Monday morning came. As soon as Laura and Mary had washed the breakfast dishes, they went up the ladder and put on their Sunday dresses. Mary’s was a blue-sprigged calico, and Laura’s was red-sprigged.
Ma braided their hair very tightly and bound the ends with thread. They could not wear their Sunday hair-ribbons because they might lose them. They put on their sunbonnets, freshly washed and ironed.
Then Ma took them into the bedroom. She knelt down by the box where she kept her best things, and she took out three books. They were the books she had studied when she was a little girl. One was a speller, and one was a reader, and one was arithmetic.
She looked solemnly at Mary and Laura, and they were solemn, too.
“I am giving you these books for your very own, Mary and Laura,” Ma said. “I know you will take care of them and study them faithfully.”
“Yes, Ma,” they said.
She gave Mary the books to carry. She gave Laura the little tin pail with their lunch in it, under a clean cloth.
“Good-by,” she said. “Be good girls.”
Ma and Carrie stood in the doorway, and Jack went with them down the knoll. He was puzzled. They went on across the grass where the tracks of Pa’s wagon wheels went, and Jack stayed close beside Laura.
When they came to the ford of the creek, he sat down and whined anxiously. Laura had to explain to him that he must not come any farther. She stroked his big head and tried to smooth out the worried wrinkles. But he sat watching and frowning while they waded across the shallow, wide ford.
They waded carefully and did not splash their clean dresses. A blue heron rose from the water, flapping away with his long legs dangling. Laura and Mary stepped carefully onto the grass. They would not walk in the dusty wheel tracks until their feet were dry, because their feet must be clean when they came to town.
The new house looked small on its knoll with the great green prairie spreading far around it. Ma and Carrie had gone inside. Only Jack sat watching by the ford.
Mary and Laura walked on quietly.
Dew was sparkling on the grass. Meadow- larks were singing. Snipes were walking on their long, thin legs. Prairie hens were clucking and tiny prairie chicks were peeping. Rabbits stood up with paws dangling, long ears twitching, and their round eyes staring at Mary and Laura.
Pa had said that town was only two and a half miles away, and the road would take them to it. They would know they were in town when they came to a house.
Large white clouds sailed in the enormous sky and their gray shadows trailed across the waving prairie grasses. The road always ended a little way ahead, but when they came to that ending, the road was going on. It was only the tracks of Pa’s wagon through the grass.
“For pity’s sake, Laura,” said Mary, “keep your sunbonnet on! You’ll be brown as an Indian, and what will the town girls think of us?”
“I don’t care!” said Laura, loudly and bravely. “You do too!” said Mary.
“I don’t either!” said Laura. “You do!”
“You’re just as scared of town as I am,” said Mary.
Laura did not answer. After a while she took hold of her sunbonnet strings and pulled the bon- net up over her head.
“Anyway, there’s two of us,” Mary said.
They went on and on. After a long time they saw town. It looked like small blocks of wood on the prairie. When the road slipped down, they saw only grasses again and the sky. Then they saw the town again, always larger. Smoke went up from its stovepipes.
The clean, grassy road ended in dust. This dusty road went by a small house and then past a store. The store had a porch with steps going up to it.
Beyond the store there was a blacksmith shop. It stood back from the road, with a bare place in front of it. Inside it a big man in a leather apron made a bellows puff! puff! at red coals. He took a white-hot iron out of the coals with tongs, and swung a big hammer down on it, whang! Dozens of sparks flew out tiny in the daylight.
Beyond the bare place was the back of a building. Mary and Laura walked close to the side of this building. The ground was hard there. There was no more grass to walk on.
In front of this building, another wide, dusty road crossed their road. Mary and Laura stopped. They looked across the dust at the fronts of two more stores. They heard a confused noise of children’s voices. Pa’s road did not go any farther.
“Come on,” said Mary, low. But she stood still. “It’s the school where we hear the hollering. Pa said we would hear it.”
Laura wanted to turn around and run all the way home.
She and Mary went slowly walking out into the dust and turned toward that noise of voices. They went padding along between two stores. They passed piles of boards and shingles; that must be the lumber-yard where Pa got the boards for the new house. Then they saw the school- house.
It was out on the prairie beyond the end of the dusty road. A long path went toward it through the grass. Boys and girls were in front of it.
Laura went along the path toward them and Mary came behind her. All those girls and boys stopped their noise and looked. Laura kept on going nearer and nearer all those eyes, and suddenly, without meaning to, she swung the dinner- pail and called out, “You all sounded just like a flock of prairie chickens!”
They were surprised. But they were not as much surprised as Laura. She was ashamed, too. Mary gasped, “Laura!” Then a freckled boy with fire-colored hair yelled, “Snipes, yourselves! Snipes! Snipes! Long-legged snipes!”
Laura wanted to sink down and hide her legs. Her dress was too short, it was much shorter than the town girls’ dresses. So was Mary’s. Be- fore they came to Plum Creek, Ma had said they were outgrowing those dresses. Their bare legs did look long and spindly, like snipes’ legs.
All the boys were pointing and yelling, “Snipes! Snipes!”
Then a red-headed girl began pushing those boys and saying: “Shut up! You make too much noise! Shut up, Sandy!” she said to the red- headed boy, and he shut up. She came close to Laura and said:
“My name is Christy Kennedy, and that horrid boy is my brother Sandy, but he doesn’t mean any harm. What’s your name?”
Her red hair was braided so tightly that the braids were stiff. Her eyes were dark blue, almost black, and her round cheeks were freckled. Her sunbonnet hung down her back.
“Is that your sister?” she said. “Those are my sisters.” Some big girls were talking to Mary. “The big one’s Nettie, and the black-haired one’s Cassie, and then there’s Donald and me and Sandy. How many brothers and sisters have you?”
“Two,” Laura said. “That’s Mary, and Carrie’s the baby. She has golden hair, too. And we have a bulldog named Jack. We live on Plum Creek. Where do you live?”
“Does your Pa drive two bay horses with black manes and tails?” Christy asked.
“Yes,” said Laura. “They are Sam and David, our Christmas horses.”
“He comes by our house, so you came by it, too,” said Christy. “It’s the house before you come to Beadle’s store and post-office, before you get to the blacksmith shop. Miss Eva Beadle’s our teacher. That’s Nellie Oleson.”
Nellie Oleson was very pretty. Her yellow hair hung in long curls, with two big blue-ribbon bows on top. Her dress was thin white lawn, with little blue flowers scattered over it, and she wore shoes.
She looked at Laura and she looked at Mary, and she wrinkled up her nose.
“Hm!” she said. “Country girls!”
Before anyone else could say anything, a bell rang. A young lady stood in the schoolhouse doorway, swinging the bell in her hand. All the boys and girls hurried by her into the school- house.
She was a beautiful young lady. Her brown hair was frizzed in bangs over her brown eyes and done in thick braids behind. Buttons sparkled all down the front of her bodice, and her skirts were drawn back tightly and fell down behind in big puffs and loops. Her face was sweet, and her smile was lovely.
She laid her hand on Laura’s shoulder and said, “You’re a new little girl, aren’t you?”
“Yes, ma’am,” said Laura.
“And this is your sister?” Teacher asked, smiling at Mary.
“Yes, ma’am,” said Mary.
“Then come with me,” said Teacher, “and I’ll write your names in my book.”
They went with her the whole length of the schoolhouse and stepped up on the platform.
The schoolhouse was a room made of new boards. Its ceiling was the underneath of shingles, like the attic ceiling. Long benches stood one behind another down the middle of the room. They were made of planed boards. Each bench had a back, and two shelves stuck out from the back, over the bench behind. Only the front bench did not have any shelves in front of it, and the last bench did not have any back.
There were two glass windows in each side of the schoolhouse. They were open, and so was the door. The wind came in, and the sound of waving grasses, and the smell and the sight of the endless prairie and the great light of the sky.
Laura saw all this while she stood with Mary by Teacher’s desk and they told her their names and how old they were. She did not move her head, but her eyes looked around.
A water-pail stood on a bench by the door. A boughten broom stood in one corner. On the wall behind Teacher’s desk there was a smooth space of boards painted black. Under it was a little trough. Some kind of short, white sticks lay in the trough, and a block of wood with a woolly bit of sheepskin pulled tightly around it and nailed down. Laura wondered what those things were.
Mary showed Teacher how much she could read and spell. But Laura looked at Ma’s book and shook her head. She could not read. She was not even sure of all the letters.
“Well, you can begin at the beginning, Laura,” said Teacher, “and Mary can study farther on. Have you a slate?”
They did not have a slate.
“I will lend you mine,” Teacher said. “You cannot learn to write without a slate.”
She lifted up the top of her desk and took out the slate. The desk was made like a tall box, with one side cut out for her knees. The top rose up on boughten hinges, and under it was the place where she kept things. Her books were there, and the ruler.
Laura did not know until later that the ruler was to punish anyone who fidgeted or whispered in school. Anyone who was so naughty had to walk up to Teacher’s desk and hold out her hand while Teacher slapped it many times, hard, with the ruler.
But Laura and Mary never whispered in school, and they always tried not to fidget. They sat side by side on a bench and studied. Mary’s feet rested on the floor, but Laura’s dangled. They held their book open on the board shelf before them, Laura studying at the front of the book and Mary studying farther on, and the pages between standing straight up.
Laura was a whole class by herself, because she was the only pupil who could not read. Whenever Teacher had time, she called Laura to her desk and helped her read letters. Just before dinner-time that first day, Laura was able to read, C A T, cat. Suddenly she remembered and said, “P A T, Pat!”
Teacher was surprised.
“R A T, rat!” said Teacher. “M A T, mat!” And Laura was reading! She could read the whole first row in the speller.
At noon all the other children and Teacher went home to dinner. Laura and Mary took their dinner-pail and sat in the grass against the shady side of the empty schoolhouse. They ate their bread and butter and talked.
“I like school,” Mary said.
“So, do I,” said Laura. “Only it makes my legs tired. But I don’t like that Nellie Oleson that called us country girls.”
“We are country girls,” said Mary.
“Yes, and she needn’t wrinkle her nose!” Laura said.