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The First Year
It was a hot afternoon with a strong wind from the south, but out on the Dakota prairie in 1885 no one minded the hot sunshine or the hard winds. They were to be expected: a natural part of life. And so the swiftly trotting horses drawing the shining black-top buggy swung around the corner of Pearson's livery barn, making the turn from the end of Main Street to the country road Monday afternoon at four o'clock.
Looking from a window of the low, three-room claim shanty a half mile away, Laura saw them coming. She was basting cambric lining to the bodice pieces of her new black cashmere dress and had just time to put on her hat and pick up her gloves when the brown horses and the buggy stopped at the door.
It was a pretty picture Laura made standing at the door of the rough claim shanty, the brown August grass under her feet and the young cottonwoods standing in their square around the yard.
Her dress of pink lawn with its small sprigs of blue flowers just cleared her toes. The skirt was full, and tucked to the waist. The little tight waist with long sleeves and high neck had a bit of lace at the throat. The sage-green, rough-straw poke bonnet lined with blue silk softly framed her pink cheeks and her large blue eyes with the bangs of her brown hair above them.
Manly said nothing of all this, but he helped her into the buggy and tucked the linen lap robe carefully about her to keep off the dust. Then he tightened the reins and they dashed away for an unexpected weekday afternoon drive. South twelve miles across bare prairie to lakes Henry and Thompson, along the narrow neck of land between them where chokecherries and wild grapes grew. Then over the prairie again east and north to Spirit Lake fifteen miles away. Forty or fifty miles in all, but always "around the square" to come home.
The buggy top was up to make a shade from the heat of the sun; the horses' manes and tails flew out on the wind; jack rabbits ran and prairie chickens scuttled out of sight in the grass. Striped gophers ducked into their holes and wild ducks flew overhead from one lake to another. Breaking a somewhat lengthy silence, Manly said, "Can't we be married soon? If you don't want a big wedding, and you would be willing, we could be married right away. When I was back in Minnesota last winter, my sister started planning a big church wedding for us. I told her we didn't want it, and to give up the idea, but she hasn't changed her mind. She is coming out here with my mother, to take charge of our wedding. But harvest is right on hand. It will be an awfully busy time and I'd like us to be settled first."
Laura twisted the bright gold ring with its pearl-and-garnet setting around and around on the forefinger of her left hand. It was a pretty ring and she liked having it, but. . . "I've been thinking," she said. "I don't want to marry a farmer. I have always said I never would. I do wish you would do something else. There are chances in town now while it is so new and growing."
Again there was a little silence; then Manly asked, "Why don't you want to marry a farmer?" And Laura replied, "Because a farm is such a hard place for a woman. There are so many chores for her to do, and harvest help and threshers to cook for. Besides a farmer never has any money. He can never make any because the people in towns tell him what they will pay for what he has to sell and then they charge him what they please for what he has to buy. It is not fair."
Manly laughed. "Well, as the Irishman said, 'Everything is evened up in this world. The rich have their ice in the summer but the poor get theirs in the winter."'
Laura refused to make a joke of it. She said, "I don't always want to be poor and work hard while the people in town take it easy and make money off us."
"But you've got it all wrong," Manly told her seriously. "Farmers are the only ones who are independent. How long would a merchant last if farmers didn't trade with him? There is a strife between them to please the farmer. They have to take trade away from each other in order to make more money, while all a farmer has to do is to sow another field if he wants to make a little extra.
"I have fifty acres of wheat this year. It is enough for me, but if you will come live on the farm, I will break the ground this fall and sow another fifty acres next spring.
"I can raise more oats too and so raise more horses, and it pays to raise horses.
"You see, on a farm it all depends on what a man is willing to do. If he is willing to work and give his attention to his farm, he can make more money than the men in town and all the time be his own boss."
Again there was a silence, a rather skeptical silence on Laura's part, broken at last by Manly, who said, "If you'll try it for three years and I haven't made a success in farming by that time, I'll quit and do anything you want me to do. I promise that at the end of three years we will quit farming if I have not made such a success that you are willing to keep on."
And Laura consented to try it for three years. She liked the horses and enjoyed the freedom and spaciousness of the wide prairie land, with the wind forever waving the tall wild grass in the sloughs and rustling through the short curly buffalo grass, so green on the upland swells in spring and so silvery-gray and brown in summer. It was all so sweet and fresh.The First Four Years. Copyright © by Laura Wilder. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Excerpted from The First Four Years by Laura Ingalls Wilder
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