Early next morning they were all in the wagon again. It had not been unloaded so everything was ready to go.
Nothing was left of the camp but Aunt Docia’s shanty. Over the worn-out grass and the dead spots where shanties had been, surveyors were measuring and driving stakes for a new town that would be built.
“We’ll be along as soon as Hi gets his business settled,” Aunt Docia said.
“I’ll see you at Silver Lake!” Lena called to Laura, while Pa chirruped to the horses and the wheels began to turn.
The sun shone brightly on the uncovered wag- on, but the wind was cool and riding was pleas- ant. Here and there, men were working in their fields, and now and then a team and wagon passed.
Soon the road curved downward through rolling land and Pa said, “The Big Sioux River’s ahead.”
Laura began to see out loud for Mary. “The road’s going down a low bank to the river, but there aren’t any trees. There’s just the big sky and grassy land, and the little, low creek. It’s a big river sometimes, but now it’s dried up till it’s no bigger than Plum Creek. It trickles along from pool to pool, by dry gravel stretches and cracked dry mud flats. Now the horses are stopping to drink.”
“Drink hearty,” Pa said to the horses. “There’s no more water for thirty miles.”
Beyond the low river the grassy land was low curve behind curve and the road looked like a short hook.
“The road pushes against the grassy land and breaks off short. And that’s the end of it,” said Laura.
“It can’t be,” Mary objected. “The road goes all the way to Silver Lake.”
“I know it does,” Laura answered.
“Well, then I don’t think you ought to say things like that,” Mary told her gently. “We should always be careful to say exactly what we mean.”
“I was saying what I meant,” Laura protested. But she could not explain. There were so many ways of seeing things and so many ways of saying them.
Beyond the Big Sioux there were no more fields, no houses, no people in sight. There really was no road, only a dim wagon trail, and no rail- road grade. Here and there Laura glimpsed a little wooden stake, almost hidden in the grasses. Pa said they were surveyors’ stakes for the railroad grade that was not started yet.
Laura said to Mary, “This prairie is like an enormous meadow, stretching far away in every direction, to the very edge of the world.”
The endless waves of flowery grasses under the cloudless sky gave her a queer feeling. She could not say how she felt. All of them in the wagon, and the wagon and team, and even Pa, seemed small.
All morning Pa drove steadily along the dim wagon track, and nothing changed. The farther they went into the west, the smaller they seemed, and the less they seemed to be going anywhere. The wind blew the grass always with the same endless rippling, the horses’ feet and the wheels going over the grass made always the same sound. The jiggling of the board seat was always the same jiggling. Laura thought they might go on forever, yet always be in this same changeless place, that would not even know they were there. Only the sun moved. Without ever seeming to, the sun moved steadily upward in the sky. When it was overhead, they stopped to feed the horses and to eat a picnic lunch on the clean grass.
It was good to rest on the ground after riding all the morning. Laura thought of the many times they had eaten under the sky, while they were traveling all the way from Wisconsin to Indian Territory and back again to Minnesota. Now they were in Dakota Territory going farther west. But this was different from all the other times, not only because there was no cover on the wagon and no beds in it, but some other reason. Laura couldn’t say how, but this prairie was different.
“Pa,” she asked, “when you find the homestead, will it be like the one we had in Indian Territory?”
Pa thought before he answered. “No,” he said finally. “This is different country. I can’t tell you how, exactly, but this prairie is different. It feels different.”
“That’s likely enough,” Ma said sensibly. “We’re west of Minnesota, and north of Indian Territory, so naturally the flowers and grasses are not the same.”
But that was not what Pa and Laura meant. There was really almost no difference in the flowers and grasses. But there was something else here that was not anywhere else. It was an enormous stillness that made you feel still. And when you were still, you could feel great stillness coming closer.
All the little sounds of the blowing grasses and of the horses munching and whooshing in their feedbox at the back of the wagon, and even the sounds of eating and talking could not touch the enormous silence of this prairie.
Pa talked about his new job. He would be the company storekeeper, and the timekeeper at Silver Lake camp. He would run the store and he would keep straight in his books the charge ac- count of every man on the job, and know exactly how much money was due each man for his work, after his board bill and his account at the store had been subtracted. And when the paymaster brought the money each payday, Pa would pay every man. That was all he had to do, and for that he would be paid fifty dollars every month.
“And best of all, Caroline, we’re among the very first out here!” said Pa. “We’ve got the pick of the land for our homestead. By George, our luck’s turned at last! First chance at new land, and fifty dollars a month for a whole summer to boot!”
“It is wonderful, Charles,” said Ma.
But all their talking did not mean anything to the enormous silence of that prairie.
All that afternoon they went on, mile after mile, never seeing a house or any sign of people, never seeing anything but grass and sky. The trail they followed was marked only by bent and broken grasses.
Laura saw old Indian trails and buffalo paths worn deep in the ground and now grassed over. She saw strange large depressions, straight sided and flat-bottomed, that had been buffalo wallows, where now the grass was growing. Laura had never seen a buffalo, and Pa said it was not likely that she would ever see one. Only a little while before the vast herds of thousands of buffaloes had grazed over this country. They had been the Indians’ cattle, and white men had slaughtered them all.
On every side now the prairie stretched away empty to far, clear skyline. The wind never stopped blowing, waving the tall prairie grasses that had turned brown in the sun. And all the afternoon, while Pa kept driving onward, he was merrily whistling or singing. The song he sang oftenest was:
“Oh, come to this country, And don’t you feel alarm,
For Uncle Sam is rich enough To give us all a farm!”
Even baby Grace joined in the chorus, though she did not bother to follow the tune.
“Oh, come away! Come away!
Come away, I say!
Oh, come away! Come away! Come right away!
Oh, come to this country And have no fear of harm
Our Uncle Sam is rich enough To give us all a farm!”
The sun was lowering in the west when a rider appeared on the prairie behind the wagon. He came following behind not very fast but coming a little nearer mile after mile while the sun was slowly sinking.
“How much farther is it to Silver Lake, Charles?” Ma asked.
“About ten miles,” said Pa.
“There isn’t anybody living nearer, is there?” “No,” said Pa.
Ma did not say anything more. Neither did anyone else. They kept glancing back at that rider behind them, and each time they looked, he was a little nearer. He was surely following them and not meaning to overtake them until the sun sank. The sun was so low that every hollow between the low prairie swells was filled with shadow.
Each time that Pa glanced back, his hand made a little motion, slapping the horses with the lines to hurry them. But no team could pull a loaded wagon as fast as a man could ride.
The man was so near now that Laura could see two pistols in leather holsters on his hips. His hat was pulled low over his eyes, and a red bandana was tied loosely around his neck.
Pa had brought his gun west, but it was not in the wagon now. Laura wondered where it was, but she did not ask Pa.
She looked back again and saw another rider coming on a white horse. He wore a red shirt. He and the white horse were far behind and small, but they came fast, galloping. They overtook the first rider, and the two came on together.
Ma said in a low voice, “There’s two of them now, Charles.”
Mary asked frightened, “What is it? Laura, what’s the matter?”
Pa looked back quickly, and then he was comfortable. “Everything’s all right now,” he said. “That’s Big Jerry.”
“Who’s Big Jerry?” Ma asked.
“He’s a half-breed, French and Indian,” Pa answered carelessly. “A gambler, and some say a horse thief, but a darned good fellow. Big Jerry won’t let anybody waylay us.”
Ma looked at him astonished. Her mouth opened and then it shut; she did not say anything.
The riders came up beside the wagon. Pa lifted his hand and said, “Hullo, Jerry!”
“Hullo, Ingalls!” Big Jerry answered. The other man gave them all a snarling look and went galloping on ahead, but Big Jerry rode along by the wagon.
He looked like an Indian. He was tall and big but not one-bit fat, and his thin face was brown. His shirt was flaming red. His straight black hair swung against his flat, high-boned cheek as he rode, for he wore no hat. And his snow-white horse wore no saddle nor bridle. The horse was free, he could go where he wanted to go, and he wanted to go with Big Jerry wherever Big Jerry wanted to ride. The horse and the man moved together as if they were one animal.
They were beside the wagon only a moment. Then away they went in the smoothest, prettiest run, down into a little hollow and up and away, straight into the blazing round sun on the far edge of the west. The flaming red shirt and the white horse vanished in the blazing golden light.
Laura let out her breath. “Oh, Mary! The snow- white horse and the tall, brown man, with such a black head and a bright red shirt! The brown prairie all around—and they rode right into the sun as it was going down. They’ll go on in the sun around the world.”
Mary thought a moment. Then she said, “Laura, you know he couldn’t ride into the sun. He’s just riding along on the ground like any- body.”
But Laura did not feel that she had told a lie. What she had said was true too. Somehow that moment when the beautiful, free pony and the wild man rode into the sun would last forever.
Ma still feared that the other man might be lying in wait to rob them, but Pa told her, “Don’t worry! Big Jerry’s gone ahead to find him and stay with him till we get into camp. Jerry’ll see that nobody molests us.”
Ma looked back to see that her girls were all right, and she held Grace snugly on her lap. She did not say anything because nothing she could say would make any difference. But Laura knew that Ma had never wanted to leave Plum Creek and did not like to be here now; she did not like traveling in that lonely country with night coming on and such men riding the prairie.
The wild calls of birds came down from the fading sky. More and more dark lines streaked the pale-blue air overhead—straight lines of wild ducks, and long flying wedges of wild geese. The leaders called to their flocks behind them, and each bird answered in turn. The whole sky twanged, “Honk? Honk! Honk! Quanck? Quanck. Quanck.”
“They’re flying low,” said Pa. “Settling down for the night on the lakes.”
There were lakes ahead. A thin silvery line at the very edge of the sky was Silver Lake, and little glimmers south of it were the Twin Lakes, Henry and Thompson. A wee dark blob between them was the Lone Tree. Pa said it was a big cottonwood, the only tree to be seen between the Big Sioux River and the Jim; it grew on a little rise of ground no wider than a road, between the Twin Lakes, and it grew big because its roots could reach water.
“We’ll get some seeds from it to plant on our homestead,” Pa said. “You can’t see Spirit Lake from here, it’s nine miles northwest of Silver Lake. You see, Caroline, what fine hunting country this is. Plenty of water and good feeding ground for wild fowl.”
“Yes, Charles, I see,” said Ma.
The sun sank. A ball of pulsing, liquid light, it sank in clouds of crimson and silver. Cold purple shadows rose in the east, crept slowly across the prairie, then rose in heights on heights of dark- ness from which the stars swung low and bright.
The wind, which all day long had blown strongly, dropped low with the sun and went whispering among the tall grasses. The earth seemed to lie breathing softly under the summer night.
Pa drove on and on beneath the low stars. The horses’ feet went softly thump-thumping on the grassy ground. Far, far ahead a few tiny lights pricked through the dark. They were the lights of Silver Lake camp.
“Don’t need to see the trail for these next eight miles,” Pa told Ma. “All a man’s got to do is keep driving toward the lights. There’s nothing between us and camp but smooth prairie and air.”
Laura was tired and chilly. The lights were far away. They might be stars after all. The whole night was a glittering of stars. Close overhead and down on all sides great stars glittered in patterns on the dark. The tall grass rustled against the turning wagon wheels; it kept on rustling, rustling against the wheels that kept on turning.
Suddenly Laura’s eyes jerked open. There was an open doorway and light streaming out. And in the dazzle of lamplight Uncle Henry was coming, laughing. So, this must be Uncle Henry’s house in the Big Woods when Laura was little, for that was where Uncle Henry was.
“Henry!” Ma exclaimed.
“It’s a surprise, Caroline!” Pa sang out. “I thought I wouldn’t tell you Henry’s out here.”
“I declare, it takes my breath, I am so surprised,” said Ma.
And then a big man was laughing up at them, and he was Cousin Charley. He was the big boy who had bothered Uncle Henry and Pa in the oat field, and been stung by thousands of yellow jackets. “Hello, Half-Pint! Hello, Mary! And here’s baby Carrie, a big girl now. Not the baby any longer, uh?” Cousin Charley helped them down from the wagon, while Uncle Henry took Grace and Pa helped Ma over the wheel, and here came Cousin Louisa, bustling and talking and herding them all into the shanty.
Cousin Louisa and Charley were both grown up now. They were keeping the boarding shanty, cooking for the men who were working on the grade. But the men had eaten supper long ago, and now they were all sleeping in the bunk- houses. Cousin Louisa talked about all this, while she dished up the supper, she had been keeping hot on the stove.
After supper Uncle Henry lighted a lantern and led the way to a shanty that the men had built for Pa.
“It’s all new lumber, Caroline, fresh and clean as a whistle,” Uncle Henry said, holding up the lantern so they could see the new board walls and the bunks built up against them. There was a bunk on one side for Ma and Pa, and on the other side two narrow bunks, one above the other, for Mary and Laura and Carrie and Grace. The beds were already spread in the bunks; Cousin Louisa had seen to that.
In no time at all, Laura and Mary were cuddled on the rustling fresh hay-mattress with the sheet and quilts drawn up to their noses, and Pa blew out the lantern.[/sociallocker]