After the sugar snow had gone, spring came. Birds sang in the leafing hazel bushes along the crooked rail fence. The grass grew green again and the woods were full of wildflowers. Buttercups and violets, thimble flowers and tiny starry grass- flowers were everywhere.
As soon as the days were warm, Laura and Mary begged to be allowed to run barefoot. At first, they might only run out around the woodpile and back, in their bare feet. Next day they could run farther, and soon their shoes were oiled and put away and they ran barefoot all day long.
Every night they had to wash their feet before they went to bed. Under the hems of their skirts their ankles and their feet were as brown as their faces.
They had playhouses under the two big oak trees in front of the house. Mary’s playhouse was under Mary’s tree, and Laura’s playhouse was un- der Laura’s tree. The soft grass made a green car- pet for them. The green leaves were the roofs, and through them they could see bits of the blue sky.
Pa made a swing of tough bark and hung it to a large, low branch of Laura’s tree. It was her swing because it was in her tree, but she had to be unselfish and let Mary swing in it whenever she wanted to.
Mary had a cracked saucer to play with, and Laura had a beautiful cup with only one big piece broken out of it. Charlotte and Nettie, and the two little wooden men Pa had made, lived in the play- house with them. Every day they made fresh leaf hats for Charlotte and Nettie, and they made little leaf cups and saucers to set on their table. The table was a nice, smooth rock.
Sukey and Rosie, the cows, were turned loose in the woods now, to eat the wild grass and the juicy new leaves. There were two little calves in the barnyard, and seven little pigs with the mother hog in the pigpen.
In the clearing he had made last year, Pa was plowing around the stumps and putting in his crops. One night he came in from work and said to Laura:
“What do you think I saw today?” She couldn’t guess.
“Well,” Pa said. “When I was working in the clearing this morning, I looked up, and there at the edge of the woods stood a deer. She was a doe, a mother deer, and you’ll never guess what was with her!”
“A baby deer!” Laura and Mary guessed together, clasping their hands.
“Yes,” Pa said, “her fawn was with her. It was a pretty little thing, the softest fawn color, with big dark eyes. It had the tiniest feet, not much bigger than my thumb, and it had slender little legs, and the softest muzzle.
“It stood there and looked at me with its large, soft eyes, wondering what I was. It was not afraid at all.”
“You wouldn’t shoot a little baby deer, would you, Pa?” Laura said.
“No, never!” he answered. “Nor its Ma, nor its Pa. No more hunting, now, till all the little wild animals have grown up. We’ll just have to do without fresh meat till fall.”
Pa said that as soon as he had the crops in, they would all go to town. Laura and Mary could go, too. They were old enough now.
They were very much excited, and next day they tried to play going to town. They could not do it very well, because they were not quite sure what a town was like. They knew there was a store in town, but they had never seen a store.
Nearly every day after that, Charlotte and Nettie would ask if they could go to town. But Laura and Mary always said: “No, dear, you can’t go this year. Perhaps next year, if you are good, then you can go.”
Then one-night Pa said, “We’ll go to town to- morrow.”
That night, though it was the middle of the week, Ma bathed Laura and Mary all over, and she put up their hair. She divided their long hair into wisps, combed each wisp with a wet comb and wound it tightly on a bit of rag. There were knobby little bumps all over their heads, whichever way they turned on their pillows. In the morning, their hair would be curly.
They were so excited that they did not go to sleep at once. Ma was not sitting with her mending basket as usual. She was busy getting everything ready for a quick breakfast and laying out the best stockings and petticoats and dresses, and Pa’s good shirt, and her own dark brown calico with the little purple flowers on it.
The days were longer now. In the morning Ma blew out the lamp before they finished break- fast. It was a beautiful, clear spring morning.
Ma hurried Laura and Mary with their break- fast and she washed the dishes quickly. They put on their stockings and shoes while she made the beds. Then she helped them put on their best dresses—Mary’s china-blue calico and Laura’s dark red calico. Mary buttoned Laura up the back, and then Ma buttoned Mary.
Ma took the rags off their hair and combed it into long, round curls that hung down over their shoulders. She combed so fast that the snarls hurt dreadfully. Mary’s hair was beautifully golden, but Laura’s was only a dirt-colored brown.
When their curls were done, Ma tied their sunbonnets under their chins. She fastened her collar with the gold pin, and she was putting on her hat when Pa drove up to the gate.
He had curried the horses till they shone. He had swept the wagon box clean and laid a clean blanket on the wagon seat. Ma, with Baby Carrie in her arms, sat up on the wagon seat with Pa, and Laura and Mary sat on a board fastened across the wagon box behind the seat.
They were happy as they drove through the springtime woods. Carrie laughed and bounced, Ma was smiling, and Pa whistled while he drove the horses. The sun was bright and warm on the road. Sweet, cool smells came out of the leafy woods.
Rabbits stood up in the road ahead, their little front paws dangling down and their noses sniffing, and the sun shone through their tall, twitching ears. Then they bounded away, with a flash of little white tail. Twice Laura and Mary saw deer looking at them with their large, dark eyes, from the shadows among the trees.
It was seven miles to town. The town was named Pepin, and it was on the shore of Lake Pepin.
After a long time, Laura began to see glimpses of blue water between the trees. The hard road turned to soft sand. The wagon wheels went deep down in it and the horses pulled and sweated. Often Pa stopped them to rest for a few minutes.
Then all at once the road came out of the woods and Laura saw the lake. It was as blue as the sky, and it went to the edge of the world. As far as she could see, there was nothing but flat, blue water. Very far away, the sky and the water met, and there was a darker blue line.
The sky was large overhead. Laura had never known that the sky was so big. There was so much empty space all around her that she felt small and frightened, and glad that Pa and Ma were there.
Suddenly the sunshine was hot. The sun was almost overhead in the large, empty sky, and the cool woods stood back from the edge of the lake. Even the Big Woods seemed smaller under so much sky.
Pa stopped the horses and turned around on the wagon seat. He pointed ahead with his whip.
“There you are Laura and Mary!” he said. “There’s the town of Pepin.”
Laura stood up on the board and Pa held her safe by the arm, so she could see the town. When she saw it, she could hardly breathe? She knew how Yankee Doodle felt, when he could not see the town because there were so many houses.
Right on the edge of the lake, there was one great big building. That was the store, Pa told her. It was not made of logs. It was made of wide, gray boards, running up and down. The sand spread all around it.
Behind the store there was a clearing, larger than Pa’s clearing in the woods at home. Standing among the stumps, there were more houses than Laura could count. They were not made of logs, either; they were made of boards, like the store.
Laura had never imagined so many houses, and they were so close together. Of course, they were much smaller than the store. One of them was made of new boards that had not had time to get gray; it was the yellow color of newly cut wood.
People were living in all these houses. Smoke rose up from their chimneys. Though it was not Monday, some woman had spread out a washing on the bushes and stumps by her house.
Several girls and boys were playing in the sunshine, in the open space between the store and the houses. They were jumping from one stump to the next stump and shouting.
“Well, that’s Pepin,” Pa said.
Laura just nodded her head. She looked and looked and could not say a word. After a while she sat down again, and the horses went on.
They left the wagon on the shore of the lake. Pa unhitched the horses and tied one to each side of the wagon box. Then he took Laura and Mary by the hand, and Ma came beside them carrying Baby Carrie. They walked through the deep sand to the store. The warm sand came in over the tops of Laura’s shoes.
There was a wide platform in front of the store, and at one end of its steps went up to it out of the sand. Laura’s heart was beating so fast that she could hardly climb the steps. She was trembling all over.
This was the store to which Pa came to trade his furs. When they went in, the storekeeper knew him. The storekeeper came out from behind the counter and spoke to him and to Ma, and then Laura and Mary had to show their manners.
Mary said, “How do you do?” but Laura could not say anything.
The storekeeper said to Pa and Ma, “That’s a pretty little girl you’ve got there,” and he admired Mary’s golden curls. But he did not say anything about Laura, or about her curls. They were ugly and brown.
The store was full of things to look at. All along one side of it were shelves full of colored prints and calicos. There were beautiful pinks and blues and reds and browns and purples. On the floor along the sides of the plank counters there were kegs of nails, and kegs of round, gray shot, and there were big wooden pails full of candy. There were sacks of salt, and sacks of store sugar.
In the middle of the store was a plow made of shiny wood, with a glittering bright plowshare, and there were steel ax heads, and hammer heads, and saws, and all kinds of knives—hunting knives and skinning knives and butcher knives and jack-knives. There were big boots and little boots, big shoes, and little shoes.
Laura could have looked for weeks and not seen all the things that were in that store. She had not known there were so many things in the world. Pa and Ma traded for a long time. The store- keeper took down bolts and bolts of beautiful calicos and spread them out for Ma to finger and look at and price. Laura and Mary looked, but must not touch. Every new color and pattern were prettier than the last, and there were so many of them! Laura did not know how Ma could ever choose.
Ma chose two patterns of calico to make shirts for Pa, and a piece of brown denim to make him a jumper. Then she got some white cloth to make sheets and underwear.
Pa got enough calico to make Ma a new apron. Ma said:
“Oh, no, Charles, I don’t really need it.”
But Pa laughed and said she must pick it out, or he would get her the turkey red piece with the big yellow pattern. Ma smiled and flushed pink, and she picked out a pattern of rosebuds and leaves on a soft, fawn-colored ground.
Then Pa got for himself a pair of galluses and some tobacco to smoke in his pipe. And Ma got a pound of tea, and a little paper package of store sugar to have in the house when company came. It was a pale brown sugar, not dark brown like the maple sugar Ma used for every day.
When all the trading was done, the storekeeper gave Mary and Laura each a piece of candy. They were so astonished and so pleased that they just stood looking at their candies. Then Mary re- membered and said, “Thank you.”
Laura could not speak. Everybody was waiting, and she could not make a sound. Ma had to ask her:
“What do you say, Laura?”
Then Laura opened her mouth and gulped and whispered, “Thank you.”
After that they went out of the store. Both pieces of candy were white, and flat and thin and heart shaped. There was printing on them, in red letters. Ma read it for them. Mary’s said:
Roses are red Violets are blue, Sugar is sweet, And so are you.
Laura’s said only:
Sweets to the sweet.
The pieces of candy were exactly the same size. Laura’s printing was larger than Mary’s.
They all went back through the sand to the wagon on the lake shore. Pa fed the horses, on the bottom of the wagon box, some oats he had brought for their dinner. Ma opened the picnic box.
They all sat on the warm sand near the wagon and ate bread and butter and cheese, hard-boiled eggs, and cookies. The waves of Lake Pepin curled up on the shore at their feet and slid back with the smallest hissing sound.
After dinner, Pa went back to the store to talk awhile with other men. Ma sat holding Carrie quietly until she went to sleep. But Laura and Mary ran along the lake shore, picking up pretty pebbles that had been rolled back and forth by the waves until they were polished smooth.
There were no pebbles like that in the Big Woods.
When she found a pretty one, Laura put it in her pocket, and there were so many, each prettier than the last, that she filled her pocket full. Then Pa called, and they ran back to the wagon, for the horses were hitched up and it was time to go home.
Laura was so happy, when she ran through the sand to Pa, with all those beautiful pebbles in her pocket. But when Pa picked her up and tossed her into the wagon, a dreadful thing happened.
The heavy pebbles tore her pocket right out of her dress. The pocket fell, and the pebbles rolled all over the bottom of the wagon box.
Laura cried because she had torn her best dress.
Ma gave Carrie to Pa and came quickly to look at the torn place. Then she said it was all right.
“Stop crying, Laura,” she said. “I can fix it.” She showed Laura that the dress was not torn at all, nor the pocket. The pocket was a little bag, sewed into the seam of the dress skirt, and hanging under it. Only the seams had ripped. Ma could sew the pocket in again, as good as new.
“Pick up the pretty pebbles, Laura,” Ma said. “And another time, don’t be so greedy.”
So, Laura gathered up the pebbles, put them in the pocket, and carried the pocket in her lap. She did not mind very much when Pa laughed at her for being such a greedy little girl that she took more than she could carry away.
Nothing like that ever happened to Mary. Mary was a good little girl who always kept her dress clean and neat and minded her manners. Mary had lovely golden curls, and her candy heart had a poem on it.
Mary looked very good and sweet, unrumpled, and clean, sitting on the board beside Laura. Laura did not think it was fair.
But it had been a wonderful day, the most wonderful day in her whole life. She thought about the beautiful lake, and the town she had seen, and the big store full of so many things. She held the pebbles carefully in her lap, and her candy heart wrapped carefully in her handkerchief until she got home and could put it away to keep always. It was too pretty to eat.
The wagon jolted along on the homeward road through the Big Woods. The sun set, and the woods grew darker, but before the last of the twilight was gone the moon rose. And they were safe because Pa had his gun.
The soft moonlight came down through the treetops and made patches of light and shade on the road ahead. The horses’ hoofs made a cheerful clippety-clop.
Laura and Mary did not say anything because they were very tired, and Ma sat silently holding Baby Carrie, sleeping in her arms. But Pa sang softly:
“’Mid pleasures and palaces, though we may roam, Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home.”