Laura was washing the dishes one morning when old Jack, lying in the sunshine on the doorstep, growled to tell her that someone was coming. She looked out, and saw a buggy crossing the gravelly ford of Plum Creek.
“Ma,” she said, “it’s a strange woman coming.”
Ma sighed. She was ashamed of the untidy house, and so was Laura. But Ma was too weak and Laura was too tired and they were too sad to care very much.
Mary and Carrie and baby Grace and Ma had all had scarlet fever. The Nelsons across the creek had had it too, so there had been no one to help Pa and Laura. The doctor had come every day; Pa did not know how he could pay the bill. Far worst of all, the fever had settled in Mary’s eyes, and Mary was blind.
She was able to sit up now, wrapped in quilts in Ma’s old hickory rocking chair. All that long time, week after week, when she could still see a little, but less every day, she had never cried.
Now she could not see even the brightest light anymore. She was still patient and brave.
Her beautiful golden hair was gone. Pa had shaved it close because of the fever, and her poor shorn head looked like a boy’s. Her blue eyes were still beautiful, but they did not know what was before them, and Mary herself could never look through them again to tell Laura what she was thinking without saying a word.
“Who can it be at this hour in the morning?” Mary wondered, turning her ear toward the sound of the buggy.
“It’s a strange woman alone in a buggy. She’s wearing a brown sunbonnet and driving a bay horse,” Laura answered. Pa had said that she must be eyes for Mary.
“Can you think of anything for dinner?” Ma asked. She meant for a company dinner, if the woman stayed till dinnertime.
There was bread and molasses, and potatoes. That was all. This was springtime, too early for garden vegetables; the cow was dry and the hens had not yet begun to lay their summer’s eggs.
Only a few small fish were left in Plum Creek. Even the little cottontail rabbits had been hunted until they were scarce.
Pa did not like a country so old and worn out that the hunting was poor. He wanted to go west. For two years he had wanted to go west and take a homestead, but Ma did not want to leave the settled country. And there was no money. Pa had made only two poor wheat crops since the grasshoppers came; he had barely been able to keep out of debt, and now there was the doctor’s bill.
Laura answered Ma stoutly, “What’s good enough for us is good enough for anybody!”
The buggy stopped and the strange woman sat in it, looking at Laura and Ma in the doorway. She was a pretty woman, in her neat brown print dress and sunbonnet. Laura felt ashamed of her own bare feet and limp dress and uncombed braids. Then Ma said slowly, “Why, Docia!”
“I wondered if you’d know me,” the woman said. “A good deal of water’s gone under the bridge since you folks left Wisconsin.”
She was the pretty Aunt Docia who had worn the dress with buttons that looked like black- berries, long ago at the sugaring-off dance at Grandpa’s house in the Big Woods of Wisconsin. She was married now. She had married a widower with two children. Her husband was a con- tractor, working on the new railroad in the west. Aunt Docia was driving alone in the buggy, all the way from Wisconsin to the railroad camps in Dakota Territory.
She had come by to see if Pa would go with her. Her husband, Uncle Hi, wanted a good man to be storekeeper, bookkeeper, and timekeeper, and Pa could have the job.
“It pays fifty dollars a month, Charles,” she said.
A kind of tightness smoothed out of Pa’s thin cheeks and his blue eyes lighted up. He said slowly, “Seems like I can draw good pay while I’m looking for that homestead, Caroline.”
Ma still did not want to go west. She looked around the kitchen, at Carrie and at Laura standing there with Grace in her arms.
“Charles, I don’t know,” she said. “It does seem providential, fifty dollars a month. But we’re settled here. We’ve got the farm.”
“Listen to reason, Caroline,” Pa pleaded. “We can get a hundred and sixty acres out west, just by living on it, and the land’s as good as this is, or better. If Uncle Sam’s willing to give us a farm in place of the one he drove us off of, in Indian Territory, I say let’s take it. The hunting’s good in the west, a man can get all the meat he wants.”
Laura wanted so much to go that she could hardly keep from speaking.
“How could we go now?” Ma asked. “With Mary not strong enough to travel.”
“That’s so,” said Pa. “That’s a fact.” Then he asked Aunt Docia, “The job wouldn’t wait?”
“No,” Aunt Docia said. “No, Charles. Hi is in need of a man, right now. You have to take it or leave it.”
“It’s fifty dollars a month, Caroline,” said Pa. “And a homestead.”
It seemed a long time before Ma said gently, “Well, Charles, you must do as you think best.”
“I’ll take it, Docia!” Pa got up and clapped on his hat. “Where there’s a will, there’s a way. I’ll go see Nelson.”
Laura was so excited that she could hardly do the housework properly. Aunt Docia helped, and while they worked, she told the news from Wisconsin.
Her sister, Aunt Ruby, was married and had two boys and a beautiful little baby girl named Dolly Varden. Uncle George was a lumberjack, logging on the Mississippi. Uncle Henry’s folks were all well, and Charley was turning out better than had been expected, considering how Uncle Henry had spared the rod and spoiled that child. Grandpa and Grandma were still living in the old place, their big log house. They could afford a frame house now, but Grandpa declared that good sound oak logs made better walls than thin sawed boards.
Even Black Susan, the cat that Laura and Mary had left behind when they rode away from their little log house in the woods, was still living there. The little log house had changed hands several times, and now it was a corncrib, but nothing would persuade that cat to live anywhere else. She went right on living in the corncrib, sleek and plump from rats she caught, and there was hardly a family in all that country that didn’t have one of her kittens. They were all good mousers, big- eared and long-tailed like Black Susan.
Dinner was ready in the swept, neat house when Pa came back. He had sold the farm. Nel- son was paying two hundred dollars cash for it, and Pa was jubilant. “That’ll square up all we owe, and leave a little something over,” he said. “How’s that, Caroline!”
“I hope it’s for the best, Charles,” Ma replied. “But how—”
“Wait till I tell you! I’ve got it all figured out,” Pa told her. “I’ll go on with Docia tomorrow morning. You and the girls stay here till Mary gets well and strong, say a couple of months. Nel- son’s agreed to haul our stuff to the depot, and you’ll all come out on the train.”
Laura stared at him. So did Carrie and Ma.
Mary said, “On the train?”
They had never thought of traveling on the train. Laura knew, of course, that people did travel on trains. The trains were often wrecked, and the people killed. She was not exactly afraid, but she was excited. Carrie’s eyes were big and scared in her peaked little face.
They had seen the train rushing across the prairie, with long, rolling puffs of black smoke streaming back from the engine. They heard its roar and its wild, clear whistle. Horses ran away, if their driver could not hold them when they saw a train coming.
Ma said in her quiet way, “I am sure we will manage nicely with Laura and Carrie to help me.”[/sociallocker]