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An Old Acquaintance

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“You will never guess who I saw in town today,” Almanzo Wilder told his wife as they sat down to supper on an early summer evening.

“At the rate DeSmet is growing, I’m hardly surprised at anyone being there,” Laura Wilder said, thinking of all the times someone from her past had appeared.

“Oh, this wasn’t a newcomer,” he replied with a smile. “Nellie Oleson must have decided that New York didn’t suit her after all.”

He laughed when Laura made a face, but she couldn’t help it. She had first met Nellie Oleson as a little girl on Plum Creek, and the two had not been friends. Nellie had been snobby and disdainful. Her father had been a storekeeper, and Nellie had flaunted her superiority. She had been impudent to Ma, and worst of all for young Laura, she had spoken harshly about the Ingalls’ faithful bulldog Jack.

“Don’t worry, I didn’t offer her a buggy ride,” he teased.

When they met again, when they were young ladies, Laura had envied Nellie her slender blonde beauty. The other girl had grown older, but she had not changed – she had still been haughty and convinced that she was better than everyone else, especially Laura. It had always infuriated Laura to see the other girl always grabbing whatever she wanted, whether it was candy or a young man’s attention. It seemed as if she especially enjoyed taking things away from other people, even if she discarded them a moment later.

Nellie had definitely tried to set her cap at Almanzo, until the day the three of them – Laura, Almanzo, and Nellie – took a very memorable buggy ride. Nellie had intended to steal Almanzo’s attention from Laura, knowing that her chattering presence would make the other girl stay home. Laura had seen to it that Nellie did not enjoy the experience by letting the lap robe spook the horses. The memory still made her smile. Laura had not been frightened, trusting in Almanzo to handle the horses. Even better, she had provoked Nellie into showing her true colors. When he had suggested a buggy ride the following week, she had told him she would not go if Nellie went.

There had been a few bad moments over the next week, but Almanzo had come for her the next week, and all the weeks after. He had told her he’d felt sorry for Nellie, but he had made it clear who he wanted to spend his Sunday afternoons with, and it wasn’t the beautiful girl who was scared of horses.

Laura had not set her cap at Almanzo, but she had fallen in love with him – and his horses. In fact, looking back, she had been very slow to realize that he had been trying to court her with sleigh ride rescues when it was forty degrees below. They made a pretty good matched pair themselves, Laura thought contentedly – he had been brave enough to make the drive, and she had been brave enough to go with him.

Nellie Oleson couldn’t threaten her now.

Laura was the one who lived with Almanzo in the pretty little house on the tree claim, with its kitchen. Every time Laura made something in her kitchen, she saw the love and care that he had put into it – something practical, and yet pleasing.

Laura was the one who not only rode behind the beautiful horses but even drove them.

Laura was the one who found herself thrilled with the promise of a new inhabitant being added to their little house.

In fact, she thought, she might even enjoy a reunion with Nellie Oleson, now that she was Mrs. Almanzo Wilder.

***

The Fourth of July dawned beautifully clear, and Laura was looking forward to the chance to go visiting and see the fireworks in town. There were the chores to do and the animals who needed care, but they would go visit her family for dinner.

Skip and Barnum were harnessed to the buggy, and Laura gave Almanzo a smile as he helped her into the buggy.

“Do you think they’re ready for fireworks?” Laura remembered last year when they had gone to watch the fireworks. Almanzo had been forced to drive them in a circle and wheel them around to face the fireworks. Now, however, Skip and Barnum were much gentler and better behaved. They were so well-behaved that Laura found herself wondering when Almanzo would start breaking another pair.

“We’ll stay out from the crowd, just in case,” he told her.

Later, when they were full from one of Ma’s good dinners of fried chicken, they made the drive to town. Skip and Barnum were a little fresh from standing, but running them a little and taking the long way to town was no hardship.

The town was full and lively, bustling with newcomers and old friends. The speeches were over, but they were setting up for a buggy race.

“You will race, won’t you?” Laura asked, remembering the one had had won in Royal’s peddler wagon. With this buggy and Skip and Barnum, he was sure to win.

“Of course.” His eyes sparkled. “You will be watching?”

“Of course.” She’d spotted Mary Power among the crowd, and asked him to set her down.

As much as Laura loved their claim, it was lovely to visit with her friends, seeing the things that were new. Mary Power and Laura looked at hats in Miss Bell’s shop and admired fabrics, until it was time for the race to start.

Laura watched excitedly as their buggy competed with the others, watching the one driver and horses who would always capture her attention. She was so busy watching that she was surprised when Nellie Oleson spoke to her.

“Why, Laura Ingalls!” Nellie said cheerfully, dressed in what Laura imagined was the latest fashion, still slim and blonde.

“Actually, it’s Laura Wilder now,” she said easily, resisting the urge to wave her ring under Nellie’s nose.

“How exciting! I mean, who would ever have guessed that you and Mannie would get married. So much has changed while I was in New York,” she said, her voice a little hollow. “He’s racing, of course.”

Laura chose not to dignify Nellie’s first statement with an answer. “Of course.”

Mary Power joined them, and Laura was glad of the company in dealing with Nellie’s empty chatter. As the race ended, she was too busy cheering for her husband and their horses as Skip and Barnum carried the day. She had to wait until he had helped her up into the buggy to press her lips against his cheek. “You won!”

“They won,” he said, nodding at the horses.

Laura saw Nellie Oleson standing there, looking just a little forlorn. She should have felt good, Laura thought, happy that Nellie was finally reaping the harvest of her earlier behavior. But for some reason, she did not. Laura remembered the first time she had met Nellie, when the little girl had been greedily cramming candy in her mouth without even thinking to offer it to anyone else. They were to be neighbors again, apparently – Nellie’s father had a claim out near their own.

“What would you say to giving Nellie a buggy ride?” Laura asked suddenly.

“Not going to frighten the horses this time, are you?” Almanzo grinned at her.

“She looks lonely,” she told him, her voice soft.

It was not as bad as Laura had expected. Possibly because this time she sat in the middle of the seat, and because she knew that there was nothing to fear from Nellie now. In fact, Laura could even feel sorry for her, especially when they agreed to drive her home and she saw the Olesons’ claim again. The last time she had seen it, Laura had thought how far behind everyone else it seemed.

Now she felt suddenly that the wheel had turned. She almost felt sorry for Nellie, especially as she stood waving farewell.

“Perhaps I will drive over next week,” Laura said to Almanzo as they drove home.

He gave her a smile. “It would be a neighborly thing to do.”

Yes, Laura thought, it would be. Nellie looked like she could use a friend.

She had just never thought it would be her.