MARKS ON THE SLATE
After the prairie fire the weather was so cold that Ma said they must hurry to dig the potatoes and pull the turnips before they froze.
She dug the potatoes while Mary and Laura picked them up and carried them down cellar in pails. The wind blew hard and sharp. They wore their shawls, but of course not their mittens. Mary’s nose was red and Laura’s was icy cold, and their hands were stiff and their feet were numb. But they were glad they had so many potatoes.
It was good to thaw by the stove when the chores were done, and to smell the warm smells of potatoes boiling and fish frying. It was good to eat and to go to bed.
Then in dark, gloomy weather they pulled the turnips. That was harder than picking up potatoes. The turnips were big and stubborn, and of- ten Laura pulled till she sat down hard when the turnip came up.
All the juicy green tops must be cut off with the butcher knife. The juice wet their hands and the wind chapped them till they cracked and bled, and Ma made a salve of lard and bees-wax melted together, to rub on their hands at night.
But Spot and her calf ate the juicy turnip tops and loved them. And it was good to know that there were turnips enough in the cellar to last all winter long. There would be boiled turnips, and mashed turnips and creamed turnips. And in the winter evenings a plate of raw turnips would be on the table by the lamp; they would peel off the thick rinds and eat the raw turnips in crisp, juicy slices.
One day they put the last turnip in the cellar, and Ma said, “Well, it can freeze now.”
Sure enough, that night the ground froze, and in the morning, snow was falling thick outside the windows.
Now Mary thought of a way to count the days until Pa would come home. His last letter had said that two more weeks would finish the threshing where he was. Mary brought out the slate, and on it she made a mark for each day of one week, seven marks. Under them she made another mark for each day of the next week, seven more marks. The last mark was for the day he would come.
But when they showed the slate to Ma, she said, “Better make marks for another week, for Pa to walk home on.”
So, Mary slowly made seven marks more. Laura did not like to see so many marks between now and the time that Pa would come home. But every night before they went to bed, Mary rubbed out one mark. That was one day gone.
Every morning Laura thought, “This whole day must go by before Mary can rub out another mark.”
Outdoors smelled good in the chilly mornings. The sun had melted away the snow, but the ground was hard and frosty. Plum Creek was still awake. Brown leaves were floating away on the water under the wintry blue sky.
At night it was cosy to be in the lamplit house by the warm stove. Laura played with Carrie and Jack on the clean, smooth floor. Ma sat comfort- ably mending, and Mary’s book was spread under the lamp.
“It’s bedtime, girls,” Ma said, taking off her thimble. Then Mary rubbed one more mark and put the slate away.
One night she rubbed out the first day of the last week. They all watched her do it, and Mary said, as she put the slate away, “Pa is walking home now! Those are the marks he will walk on.” In his corner Jack suddenly made a glad sound, as if he understood her. He ran to the door. He stood up against the door, scratching and whining and waggling. Then Laura heard, faintly whistling through the wind, “When Johnny Comes Marching Home.”
“It’s Pa! Pa!” she shrieked and tore the door open and ran pell-mell down through the windy dark with Jack bounding ahead.
“Hullo, half-pint!” Pa said, hugging her tight. “Good dog, Jack!” Lamplight streamed from the door and Mary was coming, and Ma and Carrie. “How’s my little one?” Pa said, giving Carrie a toss. “Here’s my big girl,” and he pulled Mary’s braid. “Give me a kiss, Caroline, if you can reach me through these wild Indians.”
Then there was supper to get for Pa, and no one thought of going to bed. Laura and Mary told him everything at once, about the wheels of fire and potatoes and turnips and how big Spot’s calf was and how far they had studied in their books, and Mary said: “But, Pa, you can’t be here. You didn’t walk off the marks on the slate.”
She showed him the marks still there, the marks he was supposed to walk on.
“I see!” said Pa. “But you did not rub out the marks for the days it took my letter to come so far. I hurried fast all the way, too, for they say it’s already a hard winter in the north. What do we need to get in town, Caroline?”
Ma said they did not need anything. They had eaten so many fish and potatoes that the flour was still holding out, and the sugar, and even the tea. Only the salt was low, and it would last several days.
“Then I’d better get the wood up before we go to town,” said Pa. “I don’t like the sound of that wind, and they tell me that Minnesota blizzards come up fast and sudden. I heard of some folks that went to town and a blizzard came up so quickly they couldn’t get back. Their children at home burned all the furniture, but they froze stark stiff before the blizzard cleared up enough so the folks could get home.”