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Little Town on the Prairie, Page 6

Laura Ingalls Wilder

  “Too bad he don’t own a buggy,” Mr. Boast said. The brown horses were by far the most beautiful on the track, and so proud. They did not seem to mind the heavy wagon at all, but tossed their heads, pricked their ears, and lifted their feet as if the ground were not quite good enough for them to step on.

  “Oh, what a shame, what a shame they haven’t a fair chance,” Laura was thinking. Her hands were clenched. She wished so much that those proud, fine horses might only have a fair chance. Hitched to that heavy wagon, they could not win. She cried out, “Oh, it isn’t fair!”

  The race started. Fast came the bays, leading all the others. The shining legs trotting and the wheels whirling hardly seemed to touch the ground. Every buggy rushing by was a light, one-seated buggy. Not a team drew even the weight of a two-seated buggy, except the beautiful brown horses who came last, pulling the high, heavy peddler’s cart.

  “Best team in the country,” Laura heard a man say, “but not a chance.”

  “Nope,” said another. “That wagon’s too heavy for them to pull. Sure as shooting, they’ll break their trot.”

  But they were pulling it, and they were trotting. Evenly, without a break, the eight brown legs kept moving in a perfect trot. The dust-cloud rose up and hid them. Then bursting out of it, up the other side of the track the teams and buggies were speeding. One buggy— No, two buggies! were behind the peddler’s cart. Three buggies were behind it. Only the bays were ahead of it.

  “Oh, come on! Come on! Win Win!” Laura was begging the brown horses. She so wanted them to trot faster that it seemed her wishing was pulling them.

  They were almost around the track. They were coming now around the turn and on toward the line. The bays were ahead. The Morgans could not do it, they could not win, the weight was too much for them, but still Laura kept on wishing with all of her. “Faster, faster, only a little faster. Oh, come on, come on!”

  Almanzo leaned forward from the high seat and seemed to speak to them. Still smoothly trotting, they came faster. Their heads reached Mr. Owen’s buggy and slowly, smoothly crept by it. All the legs were moving fast, fast, while so slowly the brown heads came up, even with the bays’. All four horses were coming now in a line, faster, faster.

  “A tie. By gosh, it’s a tie,” a man said.

  Then Mr. Owen’s buggy whip flashed out. It swished down, once, twice, as he shouted. The bays leaped ahead. Almanzo had no whip. He was leaning forward, lightly holding the reins firm. Once more he seemed to speak. Fast and smooth as swallows flying, the brown Morgans passed the bays and crossed the line. They’d won!

  The whole crowd shouted. It surged to surround the brown horses and Almanzo high on the cart. Laura found that she had been holding her breath. Her knees were wobbly. She wanted to yell and to laugh and to cry and to sit down and rest.

  “Oh, they won! they won! they won!” Carrie kept saying, clapping her hands. Laura did not say anything.

  “He earned that five dollars,” said Mr. Boast.

  “What five dollars?” Carrie asked.

  “Some men in town put up five dollars for the best trotting team,” Pa explained. “Almanzo Wilder’s won it.”

  Laura was glad she had not known. She could not have borne it if she had known that the brown horses were running for a five-dollar prize.

  “He has it coming to him,” said Pa. “That young man knows how to handle horses.”

  There were no more races. There was nothing more to do but stand around and listen to the talking. The lemonade was low in the barrel. Mr. Boast brought Laura and Carrie a dipperful and they divided it. It was sweeter than before, but not so cold. The teams and buggies were going away. Then Pa came from the dwindling crowd and said it was time to go home.

  Mr. Boast walked with them along Main Street. Pa said to him that the Wilders had a sister who was a schoolteacher back east in Minnesota. “She’s taken a claim half a mile west of town here,” said Pa, “and she wants Almanzo to find out if she can get this school to teach next winter. I told him to tell her to send in her application to the school board. Other things being equal, I don’t know why she can’t as well have it.”

  Laura and Carrie looked at each other. Pa was on the school board, and no doubt the others would feel as he did. Laura thought, “Maybe if I am a very good scholar and if she likes me, maybe she might take me driving behind those beautiful horses.”

  Chapter 9


  In August, the days were so hot that Laura and Mary took their walks in the early mornings before the sun had risen far. The air still had some freshness then and it was not too hot to be pleasant. But every walk seemed like a little bit of the last walk they would have together, for soon Mary was going away.

  She was really going to college, that fall. They had looked forward so long to her going, that now when she really was going, it did not seem possible. It was hard to imagine, too, because none of them knew what college would be like; they had never seen one. But Pa had earned nearly a hundred dollars that spring; the garden and the oats and the corn were growing marvelously; and Mary really could go to college.

  Coming back from their walk one morning, Laura noticed several grasses sticking to Mary’s skirt. She tried to pull them off, but they would not come loose.

  “Ma!” she called. “Come look at this funny grass.” Ma had never seen a grass like it. The grass heads were like barley beards, except that they were twisted, and they ended in a seed pod an inch long, with a point as fine and hard as a needle, and a shaft covered with stiff hairs pointing backward. Like real needles, the points had sewed themselves into Mary’s dress. The stiff hair followed the needle-point easily, but kept it from being pulled back, and the four-inch-long, screw-like beard followed, twisting and pushing the needle-point farther in.

  “Ouch! something bit me!” Mary exclaimed. Just above her shoetop, one of the strange grasses had pierced her stocking and was screwing itself into her flesh.

  “I declare this beats all,” said Ma. “What next will we encounter on this homestead?”

  When Pa came in at noon, they showed him the strange grass. He said it was Spanish needle grass. When it got in the mouths of horses or cattle, it must be cut out of their lips and tongues. It worked through sheep’s wool and into the sheep’s bodies, often killing them.

  “Where did you girls find it?” he asked, and he was glad that Laura could not tell him. “If you didn’t notice it, there can’t be much of it. It grows in patches, and spreads. Exactly where did you go walking?”

  Laura could tell him that. He said he would attend to that grass. “Some say it can be killed by burning it over, green,” he told them. “I’ll burn it now, to kill as many seeds as I can, and next spring I’ll be on the lookout and burn it, green.”

  There were little new potatoes for dinner, creamed with green peas, and there were string beans and green onions. And by every plate was a saucer full of sliced tomatoes, to be eaten with sugar and cream.

  “Well, we’ve got good things to eat, and plenty of them,” said Pa, taking a second helping of potatoes and peas.

  “Yes,” Ma said happily; “nowadays we can all eat enough to make up for what we couldn’t have last winter.”

  She was proud of the garden; it was growing so well. “I shall begin salting down cucumbers tomorrow, little ones are thick under all those vines. And the potato tops are thriving so, I can hardly find the hills underneath them, to scrabble.”

  “If nothing happens to them, we’ll have plenty of potatoes this winter!” Pa rejoiced.

  “We’ll have roasting ears soon, too,” Ma announced. “I noticed, this morning, some of the corn silks are beginning to darken.”

  “I never saw a better corn crop,” said Pa. “We’ve got that to depend on.”

  “And the oats,” said Ma. Then she asked, “What’s wrong with the oats, Charles?”

  “Well, blackbirds are getting most of them,” Pa told her. “I no sooner set up a shock than it’s cove
red thick with the pests. They’re eating all the grain they can get at, and not leaving much but the straw.”

  Ma’s cheerful face dimmed, but Pa went on. “Never mind, there’s a good crop of straw, and soon as I get the oats cut and shocked I’ll clear out the blackbirds with a shotgun.”

  That afternoon, looking up from her sewing to thread her needle, Laura saw a wisp of smoke wavering in the heat waves from the prairie. Pa had taken time from his work in the oatfield to cut a swath around the patch of Spanish needles and set fire to those vicious grasses.

  “The prairie looks so beautiful and gentle,” she said. “But I wonder what it will do next. Seems like we have to fight it all the time.”

  “This earthly life is a battle,” said Ma. “If it isn’t one thing to contend with, it’s another. It always has been so, and it always will be. The sooner you make up your mind to that, the better off you are, and the more thankful for your pleasures. Now Mary, I’m ready to fit the bodice.”

  They were making Mary’s best winter dress, for college. In the hot room, with the sun blazing on the thin board walls and roof, the lapfuls of wool cashmere almost smothered them. Ma was nervous about this best dress. She had made the summer dresses first, for practice with the patterns.

  She had cut the patterns from newspaper, using her dressmaker’s chart of thin cardboard as a guide. Lines and figures for all different sizes were printed on it. The trouble was that nobody was exactly any of the sizes on the chart. After Ma had measured Mary, and figured and marked the size of every sleeve and skirt and bodice piece on the chart, and cut the patterns, and cut and basted the dress lining, then when she tried the lining on Mary she had to make changes all along the seams.

  Laura had never before known that Ma hated sewing. Her gentle face did not show it now, and her voice was never exasperated. But her patience was so tight around her mouth that Laura knew she hated sewing as much as Laura did.

  They were worried, too, because while they were buying the dress goods Mrs. White had told them that she had heard from her sister in Iowa that hoop skirts were coming back, in New York. There were no hoops yet to be bought in town, but Mr. Clancy was thinking of ordering some.

  “I declare, I don’t know,” Ma said, worrying about hoop skirts. Mrs. Boast had had a Godey’s Lady’s Book last year. If she had one now, it would decide the question. But Pa must cut the oats and the hay; they were all too tired on Sundays to make the long, hot trip to the Boasts’ claim. When at last Pa saw Mr. Boast in town one Saturday, he said that Mrs. Boast did not have a new Godey’s Lady’s Book.

  “We’ll just make the skirts wide enough, so if hoops do come back, Mary can buy some in Iowa and wear them,” Ma decided. “Meanwhile, her petticoats can hold the skirts out full.”

  They had made four new petticoats for Mary, two of unbleached muslin, one of bleached muslin, and one of fine white cambric. Around the bottom of the fine cambric one, Laura had sewed with careful, tiny stitches the six yards of knitted lace that she had given Mary for Christmas.

  They had made for her two gray flannel petticoats and three red flannel union suits. Around the top of the petticoats’ hems, Laura made a row of catch-stitching in bright, red yarn. It was pretty on the gray flannel. She back-stitched all the seams of the petticoats and the long red flannel union suits, and around the necks and the wrists of the long red sleeves she catch-stitched a trimming of blue yarn.

  She was using all the pretty yarns that had come in last winter’s Christmas barrel, but she was glad to do it. Not one of the girls in college would have prettier underwear than Mary’s.

  When Ma had back-stitched the seams of Mary’s dresses and carefully ironed them flat, Laura sewed the whalebone stays onto the underarm seams and dart-seams of the basques. She took great pains to sew them evenly on both edges without making the tiniest wrinkle in the seams, so that the basque would fit trimly and smoothly on the outside. This was such anxious work that it made the back of her neck ache.

  Now the basque of Mary’s best dress was ready to try on for the last time. It was brown cashmere, lined with brown cambric. Small brown buttons buttoned it down the front, and on either side of the buttons and around the bottom Ma had trimmed it with a narrow, shirred strip of brown-and-blue plaid, with red threads and golden threads running through it. A high collar of the plaid was sewed on, and Ma held in her hand a gathered length of white machine-made lace. The lace was to be fitted inside the collar, so that it would fall a little over the top.

  “Oh, Mary, it’s beautiful. The back fits without a wrinkle, and so do the shoulders,” Laura told her. “And the sleeves look absolutely skin tight to the elbows.”

  “They are,” Mary said. “I don’t know if I can button—”

  Laura went around in front. “Hold your breath, Mary. Breathe out, and hold it,” she advised anxiously. “It’s too tight,” Ma said in despair. Some of the buttons strained in the buttonholes, some could not be buttoned at all.

  “Don’t breathe, Mary! Don’t breathe!” Laura said frantically, and quickly she unbuttoned the straining buttons. “Now you can.” Mary breathed, outbursting from the open bodice.

  “Oh, how ever did I make such a mistake,” Ma said. “That bodice fitted well enough last week.”

  Laura had a sudden thought. “It’s Mary’s corsets! It must be. The corset strings must have stretched.”

  It was so. When Mary held her breath again and Laura pulled tight the corset strings, the bodice buttoned, and it fitted beautifully.

  “I’m glad I don’t have to wear corsets yet,” said Carrie.

  “Be glad while you can be,” said Laura. “You’ll have to wear them pretty soon.” Her corsets were a sad affliction to her, from the time she put them on in the morning until she took them off at night. But when girls pinned up their hair and wore skirts down to their shoetops, they must wear corsets.

  “You should wear them all night,” Ma said. Mary did, but Laura could not bear at night the torment of the steels that would not let her draw a deep breath. Always before she could get to sleep, she had to take off her corsets.

  “What your figure will be, goodness knows,” Ma warned her. “When I was married, your Pa could span my waist with his two hands.”

  “He can’t now,” Laura answered, a little saucily. “And he seems to like you.”

  “You must not be saucy, Laura,” Ma reproved her, but Ma’s cheeks flushed pink and she could not help smiling.

  Now she fitted the white lace into Mary’s collar and pinned it so that it fell gracefully over the collar’s edge and made a full cascade between the collar’s ends in front.

  They all stood back to admire. The gored skirt of brown cashmere was smooth and rather tight in front, but gathered full around the sides and back, so that it would be ample for hoops. In front it touched the floor evenly, in back it swept into a graceful short train that swished when Mary turned. All around the bottom was a pleated flounce.

  The overskirt was of the brown-and-blue plaid. It was shirred in front, it was draped up at the sides to show more of the skirt beneath, and at the back it fell in rich, full puffs, caught up above the flounced train.

  Above all this, Mary’s waist rose slim in the tight, smooth bodice. The neat little buttons ran up to the soft white lace cascading under Mary’s chin. The brown cashmere was smooth as paint over her sloping shoulders and down to her elbows; then the sleeves widened. A shirring of the plaid curved around them, and the wide wrists fell open, showing the lining of white lace ruffles that set off Mary’s slender hands.

  Mary was beautiful in that beautiful dress. Her hair was silkier and more golden than the golden silk threads in the plaid. Her blind eyes were bluer than the blue in it. Her cheeks were pink, and her figure was so stylish.

  “Oh, Mary,” Laura said. “You look exactly as if you’d stepped out of a fashion plate. There won’t be, there just can’t be, one single girl in college who can hold a candle to you.”

  “Do I really loo
k so well, Ma?” Mary asked timidly, and she flushed pinker.

  For once Ma did not guard against vanity. “Yes, Mary, you do,” she said. “You are not only as stylish as can be, you are beautiful. No matter where you go, you will be a pleasure to every eye that sees you. And, I am thankful to say, you may be sure your clothes are equal to any occasion.”

  They could not look at her longer. She was almost fainting from the heat, in that woolen dress. They laid it carefully away, done at last, and a great success. There were only a few more things to be done now. Ma must make Mary a winter hat of velvet, and knit some stockings for her, and Laura was knitting her a pair of mitts, of brown silk thread.

  “I can finish them in spare time,” Laura said. “We’re through with the sewing, in time for me to help Pa make hay.”

  She liked working with Pa, and she liked working outdoors in the sun and wind. Besides, secretly she was hoping to leave off her corsets while she worked in the haying.

  “I suppose you may help to load the hay,” Ma agreed reluctantly, “but it will be stacked in town.”

  “Oh, Ma, no! Do we have to move to town again?” Laura cried.

  “Modulate your voice, Laura,” Ma said gently. “Remember, ‘Her voice was ever gentle, low, and soft, an excellent thing in woman.’”

  “Do we have to go to town?” Laura murmured.

  “Your Pa and I think best not to risk a winter in this house until he can make it more weatherproof,” said Ma. “You know that we could not have lived through last winter here.”

  “Maybe this winter won’t be so bad,” Laura pleaded.

  “We must not tempt Providence,” Ma said firmly. Laura knew it was decided; they had to live in town again next winter, and she must make the best of it.

  That evening when the flock of happy blackbirds was swirling at play in the sunset air above the oatfield, Pa took out his shotgun and shot them. He did not like to do it, and in the house no one liked to hear the shots, but they knew it must be done. Pa must protect the crops. The horses and Ellen and her calves would live on hay that winter, but the oats and the corn were cash crops. They would sell for money to pay taxes and buy coal.