Now all the vast, low earth rippled softly in gentle colors under a faded sky. Grasses were golden-stemmed, and over the prairie they spread a coverlet of buff and tan and brown and warm brownish gray; only the sloughs were darker with green. The birds were fewer, and hurrying. Often at sunset a long flock talked anxiously, high above Silver Lake, and instead of sinking to eat and rest on the water that must have tempted them so much, the tired leader fell back, another took his place, and they went on flying south- ward. Winter’s cold was not far behind them and they could not pause to rest.
In the frosty mornings and the chilly evenings when they went to milk the cows, Laura and Lena wore shawls snug over their heads and pinned un- der their chins. Their bare legs were cold and the wind nipped their noses, but when they squatted down to milk the warm cows, the shawls covered them cosily and their feet warmed under them. And they sang while they milked.
“Where are you going, my pretty maid? I’m going a-milking, sir, she said. May I go with you, my pretty maid?
Oh, yes, if you please, kind sir, she said.
“What is your fortune, my pretty maid? My face is my fortune, sir, she said.
Then I can’t marry you, my pretty maid.
Nobody asked you, sir, she said.”
“Well, I guess we won’t be seeing each other again for a long time,” Lena said one evening. The grading job at Silver Lake was nearly finished. Next morning early, Lena and Jean and Aunt Docia were leaving. They were going away before sun-up because they were getting away with three big wagonloads of goods from the company’s stores. They would not tell anybody where they were going, for fear the company would catch them.
“I wish we’d had time to ride the black ponies again,” Laura said.
“Gosh!” Lena spoke that wicked word boldly. “I’m glad this summer’s over! I hate houses.” She swung the milk pail and chanted. “No more cooking, no more dishes, no more washing, no more scrubbing! Whoop-ee!” Then she said, “Well, good-by. I guess you’re going to stay right here as long as you live.”
“I guess so,” Laura said miserably. She was sure that Lena was going out west. Maybe even to Oregon. “Well, good-by.”
Next morning Laura milked the lone cow by her lonely self. Aunt Docia had driven away with a load of oats from the feed room. Lena had driven a wagonload of goods from the store, and Jean still another big load of scrapers and plows. Uncle Hi would follow them as soon as he settled with the company.
“I guess Hi’s debt is big enough this time with all those goods charged to him,” Pa said.
“Shouldn’t you have stopped it, Charles?” Ma worried.
“It’s not my look-out,” said Pa. “My orders were to let the contractor take anything he wanted, and charge it to him. Oh, come, Caroline! It wasn’t stealing. Hi hasn’t got away with any more than’s due him for his work here and at the camp on the Sioux. The company cheated him there, and he’s got even here. That’s all there is to it.”
“Well,” Ma sighed, “I’ll be glad when these camps are gone and we’re settled again.”
Every day the camp was noisy with men drawing their last pay and leaving. Wagon after wagon went away to the east. Every night the camp was emptier. One day Uncle Henry, Louisa, and Char- ley started the long drive back to Wisconsin, to sell the farm. The boarding shanty and the bunk- house were deserted, the store was empty, and Pa was only waiting till the company man came to check his bookkeeping.
“We’ll have to go east somewhere to spend the winter,” he said to Ma. “This shanty’s too thin for zero weather, even if the company’d let us stay in it, and even if we had any coal.”
“Oh, Charles,” Ma said, “you haven’t even found the homestead yet, and if we have to spend the money you’ve earned, just living till spring—”
“I know. But what can we do?” said Pa. “I can find the homestead all right before we leave, and file on it next spring. Maybe next summer I can get a job to live on and pay for the lumber to build us a shanty. I could make a sod shanty, but even so it will take all we’ve got to live till spring, with the prices of supplies out here, and coal. No, we’d better go east for the winter.”
It was so hard to get ahead. Laura tried to cheer up, but she couldn’t. She did not want to go back east again. She hated to leave Silver Lake to go east. They had got as far as Silver Lake and she wanted to hang on there, not to be pushed back. But if they must be, they must; next spring they could start again. It would do no good to com- plain.
“Don’t you feel well, Laura?” Ma asked her.
“Oh, yes, Ma!” she answered. But she felt so heavy and dark that trying to be cheerful only made her more miserable.
The company man had come to check Pa’s bookkeeping, and the last wagons from the west were going by. Even the lake was almost empty of birds and the sky was bare, except for one hurrying streak of flyers. Ma and Laura mended the wagon-cover and baked bread for the long drive. That evening Pa came whistling from the store,
and blew into the shanty like a breeze.
“How’d you like to stay here all winter, Caroline?” he sang out. “In the surveyors’ house!”
“Oh, Pa! Can we?” Laura cried.
“You bet we can!” said Pa. “If your Ma wants to. It’s a good, sound, weather-tight house, Caroline. The head surveyor was at the store just now, and he says they thought they had to stay and they laid in coal and provisions enough to last them through, but if I’ll take charge and be re- sponsible for the company tools till spring, they’ll go out for the winter. The company man’s agreed.
“There’s flour and beans and salt meat and potatoes, and even some canned stuff, he told me. And coal. We can have the whole of it for nothing, just for staying out here this winter. We can use the stable for the cow and team. I told him I’d let him know early tomorrow morning. What do you say, Caroline?”
They all looked at Ma and waited. Laura could hardly keep still in her excitement. To stay at Silver Lake! Not to have to go back east, after all! Ma was disappointed; she had been wanting to go back to settled country. But she said, “It does seem Providential, Charles. There’s coal, you say?”
“I wouldn’t think of staying without it,” said Pa. “But the coal’s there.”
“Well, supper’s on the table,” said Ma. “Wash up and eat before it gets cold. It does look like a good chance, Charles.”
At supper they talked of nothing else. It would be pleasant to live in a snug house; the shanty was cold with wind blowing through its cracks, though the door was shut and a fire was in the stove.
“Don’t it make you feel rich—” Laura began. “‘Doesn’t,’” said Ma.
“Doesn’t it make you feel rich, Ma, just to think of the whole winter’s provisions laid in, already?” said Laura.
“Not a penny going out till spring,” said Pa. “Yes, Laura, it does,” Ma smiled. “You’re
right, Charles, of course; we must stay.”
“Well, I don’t know, Caroline,” Pa said. “In some ways maybe we’d better not. So far as I know, we won’t have a neighbor nearer than Brookings. That’s sixty miles. If anything happened—”
A knock at the door startled them all. In answer to Pa’s “Come in!” a big man opened the door. He was bundled in thick coats and a muffler. His short beard was black, his cheeks were red, and his eyes were as black as the eyes of the little pa- poose in Indian Territory whom Laura had never forgotten.
“Hullo, Boast!” Pa said. “Come up to the fire; it’s chilly tonight. This is my wife and girls. Mr. Boast has filed on a homestead out here, and he’s been working on the grade.”
Ma gave Mr. Boast a chair by the fire and he held his hands out to the warmth. One hand was bandaged. “Did you hurt your hand?” Ma asked kindly.
“Only a sprain,” said Mr. Boast, “but the heat feels good on it.” Turning to Pa he went on, “I’m needing some help, Ingalls. You remember my team that I sold Pete? He paid me part down and said he’d pay the rest next payday. But he’s kept putting it off, and now I’m darned if he hasn’t skipped out with the team. I’d go after him and take them, but his son’s with him and they’d put up a fight. I don’t want trouble with two toughs at once, and me with a lame hand.”
“There’s enough of us around yet to tend to it,” said Pa.
“I don’t mean that,” said Mr. Boast. “I don’t want any trouble.”
“Then just where do I come in?” Pa asked.
“I was thinking. There’s no law out here, no way to collect a debt, no officers, not even a county. But maybe Pete don’t know that.”
“Oho!” said Pa. “You want me to make out some papers to serve on him?”
“I’ve got a man that’ll act as sheriff and serve them,” Mr. Boast said. His eyes twinkled as much as Pa’s, but the twinkles were not alike. Mr. Boast’s eyes twinkled small and black, Pa’s twinkled wide and blue.
Pa laughed out loud and slapped his knee. “What a joke! Lucky I’ve got some legal cap left. I’ll make out your papers, Boast! Go get your sheriff!”
Mr. Boast hurried away while Ma and Laura hastily cleared the table. Pa squared up to it and wrote on a large sheet of paper, red-lined down the sides.
“There!” he said finally, “that looks important.
And finished just in time.”
Mr. Boast was knocking at the door. Another man was with him, wrapped in a big overcoat, a cap pulled low over his eyes and a muffler wrapped around his neck and across his mouth.
“Here you are, Sheriff!” Pa said to him. “Serve this writ of attachment and bring back the team or the money, dead or alive, with costs of this suit at law!” Their laughter seemed to shake the shanty. Pa looked at the cap and muffler that hid the man’s face. “Lucky for you it’s a cold night, Sheriff!” he said.
When the two men shut the door behind them, and Pa stopped laughing, he said to Ma, “That was the head surveyor, or I’ll eat my hat!” He slapped his thigh and roared again.
In the night Mr. Boast’s voice and Pa’s woke Laura. At the door Mr. Boast was saying, “I saw your light and stopped by to tell you it worked. Pete was so scared he’d have turned over the money and the team both. That crook’s got reason to be scared of the law. Here are the costs, Ingalls. The surveyor wouldn’t take any; he said the fun of it more than paid him.”
“You keep his share,” said Pa. “I’ll take mine.
The dignity of this court must be upheld!”
When Mr. Boast laughed, Laura and Mary and Carrie and Ma all burst out laughing. They couldn’t help it. Pa’s laugh was like great bells ringing; it made you feel warm and happy. But Mr. Boast’s laugh made everybody laugh.
“Hush, you’ll wake Grace,” Ma said.
“What’s the joke?” Carrie asked. She had been asleep and had only heard Mr. Boast laugh.
“What are you laughing at?” Mary asked her. “Mr. Boast’s laugh tickles,” Carrie said.
In the morning Mr. Boast came to breakfast. The camp was gone and there was nowhere else to eat. The surveyors started east that morning in their buggy, and the last teamster passed. Mr. Boast was the last man to go; he had had to wait until his hand was better so that he could drive his team. His hand was worse that morning because it had been chilled in the night, but he started east anyway. He was going to Iowa to be married.
“If you folks are going to stay here all winter, I don’t know but I’ll bring Ellie back and stay too,” he said, “if we can make it before winter sets in.” “Be glad to have you, Boast,” said Pa. Ma said,
“We would, indeed.”
Then they watched Mr. Boast’s wagon going and heard its rattling die away on the wagon track to the east.
The whole prairie was empty now and not even one flock of birds was in the cold sky.
As soon as Mr. Boast’s wagon was out of sight, Pa brought his team and wagon to the door.
“Come, Caroline!” he called. “Nobody’s left in camp but us, and this is moving day!”