There were only slivers of ice on the water pail next morning and the day was sunny and warm. Pa took his traps to set them for muskrats in Big Slough, and Carrie and Grace played outdoors.
The little auk would not eat. It did not utter a sound, but Carrie and Laura thought that it looked up at them desperately. It would die without food, but it did not seem to know how to eat anything that they offered it.
At dinnertime Pa said that the ice was melting on Silver Lake; he thought that the strange little bird could take care of itself on the open water. So, after dinner Laura and Mary put on their coats and hoods and they went with Pa to set the little auk free.
Silver Lake was ruffling pale blue and silver under the warm, pale sky. Ice was around its edges and flat gray cakes of ice floated on the ripples. Pa took the little auk from his pocket. In its smooth black coat and neat white shirtfront of tiny feathers, it stood up on his palm. It saw the land and the sky and the water, and eagerly it rose up on its toes and stretched out its little wings.
But it could not go, it could not fly. Its wings were too small to lift it.
“It does not belong on land,” said Pa. “It’s a water bird.”
He squatted down by the thin white ice at the lake’s edge and reaching far out he tipped the little bird from his hand into the blue water. For the briefest instant, there it was, and then it wasn’t there. Out among the ice cakes it went streaking, a black speck.
“It gets up speed, with those webbed feet,” said Pa, “to lift it from the . . . There it goes!”
Laura barely had time to see it, rising tiny in the great blue-sparkling sky. Then, in all that glittering of sunlight, it was gone. Her eyes were too dazzled to see it anymore. But Pa stood looking, still seeing it going toward the south.
They never knew what became of that strange little bird that came in the dark with the storm from the far north and went southward in the sunshine. They never saw nor heard of another bird like it. They never found out what kind of bird it was.
Pa still stood looking far away across the land. All the prairie curves were softly colored, pale browns and tan and fawn-gray and very faint greens and purples, and far away they were gray- blue. The sunshine was warm and the air hazy. Only a little cold was around Laura’s feet, near the thin, dry ice at the lake’s edge.
Everything was still. No wind stirred the gray-bleached grass and no birds were on the water or in the sky. The lake faintly lapped at the rim of that stillness.
Laura looked at Pa and she knew he was listening too. The silence was as terrible as cold is. It was stronger than any sound. It could stop the water’s lapping and the thin, faint ringing in Laura’s ears. The silence was no sound, no movement, no thing; that was its terror. Laura’s heart jumped and jumped, trying to get away from it.
“I don’t like it,” Pa said, slowly shaking his head. “I don’t like the feel of the weather. There’s something . . .” He could not say what he meant, and he said again, “I don’t like it. I don’t like it at all.”
Nobody could say, exactly, that anything was wrong with that weather. It was beautiful Indian summer. Frosts came every night and sometimes a light freeze, but all the days were sunny. Every afternoon Laura and Mary took long walks in the warm sunshine, while Carrie played with Grace near the house.
“Get yourselves full of sunshine while you can,” Ma said. “It will soon be winter, and you’ll have to stay indoors.”
Out in the bright soft weather they were storing up sunshine and fresh air, in themselves, for the winter when they could not have any.
But often, while they were walking, Laura quickly looked at the north. She did not know why. Nothing was there. Sometimes in the warm sunshine she stood still and listened, and she was uneasy. There was no reason why.
“It’s going to be a hard winter,” Pa said. “The hardest we ever saw.”
“Why, Charles,” Ma protested. “We’re having fine weather now. That one early storm is no reason why the whole winter will be bad.”
“I’ve trapped muskrats a good many years,” said Pa, “and I never saw them build their walls so thick.”
“Muskrats!” said Ma.
“The wild things know, somehow,” Pa said. “Every wild creature’s got ready for a hard winter.”
“Maybe they just made ready for that bad storm,” Ma suggested.
But Pa was not persuaded. “I don’t like the feel of things, myself,” he said. “This weather seems to be holding back something that it might let lose any minute. If I were a wild animal, I’d hunt my hole and dig it plenty deep. If I were a wild goose, I’d spread my wings and get out of here.”
Ma laughed at him. “You are a goose, Charles! I don’t know when I’ve seen a more beautiful Indian summer.”
One afternoon a little crowd of men gathered in Harthorn’s store in town. The trains, which had been stopped by the blizzard, were running again, and men had come into town from their claims to buy some groceries and hear the news.
Royal and Almanzo Wilder had come from their homesteads, Almanzo driving his own fine team of matched Morgans, the best team in all that country. Mr. Boast was there, standing in the middle of the little crowd and setting it laughing when he laughed. Pa had walked in with his gun on his arm, but he had not seen so much as a jackrabbit, and now he was waiting while Mr. Harthorn weighed the piece of salt pork that he had had to buy instead.
No one heard a footstep, but Pa felt that someone was behind him and he turned to see who it was. Then suddenly Mr. Boast stopped talking. All the others looked to see what Mr. Boast saw, and they stood up quickly from the cracker boxes and the plow. Almanzo slid down from the counter. Nobody said anything.
It was only an Indian, but somehow the sight of him kept them all quiet. He stood there and looked at them, at Pa, at Mr. Boast, at Royal Wilder and each of the other men, and finally at Almanzo.
He was a very old Indian. His brown face was carved in deep wrinkles and shriveled on the bones, but he stood tall and straight. His arms were folded under a gray blanket, holding it wrapped around him. His head was shaved to a scalp-lock and an eagle’s feather stood up from it. His eyes were bright and sharp. Behind him the sun was shining on the dusty street and an Indian pony stood there waiting.
“Heap big snow come,” this Indian said.
The blanket slid on his shoulder and one naked brown arm came out. It moved in a wide sweep, to north, to west, to east, and gathered them all together and swirled.
“Heap big snow, big wind,” he said. “How long?” Pa asked him.
“Many moons,” the Indian said. He held up four fingers, then three fingers. Seven fingers, seven months; blizzards for seven months.
They all looked at him and did not say any- thing.
“You white men,” he said. “I tell-um you.” He showed seven fingers again. “Big snow.”
Again, seven fingers. “Big snow.” Again, seven fingers. “Heap big snow, many moons.”
Then he tapped his breast with his forefinger. “Old! Old! I have seen!” he said proudly.
He walked out of the store to his waiting pony and rode away toward the west.
“Well, I’ll be jiggered,” Mr. Boast said. “What was that about seven big snows?” Almanzo asked. Pa told him. The Indian meant that every seventh winter was a hard winter and that at the end of three times seven years came the hardest winter of all. He had come to tell the white men that this coming winter was a twenty-first winter, that there would be seven months of blizzards.
“You suppose the old geezer knows what he’s talking about?” Royal wanted to know. No one could answer that.
“Just on the chance,” Royal said, “I say we move into town for the winter. My feed store beats a claim shanty all hollow for wintering in. We can stay back there till spring. How’d it suits you, Manzo?”
“Suits me,” said Almanzo.
“How do you feel about moving into town, Boast?” Pa asked.
Mr. Boast slowly shook his head. “Don’t see how we could. We’ve got too much stock cattle and horses, and chickens. There’s no place in town to keep them even if I could afford to pay rent. We’re fixed pretty well for the winter on the claim. I guess Ellie and I better stay with it.”
Everyone was sober. Pa paid for his groceries and set out, walking quickly toward home. Now and then he looked back at the northwest sky. It was clear and the sun was shining.
Ma was taking bread from the oven when Pa came in. Carrie and Grace had run to meet him; then came in with him. Mary went on quietly sewing but Laura jumped up.
“Is anything wrong, Charles?” Ma asked, tip- ping the good-smelling loaves from the pan onto a clean white cloth. “You’re home early.”
“Nothing’s wrong,” Pa answered. “Here are your sugar and tea and a bit of salt pork. I didn’t get a rabbit. Not a thing’s wrong,” he repeated, “but we’re moving to town as quick as we can. I’ve got to haul in hay, first, for the stock. I can haul one load before dark if I hustle.”
“Goodness, Charles!” Ma gasped, but Pa was on his way to the stable. Carrie and little Grace stared at Ma and at Laura and at Ma again. Laura looked at Ma and Ma looked helplessly at her.
“Your Pa never did such a thing before,” Ma said.
“Nothing’s wrong, Ma. Pa said so,” Laura answered. “I must run help him with the hay.”
Ma came out to the stable, too, and Pa talked to her while he slapped the harness on the horses. “It’s going to be a hard winter,” Pa said. “If you must have the truth, I’m afraid of it. This house is nothing but a claim shanty. It doesn’t keep out the cold and look what happened to the tarpaper in the first blizzard. Our store building in town is boarded and papered, sided on the out- side and ceiled on the inside. It’s good and tight and warm, and the stable there is built warm too.” “But what’s the need to hurry so?” Ma asked.
“I feel like hurrying,” Pa said. “I’m like the muskrat, something tells me to get you and the girls inside thick walls. I’ve been feeling this way for some time, and now that Indian . . .”
“What Indian?” Ma asked him. She looked as if she were smelling the smell of an Indian whenever she said the word. Ma despised Indi- ans. She was afraid of them, too.
“There’s some good Indians,” Pa always insisted. Now he added, “And they know some things that we don’t. I’ll tell you all about it at supper, Caroline.”
They could not talk while Pa pitched hay from the stack and Laura trampled it down in the rack. The hay rose higher under her fast-moving legs until the load was tall above the horses’ backs.
“I’ll handle it by myself in town,” Pa said. “Town’s no place for a girl to be doing a boy’s work.”
So, Laura slid down from the high top of the load into what was left of the haystack, and Pa drove away. The Indian summer afternoon was warm and sweet-smelling and still. The low ripples of softly colored land stretched far away, and the sky was gentle over them. But under the softness and gentleness there was something waiting. Laura knew what Pa meant.
“Oh, that I had the wings of a bird!” Laura thought of those words in the Bible. If she had had the wings of a bird, she, too, would have spread them and flown, fast, fast, and far away.
She went soberly to the house to help Ma. None of them had wings; they were only moving to town for the winter. Ma and Mary did not mind, but Laura knew she would not like to live among so many people.[/sociallocker]