No music tonight,” Pa said that evening at the sup- per table. “Early to bed and early to rise, and day after tomorrow our claim’s on the homestead.”
“I’ll be glad, Charles,” said Ma. After all the bustle of last night and this morning, the house was quiet and composed again. The supper work was done, Grace slept in the trundle bed, and Ma was packing the lunch that Pa would eat on the way to Brookings.
“Listen,” Mary said. “I hear somebody talking.”
Laura pressed her face to a windowpane and shut out the lamplight with her hands. Against the snow she saw a dark team and a wagon full of men. One of them shouted again, then another jumped to the ground. Pa went to meet him and they stood talking. Then Pa came in and shut the door behind him.
“There’s five of them, Caroline,” he said. “Strangers, on their way to Huron.”
“There isn’t room for them here,” said Ma. “Caroline, we’ve got to put them up for the
night. There isn’t any other place they can stay or get a bite to eat. Their team is tired out and they’re greenhorns. If they try to get to Huron tonight, they’ll lose themselves on the prairie and maybe freeze to death.”
Ma sighed. “Well, you know best, Charles.” So, Ma cooked supper for the five strange men.
They filled the place with their loud boots and loud voices, and their bedding piled in heaps, ready to make their beds on the floor by the stove. Even before the supper dishes were finished, Ma took her hands from the dishwater and said quietly, “It’s bedtime, girls.”
It was not bedtime, but they knew that she meant they were not allowed to stay downstairs among those strange men. Carrie followed Mary through the stair door, but Ma held Laura back to slip into her hand a strong sliver of wood. “Push this into the slot above the latch,” Ma said. “Push it in well and leave it there. Then no one can lift the latch and open the door. I want the door to be locked. Don’t come down till I call you tomorrow morning.”
In the morning, Laura and Mary and Carrie lay in bed after the sun was up. Downstairs they heard the strangers talking, and breakfast dishes clattering.
“Ma said not to come till she called us,” Laura insisted.
“I wish they’d go away,” said Carrie. “I don’t like strangers.”
“I don’t either, or neither does Ma,” Laura said. “It takes them a long time to get started, be- cause they’re greenhorns.”
At last they were gone, and at dinner Pa said he would go to Brookings tomorrow. “No use starting unless I start early,” he said. “It’s a long day’s trip, and there’s no sense in starting after sun-up and having to camp out overnight in this cold.”
That night more strangers came. The next night there were more. Ma said, “Mercy on us, aren’t we to have one night in peace by ourselves?”
“I can’t help it, Caroline,” said Pa. “We can’t refuse folks shelter, when there’s nowhere else they can stay.”
“We can charge them for it, Charles,” Ma said firmly.
Pa did not like to charge folks for shelter and a meal, but he knew that Ma was right. So, he charged twenty-five cents a meal, and twenty- five cents for shelter overnight, for man or horse. There was no more singing, no more comfort- able suppers or cosy evenings. Every day more strangers crowded around the supper table and every night as soon as all the dishes were washed, Laura and Mary and Carrie had to go up to the attic and fasten the door behind them.
The strangers came from Iowa, from Ohio, from Illinois and Michigan, from Wisconsin and Minnesota and even from faraway New York and Vermont. They were going to Huron or to Fort Pierre or even farther west, looking for homesteads. One morning Laura sat up in bed, listening. “Where’s Pa, I wonder?” she said. “I don’t hear Pa’s voice. That’s Mr. Boast talking.”
“Maybe he’s gone to get the homestead,” Mary guessed.
When at last the loaded wagons went away to the west and Ma called the girls downstairs, she said that Pa had started before sun-up. “He didn’t want to go and leave us in this rush,” she said, “but he had to. Someone else will get the homestead if he doesn’t hurry. We had no idea that people would rush in here like this, and March hardly begun.”
This was the first week in March. The door was open, and the air felt like spring.
“When March comes in like a lamb, it goes out like a lion,” said Ma. “Come, girls, there’s work to be done. Let’s get this house in order before more travelers come.”
“I wish nobody’d come till Pa gets back,” Laura said while she and Carrie washed the stacks of dishes.
“Maybe nobody will,” Carrie hoped.
“Mr. Boast is going to look after things while your Pa’s gone,” Ma said. “He asked Mr. and Mrs. Boast to stay here. They’ll sleep in the bed- room, and Grace and I’ll go upstairs with you girls.”
Mrs. Boast came to help. That day they cleaned the whole house and moved the beds. They were all very tired, when in the last of the sunset they saw a wagon coming from the east. There were five men in it.
Mr. Boast helped them put their horses in the stable. Mrs. Boast helped Ma cook their suppers. They had not finished eating, when another wag- on brought four men. Laura cleared the table, washed the dishes, and helped put supper on the table for them. While they were eating, a third wagon brought six men.
Mary had gone upstairs to be away from the crowd. Carrie sang Grace to sleep in the bedroom with the door shut. Laura cleared the table again and washed the dishes again.
“This is the worst yet,” Ma said to Mrs. Boast when they met in the pantry. “There isn’t room for fifteen on the floor, we’ll have to put some beds in the lean-to. And they’ll have to use their robes and blankets and coats for bedding.”
“Rob will tend to it, I’ll speak to him,” said Mrs. Boast. “Mercy me, that’s not another wagon?”
Laura had to wash the dishes again and reset the table again. The house was so full of strange men, strange eyes, and strange voices and bulky coats and muddy boots, that she could hardly get through the crowd.
At last they were all fed, and for the last time the last dish was washed. Ma with Grace in her arms followed Laura and Carrie to the stairs, and carefully fastened the door behind them. Mary was sleeping in bed, and Laura could not keep her eyes open while she undressed. But as soon as she lay down, she was awakened by the noise downstairs.
There was loud talking and walking. Ma sat up to listen. The downstairs bedroom was still, so Mr. Boast must think that the noise was all right. Ma lay down again. The noise grew louder. Sometimes it almost stopped, then suddenly it burst out. A crash shook the house, and Laura sat straight up, crying out, “Ma! What’s that?”
Ma’s voice was so low that it seemed louder than all the shouting downstairs. “Be quiet, Laura,” she said. “Lie down.”
Laura thought she could not sleep. She was so tired that the noise tormented her. But another crash woke her out of a sound sleep. Ma said, “It’s all right, Laura. Mr. Boast is there.” Laura slept again.
In the morning Ma gently shook her awake, and whispered, “Come Laura, it’s time to get breakfast. Let the others sleep.”
They went downstairs together. Mr. Boast had taken up the beds. Tousled, sleepy and red-eyed, the men were getting into their boots and coats. Ma and Mrs. Boast hurried breakfast. The table was small, there were not dishes enough, so that Laura set the table and washed the dishes three times.
At last the men were gone, and Ma called Mary, while she and Mrs. Boast cooked more breakfast and Laura washed dishes and set the table once more.
“My, such a night!” Mrs. Boast exclaimed. “What was the matter?” Mary wondered.
“I think they were drunk,” Ma said, tight- lipped.
“I should say they were!” Mr. Boast told her. “They brought bottles and a jug of whisky. I thought once I would have to interfere, but what could I do against a crowd of fifteen drunks? I decided to let them fight it out, unless they set the house afire.”
“I’m thankful they didn’t,” said Ma.
That day a young man drove up to the house with a load of lumber. He had hauled the boards from Brookings, to build a store on the townsite. Pleasantly he urged Ma to board him while he was building, and Ma could not refuse because there was no other place where he could eat.
Next came a man and his son from Sioux Falls. They had brought lumber to build a grocery store. They begged Ma to board them, and after she had agreed she said to Laura, “Might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb.”
“If Ingalls doesn’t hurry back, we’ll have a town here before he comes,” said Mr. Boast.
“I only hope he’s not too late to file on the homestead,” Ma replied anxiously.