Laura's eyes rolled as Mrs. Oleson rambled on about all the new people arriving in Walnut Grove.
"Just yesterday," said Mrs. Oleson shaking her head. "I heard a black family speaking to Mr. Edwards about buying his old place. Can you imagine!" Harriet's hands flew up in the air then smacked down on the counter top.
"Walnut Grove had a black doctor for a while Mrs. Oleson." Laura dug inside her bag to find the coins to pay for the coffee and sugar. Then she could make a quick exit. "And last I knew, Hester Sue works for you over at the restaurant."
Harriet's eyes scrunched into slits and her mouth puckered up into a scowl. "I know that Laura, but if we keep letting them in we'll be overrun with those—"
The tingling of the bell over the front door halted Harriet in mid-sentence. A huge smile curled the corners of her lips and she smoothed her dress as a tall, thin woman, around Laura's age entered the mercantile. The woman's wavy dark blond hair was pulled back in an elegant bun and her pinstriped shirt was edged with a delicate, expensive looking lace. A basket swung from the woman's arm as she made her way up to the counter.
She nodded at Laura. "Good morning Mrs. Oleson," she said with a full smile that revealed a mouth of perfectly straight, white teeth.
Harriet's voice took on that sugary sweet lilt it had when she was trying to impress someone. "Good morning Mrs. Carter." Harriet rushed around the counter to stand next to the two women. "Mrs. Carter, this is Mrs. Wilder." Her extended hand pointed in Laura's direction. "Laura, this is Mrs. Carter." Harriet's voice took on a look of sheer glee as the name rolled off her tongue.
Laura extended her hand. "It's nice to meet you Mrs. Carter."
The woman's handshake was warm and firm. "Please, call me Sarah."
"The Carters," Harriet interjected, "just moved into the Widow Thurman's house."
Laura's eyes widened with excitement. "Oh really! I spent a few afternoons inside that house growing up. It's a beautiful place."
"Thank you, though I don't think I have the Widow Thurman's knack for decorating."
"Oh, don't worry about that Mrs. Carter. We have everything you need. Some of our finest pieces come all the way from Paris." Harriet's gaze looked down upon Laura. "Though we do have less expensive pieces for those on a tighter budget."
The heat rose up Laura's face and she bit her upper lip to prevent embarrassing herself in front of Sarah. Did God think about those of who have to deal with Mrs. Oleson when He told us to love our enemies?
Harriet grasped Laura's arm as if she was about to share the latest town gossip. "Did I tell you that Mrs. Carter is going to be starting up a newspaper here in town?"
A paper in Walnut Grove? "How exciting? Manly will be thrilled to hear about it." Laura blushed when she saw the confused look on Sarah's face. "Manly is the nickname I call my husband, Almanzo."
Sarah's eyes widened when she heard the name. "Oh, my husband John mentioned that he met an Almanzo at the Feed and Seed the other day."
Laura's face beamed as she smiled. "That's Manly. He's worked there since he and his sister moved to town a few years ago. His sister used to be the teacher here. I took over after she moved to Minneapolis."
It felt nice to talk to someone close to her own age. Most of the wives in Walnut Grove were older than Laura and she didn't always have much to talk about when she and Manly went to socials. Almanzo wasn't much of a talker during those events either, so they usually went home early.
Sarah rested her fingertips on Laura's arm. "Are you still teaching?"
Laura shook her head. "No, I stay home now and help Manly run the farm and take care of our daughter Rose."
Harriet took a step in between the women. "Well, that's all nice, but I'm sure Mrs. Carter is way too busy to talk about all that now." Harriet tugged at Sarah's arm, trying to move her away from Laura.
Sarah pulled her arm back and Laura's eyes widened in surprise. "Actually, I would love to invite you and your family over to supper once we get settled in. I haven't met very many couples our own age in town."
Laura's shoulders rose and fell. "That's because we're it." A chuckle escaped from her lips. "Most of the families around her are a bit older and many have grown children who have moved away." Laura pointed at Harriet. "Mrs. Oleson's daughter and her husband moved to New York a little over a year ago."
Whenever Sarah smiled it was genuine. Her smile reminded Laura of her Ma and how much she missed her.
Sarah turned toward Harriet. "My father lives in New York. He runs a newspaper there. He taught me almost everything I know."
"It so nice to have some dignified people from proper society coming to Walnut Grove." Harriet's voice had taken on that condescending tone that Laura had heard since childhood. Somehow Laura thought one day it would no longer bother her. But even now, her anger raged under the surface and a drip of perspiration trickled down her back.
Laura took her basket off her arm and clasped it in her left hand. "It was a pleasure meeting you Sarah. Maybe I'll see you at church on Sunday/"
A wary smile of embarrassment curled the corner of Sarah's lips. "Most definitely. I look forward to it."
Laura turned on her heels and the bell tingled as she opened the door. "Goodbye Mrs. Oleson," she said flatly, shutting the door before Harriet could respond.
It felt like they had been traveling for months instead of weeks. The wagon rolled across the prairie, edging ever closer to De Smet. The children, who had been so excited at the beginning of the journey, now spent each day moping through their chores and lessons. And while Charles enjoyed the freedom of being on the move again, he couldn't help thinking back to all they left behind. Yet, every morning, Caroline's smiling face greeted him, giving Charles the strength to get through another day of travel, while their faithful dog, Bandit followed close behind, his ear pricking up at the slightest noise.
Caroline was washing dishes in a creek near their campsite when Charles wandered down to fill the canteens.
She tucked a stray tendril of hair behind her ear. "It looks like a fine day for traveling." Her bright eyes crinkled in the corners when she smiled.
Charles bent down and removed the top from the canteens. Bubbles formed on the water's surface as the cool liquid flowed in. "U-huh," he mumbled without looking up.
Caroline's fingers instinctively roamed through his thick mane of wavy, dark hair. "What's wrong?"
He never could hide anything from her. "This sure was easier twelve years ago." Charles glanced over at her and saw the laughter behind her smiling lips.
"The other day, I caught a glimpse of Grace sitting in the grass while Carrie and Cassandra recited their lessons." Caroline wiped the clean dishes with a towel. "It reminded me of our trip to Kansas when Laura and Mary would find a big tree to sit under and recite lessons while Carrie played with her doll."
Both their minds wandered back to a time when their family was younger and smaller.
"For a brief moment, it was like time had stood still."
Charles nodded, the lump in his throat hard to swallow.
"Laura and Almanzo will be fine—" she waited for him to glance up at her, "and so will we."
He leaned over and placed a tender kiss on her cheek. Her lips sought his and they lingered there together until the sound of children grew closer.
"Now, help me up," she chuckled. "And we can get moving."
Charles pulled her up and embraced her. "I love you Caroline Ingalls."
Her sideways, demure glance reminded him of the young woman he fell in love with. "I love you too."
He grabbed the corners of the tablecloth that held the dishes and tied them. Flinging the tablecloth over his shoulder, he circled his free arm around Caroline's waist and they walked toward the campsite.
Caroline's right. It's going to be a fine day.
"We would like to welcome some new members to our community this morning." Reverend Alden smiled from his place behind the pulpit. In all the years he had been the minister of Walnut Grove, he never tired of seeing new faces. With each new family he saw the opportunity to watch God's Kingdom prosper.
He extended his right hand to the side of the church. "John and Sarah Carter with their boys, Jason and Jeb, recently moved into the Widow Thurman's house. How wonderful it will be to see that house full of life again."
The Reverend's gaze then focused on the other side of the church, where Laura sat with Rose on her lap next to Almanzo, Royal and Jenny in the bench behind them. "Almanzo's brother, Royal has come back to visit us and he's brought along his daughter Jenny."
As Reverend Alden gazed out upon the congregation, his bright smile filled the room. It gave him great joy to see the faces of young and old coming together for worship and thriving as a town of God fearing people. His mind drifted away for a moment to his good friend Charles and his family as they traveled to their new life outside of Walnut Grove.
Reverend Alden lifted both arms. "Let's close this morning with one of my favorite hymns, "Onward Christian Soldiers". The congregation rose and quickly the room filled with singing.
Wherever you are Charles, may God be guiding your path.