma looked at them carefully and said, “You look very nice.”

  “It’s a treat to me, to be stepping out with my two good-looking girls,” said Pa.

  “You look nice, too, Pa,” Laura told him. His boots were glossily polished, his beard was trimmed, and he was wearing his Sunday suit and broad-brimmed felt hat.

  “I want to go!” Grace demanded. Even when Ma said “No, Grace,” she repeated two or three times, “I want to!” Because she was the baby, they had almost spoiled her. Now her unruliness must be nipped in the bud. Pa had to set her sternly in a chair and tell her, “You heard your Ma speak.”

  They set out soberly, unhappy about Grace. But she must be taught to mind. Perhaps next year she could go, if there were a big celebration and they all rode in the wagon. Now they were walking, to let the horses stay on their picket ropes and eat grass. Horses grow tired, standing all day at hitching posts in dust and heat. Grace was too little to walk the mile and back, and she was too big to be carried.

  Even before they reached town, they could hear a sound like corn popping. Carrie asked what it was, and Pa said it was firecrackers.

  Horses were tied along the whole length of Main Street. Men and boys were so thick on the sidewalk that in places they almost touched each other. Boys were throwing lighted firecrackers into the dusty street, where they sizzled and exploded. The noise was startling.

  “I didn’t know it would be like this,” Carrie murmured. Laura did not like it, either. They had never been in such a crowd before. There was nothing to do but keep on walking up and down in it, and to be among so many strangers made them uncomfortable.

  Twice they walked the two blocks with Pa, and then Laura asked him if she and Carrie could not stay in his store building. Pa said that was a fine idea. They could watch the crowd while he circulated a little; then they would eat their lunch and see the races. He let them into the empty building and Laura shut the door.

  It was pleasant to be alone in the echoing bare place. They looked at the empty kitchen behind it, where they had all lived huddled during the long hard winter. They tiptoed upstairs to the hollow, hot bedrooms under the eaves of the shingle roof, and stood looking down from the front window at the crowd, and at firecrackers squirming and popping in the dust.

  “I wish we had some firecrackers,” Carrie said.

  “They’re guns,” Laura pretended. “We’re in Fort Ticonderoga, and those are British and Indians. We’re Americans, fighting for independence.”

  “It was the British in Fort Ticonderoga, and the Green Mountain boys took it,” Carrie objected.

  “Then I guess we’re with Daniel Boone in Kentucky, and this is a log stockade,” said Laura. “Only the British and Indians captured him,” she had to admit.

  “How much do firecrackers cost?” Carrie asked.

  “Even if Pa could afford them, it’s foolish to spend money just to make a little noise,” Laura said. “Look at that little bay pony. Let’s pick out the horses we like best; you can have first choice.”

  There was so much to see that they could hardly believe it was noon when Pa’s boots sounded downstairs and he called, “Girls! Where are you?”

  They rushed down. He was having a good time, his eyes were twinkling bright. He sang out, “I’ve brought us a treat! Smoked herring, to go with our bread and butter! And look what else!” He showed them a bunch of firecrackers.

  “Oh, Pa!” Carrie cried. “How much did they cost?”

  “Didn’t cost me a cent,” said Pa. “Lawyer Barnes handed them to me, said to give them to you girls.”

  “Why on earth did he do that?” Laura asked. She had never heard of Lawyer Barnes before.

  “Oh, he’s going in for politics, I guess,” said Pa. “He acts that way, affable and agreeable to everybody. You want me to set these off for you now, or after we eat?”

  Laura and Carrie were thinking the same thing. They knew it when they looked at each other, and Carrie said it. “Let’s save them, Pa, to take home to Grace.”

  “All right,” said Pa. He put them in his pocket and undid the smoked herring while Laura opened the packet of sandwiches. The herring was delicious. They saved some to take home to Ma. When they had eaten the last bit of bread and butter they went out to the well and drank, long and deep, from the edge of the pail that Pa drew dripping up. Then they washed their hands and their hot faces and dried them on Pa’s handkerchief.

  It was time to go to the races. The whole crowd was moving across the railroad tracks and out on the prairie. On a pole set up there, the American flag fluttered against the sky. The sun was shining warm and a cool breeze was blowing.

  Beside the flagpole a man rose up tall above the crowd. He was standing on something. The sound of talking died down, and he could be heard speaking.

  “Well, boys,” he said, “I’m not much good at public speaking, but today’s the glorious Fourth. This is the day and date when our forefathers cut loose from the despots of Europe. There wasn’t many Americans at that time, but they wouldn’t stand for any monarch tyrannizing over them. They had to fight the British regulars and their hired Hessians and the murdering scalping red-skinned savages that those fine gold-laced aristocrats turned loose on our settlements and paid for murdering and burning and scalping women and children. A few barefoot Americans had to fight the whole of them and lick ’em, and they did fight them and they did lick them. Yes sir! We licked the British in 1776 and we licked ’em again in 1812, and we backed all the monarchies of Europe out of Mexico and off this continent less than twenty years ago, and by glory! Yessir, by Old Glory right here, waving over my head, any time the despots of Europe try to step on America’s toes, we’ll lick ’em again!”

  “Hurray! Hurray!” everybody shouted. Laura and Carrie and Pa yelled, too, “Hurray! Hurray!”

  “Well, so here we are today,” the m
an went on. “Every man Jack of us a free and independent citizen of God’s country, the only country on earth where a man is free and independent. Today’s the Fourth of July, when this whole thing was started, and it ought to have a bigger, better celebration than this. We can’t do much this year. Most of us are out here trying to pull ourselves up by our own boot straps. By next year, likely some of us will be better off, and be able to chip in for a real big rousing celebration of Independence Day. Meantime, here we are. It’s Fourth of July, and on this day somebody’s got to read the Declaration of Independence. It looks like I’m elected, so hold your hats, boys; I’m going to read it.”

  Laura and Carrie knew the Declaration by heart, of course, but it gave them a solemn, glorious feeling to hear the words. They took hold of hands and stood listening in the solemnly listening crowd. The Stars and Stripes were fluttering bright against the thin, clear blue overhead, and their minds were saying the words before their ears heard them.

  “When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bonds which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth the separate and equal station to which the laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

  “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness… “

  Then came the long and terrible list of the crimes of the King.

  “He has endeavored to prevent the population of these States.

  “He has obstructed the administration of Justice.

  “He has made Judges dependent on his will alone.

  “He has erected a multitude of new offices, and sent hither swarms of officers to harass our people and to eat out their substance.

  “He has plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people…

  “He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to complete the works of death, destruction and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of cruelty and perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the head of a civilized nation…

  “We, therefore, the Representatives of the United States of America, in General Congress assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the name and by the authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare,

  “That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, Free and Independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full right to levy War…

  “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.”

  No one cheered. It was more like a moment to say, “Amen.” But no one quite knew what to do.

  Then Pa began to sing. All at once everyone was singing:

  “My country, ’tis of thee,

  Sweet land of liberty,

  Of thee I sing…

  “Long may our land be bright

  With Freedom’s holy light,

  Protect us by Thy might,

  Great God, our King!”

  The crowd was scattering away then, but Laura stood stock still. Suddenly she had a completely new thought. The Declaration and the song came together in her mind, and she thought: God is America’s king.

  She thought: Americans won’t obey any king on earth. Americans are free. That means they have to obey their own consciences. No king bosses Pa; he has to boss himself. Why (she thought), when I am a little older, Pa and Ma will stop telling me what to do, and there isn’t anyone else who has a right to give me orders. I will have to make myself be good.

  Her whole mind seemed to be lighted up by that thought. This is what it means to be free. It means, you have to be good. “Our father’s God, author of liberty—” The laws of Nature and of Nature’s God endow you with a right to life and liberty. Then you have to keep the laws of God, for God’s law is the only thing that gives you a right to be free.

  Laura had no time then to think any further. Carrie was wondering why she stood so still, and Pa was saying, “This way, girls! There’s the free lemonade!”

  The barrels stood in the grass by the flagpole. A few men were waiting for their turns to drink from the tin dipper. As each finished drinking, he handed the dipper on, and then strolled away toward the horses and buggies on the race track.

  Laura and Carrie hung back a little, but the man who had the dipper saw them and handed the dipper to Pa. He filled it from the barrel and gave it to Carrie. The barrel was almost full, and slices of lemon floated thick on the lemonade.

  “I see they put in plenty of lemons, so it ought to be good,” Pa said, while Carrie slowly drank. Her eyes grew round with delight; she had never tasted lemonade before.

  “They’ve just mixed it,” one of the waiting men told Pa. “The water is fresh from the hotel well, so it’s cold.”

  Another man who was waiting said, “It depends, some, on how much sugar they put in.”

  Pa filled the dipper again and gave it to Laura. She had once tasted lemonade, at Nellie Oleson’s party, when she was a little girl in Minnesota. This lemonade was even more delicious. She drank the last drop from the dipper and thanked Pa. It would not be polite to ask for more. When Pa had drunk, they went across the trampled grass to the crowd by the race track. A great ring of sod had been broken, and the sod carried off. The breaking plow with its coulter had left the black earth smooth and level. In the middle of the ring and all around it the prairie grasses were waving, except where men and buggies had made trampled tracks.

  “Why, hello, Boast!” Pa called, and Mr. Boast came through the crowd. He had just got to town in time for the races. Mrs. Boast, like Ma, had preferred to stay at home.

  Four ponies came out on the track. There were two bay ponies, one gray, and one black. The boys who were riding them lined them up in a straight row. “Which’d you bet on, if you were betting?” Mr. Boast asked.

  “Oh, the black one!” Laura cried. The black pony’s coat shone in the sunlight and its long mane and tail blew silky on the breeze. It tossed its slender head and picked up its feet daintily.

  At the word, “Go!” all the ponies leaped into a run. The crowd yelled. Stretched out low and fast, the black pony went by, the others behind it. All their pounding feet raised a cloud of dust that hid them. Then around the far side of the track they went, running with all their might. The gray pony crept up beside the black. Neck and neck they were running, then the gray pulled a little ahead and the crowd yelled again. Laura still hoped for the black. It was doing its best. Little by little it gained on the gray. Its head passed the gray’s neck, its outstretched nose was almost even with the gray’s nose. Suddenly all four ponies were coming head-on down the track, quickly growing larger and larger in front of the oncoming dust. The bay pony with the white nose came skimming past the black and the gray, across the line ahead of them both while the crowd cheered.

  “If you’d bet on the black, Laura, you’d’ve lost,” said Pa.

  “It’s the prettiest, though,” Laura answered. She had never been so excited. Carrie’s eyes shone, her cheeks were pink with excitement; her braid was snared on a button and recklessly she yanked it loose.

  “Are there any more, Pa? more races?” Carrie cried.

  “Sure, here they come for the buggy race,” Pa answered. Mr. Boast joked, “Pick the winning team, Laura!”

  Through the crowd and out onto the track came first a bay team hitched to a light buggy. The
bays were perfectly matched and they stepped as though the buggy weighed nothing at all. Then came other teams, other buggies, but Laura hardly saw them, for there was a team of brown horses that she knew. She knew their proud, gay heads and arching necks, the shine of light on their satiny shoulders, the black manes blowing and the forelocks tossing above their quick, bright, gentle eyes.

  “Oh, look, Carrie, look! It’s the brown Morgans!” she cried.

  “That’s Almanzo Wilder’s team, Boast,” said Pa. “What in creation has he got ’em hitched to?”

  High up above the horses, Almanzo Wilder was sitting. His hat was pushed back on his head and he looked cheerful and confident.

  He turned the team toward its place in line, and they saw that he was sitting on a high seat, on top of a long, high, heavy wagon, with a door in its side.

  “It’s his brother Royal’s peddler’s wagon,” said a man standing near by.

  “He don’t have a chance, with that weight, against all those light buggies,” said another. Everyone was looking at the Morgans and the wagon and talking about them.

  “The off horse, Prince, is the one he drove last winter, that forty-mile trip that he and Cap Garland made, and brought in the wheat that kept us all from starving to death,” Pa told Mr. Boast. “The other one’s Lady, that ran off with the antelope herd that time. They’ve both got good action, and speed.”

  “I see that,” Mr. Boast agreed. “But no team can haul that heavy cart and beat Sam Owen’s bays on his light buggy. Seems like the young fellow might have rousted out a buggy somewheres in this country.”

  “He’s an independent kind of a young cuss,” someone said. “He’d rather lose with what he’s got than win with a borrowed buggy.”