Little town on the prair.., p.7
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       Little Town on the Prairie, p.7

         Part #7 of Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder
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  As soon as the dew was off the grass next morning, Pa went out to cut it with the mowing machine. In the house Ma began to make Mary’s velvet hat, and Laura busily knitted a brown silk mitt. At eleven o’clock Ma said, “Mercy, it’s time to start dinner already. Run out, Laura, and see if you can find a mess of roasting ears to boil.”

  The corn was taller than Laura now, a lavish sight to see, with its long leaves rustling thickly and its nodding tasseled tops. As Laura went in between the rows, a great black swirl of birds rose up and whirled above her. The noise of their wings was louder than the rustling of all the long leaves. The birds were so many that they made a shadow like a cloud. It passed swiftly over the corn tops and the crowd of birds settled again.

  The ears of corn were plentiful. Nearly every stalk had two ears on it, some had three. The tassels were dry, only a little pollen was still flying and the cornsilks hung like thick, green hair from the tips of the green cornhusks. Here and there a tuft of cornsilk was turning brown, and the ear felt full in the husk when Laura gently pinched it. To make sure, before she tore it from the stalk, she parted the husks to see the rows of milky kernels.

  Blackbirds kept flying up around her. Suddenly she stood stock-still. The blackbirds were eating the corn!

  Here and there she saw bare tips of ears. The husks were stripped back, and kernels were gone from the cobs. While she stood there, blackbirds settled around her. Their claws clung to the ears, their sharp beaks ripped away the husks, and quickly pecking they swallowed the kernels.

  Silently, desperately, Laura ran at them. She felt as if she were screaming. She beat at the birds with her sunbonnet. They rose up swirling on noisy wings and settled again to the corn, before her, behind her, all around her. They swung clinging to the ears, ripping away the husks, swallowing the corn crop. She could do nothing against so many.

  She took a few ears in her apron and went to the house. Her heart was beating fast and her wrists and knees trembled. When Ma asked what was the matter, she did not like to answer. “The blackbirds are in the corn,” she said. “Oughtn’t I to tell Pa?”

  “Blackbirds always eat a little corn, I wouldn’t worry about it,” said Ma. “You might take him a cold drink.”

  In the hayfield, Pa was not much troubled about the blackbirds. He said he had about cleaned them out of the oats, he had shot a hundred or more. “Likely they’ll do some harm to the corn, but that can’t be helped,” he said.

  “There are so many of them,” Laura said. “Pa, if you don’t get a corn crop, can—can Mary go to college?”

  Pa looked bleak. “You think it’s as bad as that?”

  “There’s so many of them,” said Laura.

  Pa glanced at the sun. “Well, another hour can’t make much difference. I’ll see about it when I come to dinner.”

  At noon he took his shotgun to the cornfield. He walked between the corn rows and shot into the cloud of blackbirds as it rose. Every shot brought down a hail of dead birds, but the black cloud settled into the corn again. When he had shot away all his cartridges, the swirl of wings seemed no thinner.

  There was not a blackbird in the oatfield. They had left it. But they had eaten every kernel of oats that could be dug out of the shocks. Only straw was left.

  Ma thought that she and the girls could keep them away from the corn. They tried to do it. Even Grace ran up and down the rows, screeching and waving her little sunbonnet. The blackbirds only swirled around them and settled again to the ears of corn, tearing the husks and pecking away the kernels.

  “You’ll wear yourselves out for nothing, Caroline,” said Pa. “I’ll go to town and buy more cartridges.”

  When he had gone, Ma said, “Let’s see if we can’t keep them off till he gets back.”

  They ran up and down, in the sun and heat, stumbling over the rough sods, screeching and shouting and waving their arms. Sweat ran down their faces and their backs, the sharp cornleaves cut their hands and cheeks. Their throats ached from yelling. And always the swirling wings rose and settled again. Always scores of blackbirds were clinging to the ears, and sharp beaks were tearing and pecking.

  At last Ma stopped. “It’s no use, girls,” she said.

  Pa came with more cartridges. All that afternoon he shot blackbirds. They were so thick that every pellet of shot brought down a bird. It seemed that the more he shot, the more there were. It seemed that all the blackbirds in the Territory were hurrying to that feast of corn.

  At first there were only common blackbirds. Then came larger, yellow-headed blackbirds, and blackbirds with red heads and a spot of red on each wing. Hundreds of them came.

  In the morning a dark spray of blackbirds rose and fell above the cornfield. After breakfast Pa came to the house, bringing both hands full of birds he had shot.

  “I never heard of anyone’s eating blackbirds,” he said, “but these must be good meat, and they’re as fat as butter.”

  “Dress them, Laura, and we’ll have them fried for dinner,” said Ma. “There’s no great loss without some small gain.”

  Laura dressed the birds, and at noon Ma heated the frying-pan and laid them in it. They fried in their own fat, and at dinner everyone agreed that they were the tenderest, most delicious meat that had ever been on that table.

  After dinner, Pa brought another armful of blackbirds and an armful of corn.

  “We might as well figure that the crop’s gone,” he said. “This corn’s a little too green, but we’d better eat what we can of it before the blackbirds get it all.”

  “I don’t know why I didn’t think of it sooner!” Ma exclaimed. “Laura and Carrie, hurry and pick every ear that’s possibly old enough to make dried corn. Surely we can save a little, to eat next winter.”

  Laura knew why Ma had not thought of that sooner; she was too distracted. The corn crop was gone. Pa would have to take from his savings to pay taxes and buy coal. Then how could they manage to send Mary to college this fall?

  The blackbirds were so thick now that between the corn rows their wings beat rough against Laura’s arms and battered her sunbonnet. She felt sharp little blows on her head, and Carrie cried out that the birds were pecking her. They seemed to feel that the corn was theirs, and to be fighting for it. They rose up harsh at Laura’s face and Carrie’s, and flew scolding and pecking at their sunbonnets.

  Not much corn was left. Even the youngest ears, on which the kernels were hardly more than blisters, had been stripped and pecked at. But Laura and Carrie several times filled their aprons with ears only partly eaten.

  When Laura looked for the blackbirds, to dress them for dinner, she could not find them and Ma would not say where they were.

  “Wait and see,” Ma answered mysteriously. “Meantime, we’ll boil this corn, and cut it off the cobs, to dry.”

  There is a knack to cutting corn from a cob. The knife must slice evenly, the whole length of the rows, cutting deep enough to get almost the whole kernel, but not so deep as to cut even an edge from the sharp pocket in which each kernel grows. The kernels fall away in milky slabs, moist and sticky.

  Ma spread these on a clean, old tablecloth laid outdoors in the sunshine, and she covered them with another cloth, to keep away the blackbirds and the chickens and the flies. The hot sun would dry the corn, and next winter, soaked and boiled, it would be good eating.

  “That’s an Indian idea,” Pa remarked, when he came to dinner. “You’ll admit yet, Caroline, there’s something to be said for Indians.”

  “If there is,” Ma replied, “you’ve already said it, many’s the time, so I needn’t.” Ma hated Indians, but now she was brimming with some secret. Laura guessed that it must be the missing blackbirds. “Comb your hair and sit up to the table, Charles,” Ma said.

  She opened the oven door, and took out the tin milk pan. It was full of something covered thickly over with delicately browned biscuit crust. She set it before Pa and he looked at it amazed. “Chicken pie!”

  “‘Sing a song of si
xpence—’” said Ma.

  Laura went on from there, and so did Carrie and Mary and even Grace.

  “A pocket full of rye,

  Four and twenty blackbirds,

  Baked in a pie!

  When the pie was opened,

  The birds began to sing.

  Was not that a dainty dish

  To set before the king?”

  “Well, I’ll be switched!” said Pa. He cut into the pie’s crust with a big spoon, and turned over a big chunk of it onto a plate. The underside was steamed and fluffy. Over it he poured spoonfuls of thin brown gravy, and beside it he laid half a blackbird, browned, and so tender that the meat was slipping from the bones. He handed that first plate across the table to Ma.

  The scent of that opened pie was making all their mouths water so that they had to swallow again and again while they waited for their portions, and under the table the kitty curved against their legs, her hungry purring running into anxious miows.

  “The pan held twelve birds,” said Ma. “Just two apiece, but one is all that Grace can possibly eat, so that leaves three for you, Charles.”

  “It takes you to think up a chicken pie, a year before there’s chickens to make it with,” Pa said. He ate a mouthful and said, “This beats a chicken pie all hollow.”

  They all agreed that blackbird pie was even better than chicken pie. There were, besides, new potatoes and peas, and sliced cucumbers, and young boiled carrots that Ma had thinned from the rows, and creamy cottage cheese. And the day was not even Sunday. As long as the blackbirds lasted, and the garden was green, they could eat like this every day.

  Laura thought, “Ma is right, there is always something to be thankful for.” Still, her heart was heavy. The oats and the corn crop were gone. She did not know how Mary could go to college now. The beautiful new dress, the two other new dresses, and the pretty underwear, must be laid away until next year. It was a cruel disappointment to Mary.

  Pa ate the last spoonful of pink, sugary cream from his saucer of tomatoes, and drank his tea. Dinner was over. He got up and took his hat from its nail and he said to Ma, “Tomorrow’s Saturday. If you’ll plan to go to town with me, we can pick out Mary’s trunk.”

  Mary gasped. Laura cried out, “Is Mary going to college?”

  Pa was astonished. He asked, “What’s the matter with you, Laura?”

  “How can she?” Laura asked him. “There isn’t any corn, or any oats.”

  “I didn’t realize you’re old enough to be worrying,” said Pa. “I’m going to sell the heifer calf.”

  Mary cried out, “Oh no! Not the heifer!”

  In another year the heifer would be a cow. Then they would have had two cows. Then they would have had milk and butter all the year around. Now, if Pa sold the heifer, they would have to wait two more years for the little calf to grow up.

  “Selling her will help out,” said Pa. “I ought to get all of fifteen dollars for her.”

  “Don’t worry about it, girls,” said Ma. “We must cut our coat to fit the cloth.”

  “Oh, Pa, it sets you back a whole year,” Mary mourned.

  “Never mind, Mary,” said Pa. “It’s time you were going to college, and now we’ve made up our minds you’re going. A flock of pesky blackbirds can’t stop us.”

  Chapter 10

  Mary Goes To College

  The last day came. Tomorrow Mary was going away.

  Pa and Ma had brought home her new trunk. It was covered outside with bright tin, pressed into little bumps that made a pattern. Strips of shiny varnished wood were riveted around its middle and up its corners, and three strips ran lengthwise of its curved lid. Short pieces of iron were screwed onto the corners, to protect the wooden strips. When the lid was shut down, two iron tongues fitted into two small iron pockets, and two pairs of iron rings came together so that the trunk could be locked with padlocks.

  “It’s a good, solid trunk,” Pa said. “And I got fifty feet of stout new rope to rope it with.”

  Mary’s face shone while she felt it over carefully with her sensitive fingers and Laura told her about the bright tin and shiny yellow wood. Ma said, “It is the very newest style in trunks, Mary, and it should last you a lifetime.”

  Inside, the trunk was smooth-polished wood. Ma lined it carefully with newspapers, and packed tightly into it all Mary’s belongings. Every corner she crammed with wadded newspapers, so firmly that nothing could move during the rough journey on the train. She put in many layers of newspapers, too, for she feared that Mary did not have enough clothes to fill the trunk. But when everything was in and cram-jammed down as tightly as possible, the paper-covered mound rose up high enough to fill the curved lid, and Ma sat on it to hold it down while Pa snapped the padlocks.

  Then, rolling the trunk end over end, and over and over, Pa tugged and strained loops of the new rope around it, and Laura helped hold the rope tight while he drew the knots fast.

  “There,” he said finally. “That’s one job well done.” As long as they were busy, they could keep pushed deep down inside them the knowledge that Mary was going away. Now everything was done. It was not yet supper time, and the time was empty, for thinking.

  Pa cleared his throat and went out of the house. Ma brought her darning basket, but she set it on the table and stood looking out of the window. Grace begged, “Don’t go away, Mary, why? Don’t go away, tell me a story.”

  This was the last time that Mary would hold Grace in her lap and tell the story of Grandpa and the panther in the Big Woods of Wisconsin. Grace would be a big girl before Mary came back.

  “No, Grace, you must not tease,” Ma said, when the story was finished. “What would you like for supper, Mary?” It would be Mary’s last supper at home.

  “Anything you put on the table is good, Ma,” Mary answered.

  “It is so hot,” Ma said. “I believe I will have cottage cheese balls with onions in them, and the cold creamed peas. Suppose you bring in some lettuce and tomatoes from the garden, Laura.”

  Suddenly Mary asked, “Could I come with you? I would like a little walk.”

  “You needn’t hurry,” Ma told them. “There is plenty of time before supper.”

  They went walking past the stable and up the low hill beyond. The sun was sinking to rest, like a king, Laura thought, drawing the gorgeous curtains of his great bed around him. But Mary was not pleased by such fancies. So Laura said, “The sun is sinking, Mary, into white downy clouds that spread to the edge of the world. All the tops of them are crimson, and streaming down from the top of the sky are great gorgeous curtains of rose and gold with pearly edges. They are a great canopy over the whole prairie. The little streaks of sky between them are clear, pure green.”

  Mary stood still. “I’ll miss our walks,” she said, her voice trembling a little.

  “So will I.” Laura swallowed, and said, “but only think, you are going to college.”

  “I couldn’t have, without you,” Mary said. “You have always helped me to study, and you gave Ma your nine dollars for me.”

  “It wasn’t much,” said Laura. “It wasn’t anything like I wish I—”

  “It was, too!” Mary contradicted. “It was a lot.”

  Laura’s throat choked up. She winked her eyelids hard and took a deep breath but her voice quivered. “I hope you like college, Mary.”

  “Oh, I will. I will!” Mary breathed. “Think of being able to study and learn—Oh, everything! Even to play the organ. I do owe it partly to you, Laura. Even if you aren’t teaching school yet, you have helped me to go.”

  “I am going to teach school as soon as I am old enough,” said Laura. “Then I can help more.”

  “I wish you didn’t have to,” Mary said.

  “Well, I do have to,” Laura replied. “But I can’t, till I’m sixteen. That’s the law, a teacher has to be sixteen years old.”

  “I won’t be here then,” said Mary. Then suddenly they felt as if she were going away forever. The years ahead of the
m were empty and frightening.

  “Oh, Laura, I never have been away from home before. I don’t know what I’ll do,” Mary confessed. She was trembling all over.

  “It will be all right,” Laura told her stoutly. “Ma and Pa are going with you, and I know you can pass the examinations. Don’t be scared.”

  “I’m not scared. I won’t be scared,” Mary insisted. “I’ll be lonesome. But that can’t be helped.”

  “No,” Laura said. After a minute she cleared her throat and told Mary, “The sun has gone through the white clouds. It is a huge, pulsing ball of liquid fire. The clouds above it are scarlet and crimson and gold and purple, and the great sweeps of cloud over the whole sky are burning flames.”

  “It seems to me I can feel their light on my face,” Mary said. “I wonder if the sky and the sunsets are different in Iowa?”

  Laura did not know. They came slowly down the low hill. This was the end of their last walk together, or at least, their last walk for such a long time that it seemed forever.

  “I am sure I can pass the examinations, because you helped me so much,” Mary said. “You went over every word of your lessons with me, until I do know everything in the school books. But Laura, what will you do? Pa is spending so much for me—the trunk, and a new coat, a new pair of shoes, the railroad fares, and all—it worries me. How can he ever manage school books and clothes for you and Carrie?”

  “Never mind, Pa and Ma will manage,” said Laura. “You know they always do.”

  Early next morning, even before Laura was dressed, Ma was scalding and plucking the blackbirds that Pa had killed. She fried them after breakfast, and as soon as they were cool she packed in a shoe box the lunch to take on the train.

  Pa and Ma and Mary had bathed the night before. Now Mary put on her best old calico dress and her second-best shoes. Ma dressed in her summer challis, and Pa put on his Sunday suit. A neighbor boy had agreed to drive them to the depot. Pa and Ma would be gone a week, and when they came home without Mary they could walk from town.

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