Little town on the prair.., p.8
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       Little Town on the Prairie, p.8
 

         Part #7 of Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder
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  The wagon came. The freckled boy, with red hair sticking through a rent in his straw hat, helped Pa load Mary’s trunk into the wagon. The sun was shining hot and the wind was blowing.

  “Now, Carrie and Grace, be good girls and mind Laura,” Ma said. “Remember to keep the chickens’ water pan filled, Laura, and look out for hawks, and scald and sun the milk pans every day.”

  “Yes, Ma,” they all answered.

  “Good-by,” Mary said. “Good-by Laura. And Carrie. And Grace.”

  “Good-by,” Laura and Carrie managed to say. Grace only stared round-eyed. Pa helped Mary to climb up the wagonwheel to sit with Ma and the boy on the wagon seat. He took his seat on the trunk.

  “All right, let’s go,” he said to the boy. “Good-by, girls.”

  The wagon started. Grace’s mouth opened wide and she bawled.

  “For shame, Grace! For shame! a big girl like you, crying!” Laura choked out. Her throat was swelling so that it hurt. Carrie looked as though she might cry in a moment. “Shame on you!” Laura said again, and Grace gulped down a last sob.

  Pa and Ma and Mary did not look back. They had to go. The wagon taking them away left silence behind it. Laura had never felt such a stillness. It was not the happy stillness of the prairie. She felt it in the very pit of her stomach.

  “Come,” she said. “We’ll go into the house.”

  That silence had settled into the house. It was so still that Laura felt she must whisper. Grace smothered a whimpering. They stood there in their own house and felt nothing around them but silence and emptiness. Mary was gone.

  Grace began to cry again and two large tears stood in Carrie’s eyes. This would never do. Right now, and for a whole week, everything was in Laura’s charge, and Ma must be able to depend on her.

  “Listen to me, Carrie and Grace,” she said briskly. “We are going to clean this house from top to bottom, and we’ll begin right now! So when Ma comes home, she’ll find the fall housecleaning done.”

  There had never been such a busy time in all Laura’s life. The work was hard, too. She had not realized how heavy a quilt is, to lift soaked and dripping from a tub, and to wring out, and to hang on a line. She had not known how hard it would be, sometimes, never to be cross with Grace who was always trying to help and only making more work. It was amazing, too, how dirty they all got, while cleaning a house that had seemed quite clean. The harder they worked, the dirtier everything became.

  The worst day of all was very hot. They had tugged and lugged the straw ticks outdoors, and emptied them and washed them, and when they were dry they had filled them with sweet fresh hay. They had got the bed springs off the bedsteads and leaned them against the walls, and Laura had jammed her finger. Now they were pulling the bedsteads apart. Laura jerked at one corner and Carrie jerked at the other. The corners came apart, and suddenly the headboard came down on Laura’s head so that she saw stars.

  “Oh, Laura! did it hurt you?” Carrie cried.

  “Well, not very much,” Laura said. She pushed the headboard against the wall, and it slid down softly and hit her anklebone. “Ouch!” she couldn’t help yelling. Then she added, “Let it lie there if it wants to!”

  “We have to scrub the floor,” Carrie pointed out.

  “I know we have to,” Laura said grimly. She sat on the floor, gripping her ankle. Her straggling hair stuck to her sweating neck. Her dress was damp and hot and dirty, and her fingernails were positively black. Carrie’s face was smudged with dust and sweat and there were bits of hay in her hair.

  “We ought to have a bath,” Laura murmured. Suddenly she cried out, “Where’s Grace?”

  They had not thought of Grace for some time. Grace had once been lost on the prairie. Two children at Brookins, lost on the prairie, had died before they could be found.

  “Here I yam,” Grace answered sweetly, coming in. “It’s raining.”

  “No!” Laura exclaimed. Indeed, a shadow was over the house. A few large drops were falling. At that moment, thunder crashed. Laura screamed, “Carrie! The straw ticks! The bedding!”

  They ran. The straw ticks were not very heavy, but they were stuffed fat with hay. They were hard to hold on to. The edge kept slipping out of Laura’s grasp or Carrie’s. When they got one to the house, they had to hold it up edgewise to get it through the doorway.

  “We can hold it up or we can move it, we can’t do both,” Carried panted. Already the swift thunderstorm was rolling overhead and rain was falling fast.

  “Get out of the way!” Laura shouted. Somehow she pushed and carried the whole straw tick into the house. It was too late to bring in the other one, or the bedding from the line. Rain was pouring down.

  The bedding would dry on the line, but the other straw tick must be emptied again, washed again, and filled again. Straw ticks must be perfectly dry, or the hay in them would smell musty.

  “We can move everything out of the other bedroom into the front room, and go on scrubbing,” said Laura. So they did that. For some time there was no sound but thunder and beating rain, and the swish of scrubbing cloths and the wringing out. Laura and Carrie had worked backward on hands and knees almost across the bedroom floor, when Grace called happily, “I’m helping!”

  She was standing on a chair and blacking the stove. She was splashed from head to foot with blacking. On the floor all around the stove were dribbles and splotches of blacking. Grace had filled the blacking box full of water. As she looked up beaming for Laura’s approval, she gave the smeared stove top another swipe of the blacking cloth, and pushed the box of soft blacking off it.

  Her blue eyes were filled with tears.

  Laura gave one wild look at that house that Ma had left so neat and pretty. She just managed to say, “Never mind, Grace; don’t cry. I’ll clean it up.” Then she sank down on the stacked pieces of the bedsteads and let her forehead sink to her pulled-up knees. “Oh, Carrie, I just don’t seem to know how to manage the way Ma does!” she almost wailed.

  That was the worst day. On Friday the house was almost in order, and they worried lest Ma come home too soon. They worked far into the night that night, and on Saturday it was almost midnight before Laura and Carrie took their baths and collapsed to sleep. But for Sunday the house was immaculate.

  The floor around the stove was scrubbed bone-white. Only faintest traces of the blacking remained. The beds were made up with clean, bright quilts and they smelled sweetly of fresh hay. The windowpanes glittered. Every shelf in the cupboards was scrubbed and every dish washed. “And we’ll eat bread and drink milk from now on, and keep the dishes clean!” said Laura.

  There remained only the curtains to be washed and ironed and hung, and of course the usual washing to do, on Monday. They were glad that Sunday is a day of rest.

  Early Monday morning, Laura washed the curtains. They were dry when she and Carrie hung the rest of the washing on the line. They sprinkled the curtains and ironed them, and hung them at the window. The house was perfect.

  “We’ll keep Grace out of it till Pa and Ma come home,” Laura said privately to Carrie. Neither of them felt like even taking a walk. So they sat on the grass in the shade of the house and watched Grace run about, and watched for the smoke of the train.

  They saw it rolling up from the prairie and fading slowly along the skyline like a line of writing that they could not read. They heard the train whistle. After a pause it whistled again, and the curling smoke began again to write low above the skyline. They had almost decided that Pa and Ma had not come yet, when they saw them small and far away, walking out on the road from town.

  Then all the lonesomeness for Mary came back, as sharply as if she had just gone away.

  They met Pa and Ma at the edge of Big Slough, and for a little while they all talked at once.

  Pa and Ma were greatly pleased with the college. They said it was a fine place, a large brick building. Mary would be warm and comfortable in it when winter came. She would have good food, and she was with a crowd
of pleasant girls. Ma liked her roommate very much. The teachers were kind. Mary had passed the examinations with flying colors. Ma had seen no clothes there nicer than hers. She was going to study political economy, and literature, and higher mathematics, and sewing, knitting, beadwork, and music. The college had a parlor organ.

  Laura was so glad for Mary that she could almost forget the lonesome ache of missing her. Mary had always so loved to study. Now she could revel in studying so much that she had never before had a chance to learn.

  “Oh, she must stay there, she must!” Laura thought, and she renewed her vow to study hard, though she didn’t like to, and get a teacher’s certificate as soon as she was sixteen, so that she could earn the money to keep Mary in college.

  She had forgotten that week of housecleaning, but as they came to the house Ma asked, “Carrie, what are you and Grace smiling about? You’re keeping something up your sleeves!”

  Then Grace jumped up and down and shouted, “I blacked the stove!”

  “So you did,” said Ma, going into the house. “It looks very nice, but Grace, I am sure that Laura helped you black it. You must not say—” Then she saw the curtains. “Why, Laura,” she said, “did you wash the—and the windows—and— Why, I declare!”

  “We did the fall housecleaning for you, Ma,” said Laura, and Carrie chimed in, “We washed the bedding, and filled the straw ticks, and scrubbed the floors, and everything.”

  Ma lifted her hands in surprise, then she sat weakly down and let her hands fall. “My goodness!” Next day, when she unpacked her valise, she surprised them. She came from the bedroom with three small flat packages, and gave one to Laura, one to Carrie, and one to Grace.

  In Grace’s package was a picture book. The colorful pictures, on shiny paper, were pasted to cloth leaves of many pretty colors, and every leaf was pinked around its edges.

  In Laura’s package was a beautiful small book, too. It was thin, and wider than it was tall. On its red cover, embossed in gold, were the words,

  The pages, of different soft colors, were blank. Carrie had another exactly like it, except that the cover of hers was blue and gold.

  “I found that autograph albums are all the fashion nowadays,” said Ma. “All the most fashionable girls in Vinton have them.”

  “What are they, exactly?” Laura asked.

  “You ask a friend to write a verse on one of the blank pages and sign her name to it,” Ma explained. “If she has an autograph album, you do the same for her, and you keep the albums to remember each other by.”

  “I won’t mind going to school so much now,” said Carrie. “I will show my autograph album to all the strange girls, and if they are nice to me I will let them write in it.”

  Ma was glad that the autograph albums pleased them both. She said, “Your Pa and I wanted our other girls to have something from Vinton, Iowa, where Mary is going to college.”

  Chapter 11

  Miss Wilder Teaches School

  Early on the First Day of School Laura and Carrie set out. They wore their best sprigged calico dresses, for Ma said they would outgrow them before next summer, anyway. They carried their school books under their arms, and Laura carried their tin dinner pail.

  The coolness of night still lingered in the early sunlight. Under the high blue sky the green of the prairie was fading to soft brown and mauve. A little wind wandered over it carrying the fragrance of ripening grasses and the pungent smell of wild sunflowers. All along the road the yellow blossoms were nodding, and in its grassy middle they struck with soft thumps against the swinging dinner pail. Laura walked in one wheel track, and Carrie in the other.

  “Oh, I do hope Miss Wilder will be a good teacher,” said Carrie. “Do you think so?”

  “Pa must think so, he’s on the school board,” Laura pointed out. “Though maybe they hired her because she’s the Wilder boy’s sister. Oh, Carrie, remember those beautiful brown horses?”

  “Just because he has those horses don’t make his sister nice,” Carrie argued. “But maybe she is.”

  “Anyway, she knows how to teach. She has a certificate,” said Laura. She sighed, thinking how hard she must study to get her own certificate.

  Main Street was growing longer. Now a new livery stable was on Pa’s side of it, across from the bank. A new grain elevator stood tall beyond the far end of the street, across from the railroad tracks.

  “Why are all those lots vacant, between the livery stable and Pa’s?” Carrie wondered.

  Laura did not know. Anyway, she liked the wild prairie grasses there. Pa’s new haystacks stood thick around his barn. He would not have to haul hay from the claim to burn this winter.

  She and Carrie turned west on Second Street. Beyond the schoolhouse, new little claim shanties were scattered now. A new flour mill was racketing by the railroad tracks, and across the vacant lots between Second Street and Third Street could be seen the skeleton of the new church building on Third Street. Men were working on it. A great many strangers were in the crowd of pupils gathered near the schoolhouse door.

  Carrie timidly shrank back, and Laura’s knees weakened, but she must be brave for Carrie, so she went on boldly. The palms of her hands grew moist with sweat when so many eyes looked at her. There must have been twenty boys and girls.

  Taking firm grip on her courage, Laura walked up to them and Carrie went with her. The boys stood back a little on one side and the girls on the other. It seemed to Laura that she simply could not walk to the schoolhouse steps.

  Then suddenly she saw on the steps Mary Power and Minnie Johnson. She knew them; they had been in school last fall, before the blizzards came. Mary Power said, “Hello, Laura Ingalls!”

  Her dark eyes were glad to see Laura, and so was Minnie Johnson’s freckled face. Laura felt all right then. She felt she would always be very fond of Mary Power.

  “We’ve picked out our seats, we’re going to sit together,” said Minnie. “But why don’t you sit across the aisle from us?”

  They went into the schoolhouse together. Mary’s books and Minnie’s were on the back desk next to the wall, on the girls’ side. Laura laid hers on the desk across the aisle. Those two back seats were the very best seats. Carrie, of course, must sit nearer the teacher, with the smaller girls.

  Miss Wilder was coming down the aisle, with the school bell in her hand. Her hair was dark and her eyes were gray. She seemed a very pleasant person. Her dark gray dress was stylishly made, like Mary’s best one, tight and straight in the front, with a pleated ruffle just touching the floor, and an overskirt draped and puffed above a little train.

  “You girls have chosen your seats, haven’t you?” she said pleasantly.

  “Yes, ma’am,” Minnie Johnson said bashfully, but Mary Power smiled and said, “I am Mary Power, and this is Minnie Johnson, and Laura Ingalls. We would like to keep these seats if we may, please. We are the biggest girls in school.”

  “Yes, you may keep these seats,” said Miss Wilder, very pleasantly.

  She went to the door and rang the bell. Pupils came crowding in, till nearly all the seats were filled. On the girls’ side, only one seat was left vacant. On the boys’ side, all the back seats were empty because the big boys would not come to school until the winter term. They were still working on the claims now.

  Laura saw that Carrie was sitting happily with Mamie Beardsley, near the front where younger girls should sit. Then suddenly she saw a strange girl hesitating in the aisle. She seemed about as old as Laura, and as shy. She was small and slim. Her soft brown eyes were large in a small round face. Her hair was black and softly wavy, and around her forehead the short hairs curled. She was flushing pink from nervousness. Timidly she glanced at Laura.

  Unless Laura would take her as a seatmate, she must sit alone in the empty seat.

  Quickly Laura smiled, and patted the seat beside her. The new girl’s great brown eyes laughed joyously. She laid her books on the desk and sat down beside Laura.

  When Miss Wil
der had called the school to order, she took the record book and went from desk to desk, writing down the pupils’ names. Laura’s seatmate answered that her name was Ida Wright, but she was called Ida Brown. She was the adopted daughter of Reverend Brown and Mrs. Brown.

  Rev. Brown was the new Congregational minister who had just come to town. Laura knew that Pa and Ma did not like him very much, but she was sure she liked Ida.

  Miss Wilder had put the record book in her desk and was ready to begin school, when the door opened again. Everyone looked to see who had come tardily to school on this First Day.

  Laura could not believe her eyes. The girl who came in was Nellie Oleson, from Plum Creek in Minnesota.

  She had grown taller than Laura, and she was much slimmer. She was willowy, while Laura was still as round and dumpy as a little French horse. But Laura knew her at once, though it was two years since she had seen her. Nellie’s nose was still held high and sniffing, her small eyes were still set close to it, and her mouth was prim and prissy.

  Nellie was the girl who had made fun of Laura and Mary because they were only country girls, while her father was a storekeeper. She had spoken impudently to Ma. She had been mean to Jack, the good and faithful bulldog, who was dead now.

  She had come late to school, yet she stood looking as if the school were not good enough for her. She wore a fawn-colored dress made with a polonaise. Deep pleated ruffles were around the bottom of the skirt, around her neck, and falling from the edges of the wide sleeves. At her throat was a full jabot of lace. Her fair, straight hair was drawn smoothly back from her sharp face, and twisted into a tall French knot. She held her head high and looked scornfully down her nose.

  “I would like a back seat, if you please,” she said to Miss Wilder. And she gave Laura a nudging look that said, “Get out and give me that seat.”

  Laura sat more solidly and firmly where she was, and looked back at Nellie through narrowed eyes.

 
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