THE DARKEST HOUR IS JUST BEFORE DAWN
Now the winds blew cooler and the sun was not so hot at noon. Mornings were chilly, and the grasshoppers hopped feebly until the sunshine warmed them.
One morning a thick frost covered the ground. It coated every twig and chip with a white fuzz, and it burned Laura’s bare feet. She saw millions of grasshoppers sitting perfectly stiff.
In a few days there was not one grasshopper left anywhere.
Winter was near, and Pa had not come. The wind was sharp. It did not whiz anymore; it shrieked and wailed. The sky was gray, and a cold gray rain fell. The rain turned to snow, and still Pa did not come.
Laura had to wear shoes when she went out- doors. They hurt her feet. She did not know why. Those shoes had never hurt her feet before. Mary’s shoes hurt Mary’s feet, too.
All the wood that Pa had chopped was gone, and Mary and Laura picked up the scattered chips. The cold bit their noses and their fingers while they pried the last chips from the frozen ground. Wrapped in shawls, they went searching under the willows, picking up the little dead branches that made a poor fire.
Then one afternoon Mrs. Nelson came visiting. She brought her baby Anna with her.
Mrs. Nelson was plump and pretty. Her hair was as golden as Mary’s, her eyes were blue, and when she laughed, as she often did, she showed rows of very white teeth. Laura liked Mrs. Nel- son, but she was not glad to see Anna.
Anna was a little larger than Carrie, but she could not understand a word that Laura or Mary said, and they could not understand her. She talked Norwegian. It was no fun to play with her, and in the summertime Mary and Laura ran down to the creek when Mrs. Nelson and Anna came. But now it was cold. They must stay in the warm house and play with Anna. Ma said so.
“Now girls,” Ma said, “go get your dolls and play nicely with Anna.”
Laura brought the box of paper dolls that Ma had cut out of wrapping-paper, and they sat down to play on the floor by the open oven door. Anna laughed when she saw the paper dolls. She grabbed into the box, took out a paper lady, and tore her in two.
Laura and Mary were horrified. Carrie stared with round eyes. Ma and Mrs. Nelson went on talking and did not see Anna waving the halves of the paper lady and laughing. Laura put the cover on the paper-doll box, but in a little while Anna was tired of the torn paper lady and wanted an- other. Laura did not know what to do, and neither did Mary.
If Anna did not get what she wanted she bawled. She was little and she was company and they must not make her cry. But if she got the pa- per dolls she would tear them all up. Then Mary whispered, “Get Charlotte. She can’t hurt Charlotte.”
Laura scurried up the ladder while Mary kept Anna quiet. Darling Charlotte lay in her box un- der the eaves, smiling with her red yarn mouth and her shoe-button eyes. Laura lifted her care- fully and smoothed her wavy black-yarn hair and her skirts. Charlotte had no feet, and her hands were only stitched on the flat ends of her arms, because she was a rag doll. But Laura loved her dearly.
Charlotte had been Laura’s very own since Christmas morning long ago in the Big Woods of Wisconsin.
Laura carried her down the ladder, and Anna shouted for her. Laura put Charlotte carefully in Anna’s arms. Anna hugged her tight. But hugging could not hurt Charlotte. Laura watched anxiously while Anna tugged at Charlotte’s shoe- button eyes and pulled her wavy yarn hair, and even banged her against the floor. But Anna could not really hurt Charlotte, and Laura meant to straighten her skirts and her hair when Anna went away.
At last that long visit was ended. Mrs. Nelson was going home and taking Anna. Then a terrible thing happened. Anna would not give up Charlotte.
Perhaps she thought Charlotte was hers. Maybe she told her mother that Laura had given her Charlotte. Mrs. Nelson smiled. Laura tried to take Charlotte, and Anna howled.
“I want my doll!” Laura said. But Anna hung on to Charlotte and kicked and bawled.
“For shame, Laura,” Ma said. “Anna’s little and she’s company. You are too big to play with dolls, anyway. Let Anna have her.”
Laura had to mind Ma. She stood at the window and saw Anna skipping down the knoll, swinging Charlotte by one arm.
“For shame, Laura,” Ma said again. “A great girl like you, sulking about a rag doll. Stop it, this minute. You don’t want that doll, you hardly ever played with it. You must not be so selfish.”
Laura quietly climbed the ladder and sat down on her box by the window. She did not cry, but she felt crying inside her because Charlotte was gone. Pa was not there, and Charlotte’s box was empty. The wind went howling by the eaves. Everything was empty and cold.
“I’m sorry, Laura,” Ma said that night. “I wouldn’t have given your doll away if I’d known you care so much. But we must not think only of ourselves. Think how happy you’ve made Anna.” Next morning Mr. Nelson came driving up with a load of Pa’s wood that he had cut. He worked all day, chopping wood for Ma, and the woodpile was big again.
“You see how good Mr. Nelson is to us,” said Ma. “The Nelsons are real good neighbors. Now aren’t you glad you gave Anna your doll?”
“No, Ma,” said Laura. Her heart was crying all the time for Pa and for Charlotte.
Cold rains fell again and froze. No more letters came from Pa. Ma thought he must have star- ted to come home. In the night Laura listened to the wind and wondered where Pa was. Often in the mornings the woodpile was full of driven snow, and still Pa did not come. Every Saturday afternoon Laura put on her stockings and shoes, wrapped herself in Ma’s big shawl, and went to the Nelsons’.
She knocked and asked if Mr. Nelson had got a letter for Ma. She would not go in, she did not want to see Charlotte there. Mrs. Nelson said that no letter had come, and Laura thanked her and went home.
One stormy day she caught sight of something in the Nelsons’ barnyard. She stood still and looked. It was Charlotte, drowned and frozen in a puddle. Anna had thrown Charlotte away.
Laura could hardly go to the door. She could hardly speak to Mrs. Nelson. Mrs. Nelson said the weather was so bad that Mr. Nelson had not gone to town, but he would surely go next week. Laura said, “Thank you, ma’am,” and turned away.
Sleety rain was beating down on Charlotte. Anna had scalped her. Charlotte’s beautiful wavy hair was ripped loose, and her smiling yarn mouth was torn and bleeding red on her cheek. One shoe-button eye was gone. But she was Charlotte.
Laura snatched her up and hid her under the shawl. She ran panting against the angry wind and the sleet, all the way home. Ma started up, frightened, when she saw Laura.
“What is it! What is it? Tell me!” Ma said. “Mr. Nelson didn’t go to town,” Laura answered. “But, oh, Ma—look.” “What on earth?” said Ma.
“It’s Charlotte,” Laura said. “I—I stole her. I don’t care, Ma, I don’t care if I did!”
“There, there, don’t be so excited,” said Ma. “Come here and tell me all about it,” and she drew Laura down on her lap in the rocking-chair. They decided that it had not been wrong for Laura to take back Charlotte. It had been a terrible experience for Charlotte, but Laura had res- cued her and Ma promised to make her as good as new.
Ma ripped off the torn hair and the bits of her mouth and her remaining eye and her face.
They thawed Charlotte and wrung her out, and Ma washed her thoroughly clean and starched and ironed her while Laura chose from the scrap- bag a new, pale pink face for her and new button eyes.
That night when Laura went to bed, she laid Charlotte in her box. Charlotte was clean and crisp, her red mouth smiled, her eyes shone black, and she had golden-brown yarn hair braided in two wee braids and tied with blue yarn bows.
Laura went to sleep cuddled against Mary under the patchwork comforters. The wind was howling, and sleety rain beat on the roof. It was so cold that Laura and Mary pulled the comforters over their heads.
A terrific crash woke them. They were scared in the dark under the comforters. Then they heard a loud voice downstairs. It said:
“I declare! I dropped that armful of wood, didn’t I?”
Ma was laughing, “You did that on purpose, Charles, to wake up the girls.”
Laura flew screaming out of bed and screaming down the ladder. She jumped into Pa’s arms, and so did Mary. Then what a racket of talking, laughing, jumping up and down!
Pa’s blue eyes twinkled. His hair stood straight up. He was wearing new, whole boots. He had walked two hundred miles from eastern Minnesota. He had walked from town in the night, in the storm. Now he was here!
“For shame, girls, in your nightgowns!” said Ma. “Go dress yourselves. Breakfast is almost ready.”
They dressed faster than ever before. They tumbled down the ladder and hugged Pa, and washed their hands and faces and hugged Pa, and smoothed their hair and hugged him. Jack waggled in circles and Carrie pounded the table with her spoon and sang, “Pa’s come home! Pa’s come home!”
At last they were all at the table. Pa said he had been too busy, toward the last, to write. He said, “They kept us humping on that thresher from before dawn till after dark. And when I could start home, I didn’t stop to write. I didn’t bring any presents, either, but I’ve got money to buy them.”
“The best present you could bring us, Charles, was coming home,” Ma told him.
After breakfast Pa went to see the stock. They all went with him and Jack stayed close at his heels. Pa was pleased that Sam and David and Spot looked so well. He said he couldn’t have taken better care of everything, himself. Ma told him that Mary and Laura had been a great help to her.
“Gosh!” Pa said. “It’s good to be home.” Then he asked, “What’s the matter with your feet, Laura?”
She had forgotten her feet. She could walk without limping when she remembered to. She said, “My shoes hurt, Pa.”
In the house, Pa sat down and took Carrie on his knee. Then he reached down and felt of Laura’s shoes.
“Ouch! My toes are tight!” Laura exclaimed.
“I should say they are!” said Pa. “Your feet have grown since last winter. How are yours, Mary?”
Mary said her toes were tight, too.
“Take off your shoes, Mary,” said Pa. “And Laura, you put them on.”
Mary’s shoes did not pinch Laura’s feet. They were good shoes, without one rip or hole in them. “They will look almost like new when I have greased them well,” said Pa. “Mary must have new shoes. Laura can wear Mary’s, and Laura’s shoes can wait for Carrie to grow to them. It won’t take her long. Now what else is lacking, Caroline? Think what we need, and we’ll get what we can of it. Just as soon as I can hitch up, we’re all going to town!”