Pa was not there at that strange depot. The brake- man set down the satchels on the platform and said, “If you’ll wait a minute, ma’am, I’ll take you to the hotel. I’m going there myself.”
“Thank you,” Ma said gratefully.
The brakeman helped unfasten the engine from the train. The fireman, all red and smeared with soot, leaned out of the engine to watch. Then he yanked a bell rope. The engine went on by itself, puffing and chuffing under the bell’s clanging. It went only a little way, then it stopped, and Laura could not believe what she saw. The steel rails under the engine, and the wooden ties between them, turned right around. They turned around in a circle there on the ground till the ends of the rails fitted together again, and the engine was facing backwards.
Laura was so amazed that she could not tell Mary what was happening. The engine went clanging and puffing on another track beside the train. It passed the train and went a little way beyond. The bell clanged, men shouted and made motions with their arms, and the engine came backing, bump! into the rear end of the train. All the cars slam-banged against each other. And there stood the train and the engine, facing back toward the east.
Carrie’s mouth was open in amazement. The brakeman laughed at her in a friendly way. “That’s the turntable,” he told her. “This is the end of the rails, and we have to turn the engine around so it can take the train back down the line.”
Of course, they would have to do that, but Laura had never thought of it before. She knew now what Pa meant when he spoke of the wonderful times, they were living in. There had never been such wonders in the whole history of the world, Pa said. Now, in one morning they had actually traveled a whole week’s journey, and Laura had seen the Iron Horse turn around, to go back the whole way in one afternoon.
For just one little minute she almost wished that Pa was a railroad man. There was nothing so wonderful as railroads, and railroad men were great men, able to drive the big iron engines and the fast, dangerous trains. But of course, not even railroad men were bigger or better than Pa, and she did not really want him to be anything but what he was.
There was a long line of freight cars on another track beyond the depot. Men were unloading the cars into wagons. But they all stopped suddenly and jumped down from the wagons. Some of them yelled, and one big young man began to sing Ma’s favorite hymn. Only he did not sing its words. He sang:
“There is a boarding house Not far away
Where they have fried ham and eggs
Three times a day.
“Wow! How the boarders yell
When they hear that dinner bell! Whoop! How those eggs do smell! Three times—”
He was singing out these shocking words, and some other men were too, when they saw Ma and stopped. Ma walked on quietly, carrying Grace and holding Carrie’s hand. The brakeman was embarrassed. He said quickly, “We better hurry, ma’am, that’s the dinner bell.”
The hotel was down a short street beyond a few stores and vacant lots. A sign over the sidewalk said, “Hotel,” and under it a man stood swinging a hand bell. It kept on clanging, and all the men’s boots made a beating sound on the dusty street and the board sidewalk.
“Oh, Laura, does it look like it sounds?” Mary asked trembling.
“No,” Laura said. “It looks all right. It’s just a town, and they’re just men.”
“It sounds so rough,” Mary said.
“This is the hotel door now,” Laura told her.
The brakeman led the way in and set down the satchels. The floor needed sweeping. There was brown paper on the walls, and a calendar with a big shiny picture of a pretty girl in a bright yellow Wheatfield. All the men went hustling through an open door into a big room beyond, where a long table was covered with a white cloth and set for dinner.
The man who had rung the bell told Ma, “Yes, ma’am! We’ve got room for you.” He put the satchels behind the desk and said, “Maybe you’d like to wash up, ma’am, before you eat?”
In a little room there was a washstand. A large china pitcher stood in a big china bowl, and a roller towel hung on the wall. Ma wet a clean handkerchief and washed Grace’s face and hands and her own. Then she emptied the bowl into a pail beside the washstand and filled the bowl with fresh water for Mary and again for Laura. The cold water felt good on their dusty, sooty faces, and in the bowl, it turned quite black. There was only a little water for each; then the pitcher was empty. Ma set it neatly in the bowl again when Laura was through. They all wiped on the roller towel. A roller towel was very convenient because its ends were sewed together, and it ran around on its roller so that everyone could find a dry place.
Now the time had come to go into the dining room. Laura dreaded that, and she knew that Ma did, too. It was hard to face so many strangers.
“You all look clean and nice,” Ma said. “Now remember your manners.” Ma went first, carrying Grace. Carrie followed her, then Laura went, leading Mary. The noisy clatter of eating became hushed when they went into the dining room, but hardly any of the men looked up. Somehow Ma found empty chairs; then they were all sitting in a row at the long table.
All over the table, thick on the white cloth, stood screens shaped like beehives. Under every screen was a platter of meat or a dish of vegetables. There were plates of bread and of butter, dishes of pickles, pitchers of syrup, and cream pitchers and bowls of sugar. At each place was a large piece of pie on a small plate. The flies crawled and buzzed over the wire screens, but they could not get at the food inside.
Everyone was very kind and passed the food. All the dishes kept coming from hand to hand up and down the table to Ma. Nobody talked except to mutter, “You’re welcome, ma’am,” when Ma said, “Thank you.” A girl brought her a cup of coffee.
Laura cut Mary’s meat into small pieces for her and buttered her bread. Mary’s sensitive fingers managed her knife and fork perfectly and did not spill anything.
It was a pity that the excitement took away their appetites. The dinner cost twenty-five cents, and they could eat all they wanted to eat; there was plenty of food. But they ate only a little. In a few minutes all the men finished their pie and left, and the girl who had brought the coffee began to stack up the plates and carry them into the kitchen. She was a big, good-natured girl with a broad face and yellow hair.
“I guess you folks are going out to homestead?” she asked Ma.
“Yes,” Ma said.
“Your man working on the railroad?”
“Yes,” Ma said. “He’s coming here to meet us this afternoon.”
“I thought that’s the way it was,” the girl said. “It’s funny your coming out here this time of year, most folks come in the spring. Your big girl’s blind, ain’t she? That’s too bad. Well, the parlor’s on the other side of the office; you folks can set in there if you want to, till your man comes.”
The parlor had a carpet on the floor and flowered paper on the walls. The chairs were cushioned in dark red plush. Ma sank into the rocking chair with a sigh of relief.
“Grace does get heavy. Sit down, girls, and be quiet.”
Carrie climbed into a big chair near Ma, and Mary and Laura sat on the sofa. They were all quiet, so that Grace would go to sleep for her afternoon nap.
The center table had a brass-bottomed lamp on it. Its curved legs ended in glass balls on the carpet. Lace curtains were looped back from the window, and between them Laura could see the prairie, and a road going away across it. Perhaps that was the road that Pa would come on. If it was, they would all go away on that road, and somewhere, far beyond the end of it that Laura could see, some day they would all be living on the new homestead.
Laura would rather not stop anywhere. She would rather go on and on, to the very end of the road, wherever it was.
All that long afternoon they sat quiet in that parlor while Grace slept, and Carrie slept a little, and even Ma dozed. The sun was almost setting when a tiny team and wagon came into sight on the road. It slowly grew larger. Grace was awake now, and they all watched from the window. The wagon grew life-size, and it was Pa’s wagon, and Pa was in it.
Because they were in a hotel, they could not run out to meet him. But in a moment, he came in saying, “Hullo! Here’s my girls!”[/sociallocker]