Caroline: Little House, Revisited

Caroline: Little House, Revisited

Sarah Miller


None knew thee but to love thee,

Thou dear one of my heart,

Oh, thy memory is ever fresh and green.

“Daisy Deane”


Caroline’s wrist turned and flicked as the steel tongue of her crochet hook dipped in and out, mirroring the movement of the fiddle’s bow. With each note, the white thread licked a warm line across her finger. Her pattern had just begun to repeat, chorus-like, as the tune ended. She smoothed the frilled cluster of scallops against her cuff and smiled. So long as she could keep ahead of the mending, a pair of lace wrists would freshen her second-best blue wool before snowmelt. There would be no time for a collar—once the trees began to bud, she must turn her hands to the tedious seams of a new set of diapers, bonnets, and gowns.

Charles rested the fiddle on his knees and primed himself with a breath.

“What is it, Charles?” Caroline asked, plucking a slouching festoon of thread into place.

“I’ve had an offer for this place,” he said.

Caroline’s hook stilled. “An offer?”

“Gustafson’s agreed to pay one thousand twelve dollars and fifty cents for our half of this quarter section.”

The sum swept her mind clean as a gust of wind. “My goodness,” she said. One thousand twelve dollars. And the delightful absurdity of fifty cents besides, like a sprinkling of sugar. They could use it to buy a week’s worth of satin hair ribbons for Mary and Laura. “Oh, Charles.” Caroline clasped her hands before her lips to hide their eager trembling. “And the same for Henry and Polly’s half?”

Charles grimaced. “Gustafson can only afford eighty acres. Your brother isn’t going.”

Going. The image her mind had already begun to embroider unraveled. Such foolish greed; she had let herself imagine that money as though it were sitting in her lap, beneath this very roof—not as the lever that would pry her loose of it.

She need not ask where they would go. All winter long Charles had talked of Kansas, its free, level land and bountiful game. Even Mary and little Laura could repeat his reveries of the mighty jackrabbits and treeless acreage as easily as the words of “The Gypsy King.” The West was a song Charles wanted a hand in composing.

A subtle tightening, as though she were taking hold of the cabin and everything in it, passed over her. To move westward was nothing new, but always, she had traveled from the sanctuary of one family to another: from Ma and Papa Frederick’s house in Concord to Father and Mother Ingalls’s farm, and from there to this quarter section they had bought together with Henry and Polly, just seven miles east of the Mississippi.

And yet beneath that apprehension, a twinkle of excitement. Caroline remembered the thrill, after three years of married life spent under others’ roofs, of buying this place and making of it a home all their own. Within six months she had been pregnant. How might it feel to do the same on land that bore no mark of another family? Such a place would belong more thoroughly to them than anything had before.

“We stake our claim, make improvements on the land while Gustafson makes his payments, and by the time the Indians move on we can clear the mortgage on this place and preempt a full one hundred sixty acres with upward of five hundred dollars left to spare,” Charles went on, pulling a blue handbill from his pocket. “The settlers put up such a fuss that the government’s finally reneged on the railroad interests. The Indian Territory is there for the taking—a dollar and a quarter an acre. We only have to be there when the land opens up. The sooner we arrive, the sooner we’ve put in our fourteen months’ residency.” He leaned forward for her reply.

The arithmetic alone spoke for itself: twice the acreage, none of the debt. Cash in hand, where before they had banked with pelts and crops. She should not hesitate at such a gain. Yet how to weigh that against losses that could not be measured? Departing before the Mississippi thawed would not leave time enough to bid her own mother goodbye. She did not answer yes or no. “We will have an increase in the family well before then,” she said instead.

Caroline tucked her lips together. She had not intended to tell him for another month yet, not until she was certain the child was safely rooted. But Charles looked at her as though it were the first time, and she went rosy in the glow of his happiness. “When?” he asked.

“Before harvest.”

He combed his fingers through his whiskers. “Should we wait?”

Her conscience rippled. She could say yes, and he would give her the year at least, restaking himself to this land without question or complaint. Another year with her sisters and brother, with Mother and Father Ingalls, with plenty of time to visit Ma and Papa Frederick one more time. One final time. Were she to answer on behalf of the coming child, it might even be an unselfish thing to ask. Yet she’d had no sense of its presence—only the absence of her monthly courses coupled with an unaccountable warmth in her hands and feet—nothing to signal it as separate from herself.

Caroline’s eyes roved over the place where her china shepherdess stood gazing down from the mantel. The silken glaze of her painted dress and body seemed at once so hard and smooth as to render the little woman untouchable. If she indulged herself by claiming this time, Caroline thought, Charles would treat her with almost unbearable awe and deference. No matter that carrying a child made her feel no more fragile than a churn full of cream. Staying would only make for a year shadowed with lasts—one vast goodbye shattered over innumerable small moments. “Better to travel now,” she decided. “It will only be harder if we wait.”

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