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God Hates a Coward

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“I am only going with you because I want to get home. When I am home to stay, I will not go with you anymore. So now you know, and if you want to save yourself these long, cold drives, you can.”[1]

The drive back, after Laura’s bald declaration of disinterest, was the coldest of all for Almanzo. He dwelt the entire time on her looks as she’d climbed out of the cutter. She was red-faced from the cold, but it seemed to him her color had risen more from the struggle to tell him his suit was pointless. She’d met his gaze briefly and looked away before he could tolerably read her expression.

Once home, Royal made to tease and, seeing something he’d not read in his brother’s face before, left off and made their supper in silence.

-

"I will not go with you anymore."

Throughout the week, he heard her. There was no chore, no errand, during which he wasn’t disturbed by it.

He and Cap Garland spent some time over the checkerboard one evening. Cap said Laura’s name, in passing, Almanzo couldn’t tell exactly why. It didn’t matter; her name called up her smile, and worse, the blush that had spread over her cheeks as she came out to meet him every Friday.

Cap had caught Almanzo’s distraction and guessed the reason, and each time they met that week, he’d had something to say.  Nothing about Laura directly, just comments on the fine weather, on the cold snap, on whether it would snow after all. 

“You know, I’m thinking we might could do a little hauling again this winter. Unless you have other plans?” he said, cheeks puffed in a knowing grin.

“No plans here,” responded Almanzo, going about his work and pointedly ignoring Cap.

-

Friday came, and the anticipation Almanzo had felt each of the preceding weeks flared and then faded as Laura’s voice echoed yet again.

“If you want to save yourself these long, cold drives, you can.”

What she testing him after all? Pushing him to see if he was constant?  Or had she meant to cut him off for good? If so, wasn’t it better to let her have her way, and not push in where he was hardly wanted?

Almanzo stood in the doorway, watching the northwestern sky. No blizzard cloud had formed, but the sky was still marbled, grey and white and forboding.

He clenched his teeth against a blast of wind and crossed his arms.

“You going, then?”

Royal’s voice behind him was teasing, a provocation Almanzo was unwilling to acknowledge.

“To Fuller's,” he said, closing the door behind him.

-

The temperature was dropping, but it didn’t stop the men of De Smet.  Cold was nothing, after all. They’d survived worse.

Charles Ingalls took that as a motto of sorts. It was cold, it would be colder. They had suffered worse. And if all his family were safe, snug under quilts and gathered ‘round the stove to keep warm, he would hardly feel the cold at all.

“Laura will be fine, Charles,” said Caroline, in a soft voice. Charles looked at her, and beyond to where Carrie played with Grace, having been kept home from school with an aggravated cough.

He nodded once, not trusting his voice.  Caroline put a hand on his arm and offered a smile, before turning back to the stove to stir the beans.

Laura would be fine, of course she would. It was just that he couldn’t forget the way her eyes darted away to avoid his questioning gaze.  They treat you alright at Brewster’s, half-pint?

He stood up and went for his coat.  “I’ll be at the store for a bit, Caroline, girls. Need anything?”

-

The checkers game that never seemed to end was going even now, though the thermometer read twenty below, and the wind had begun to howl between the buildings. Almanzo chewed on licorice and pretended to watch the game, all the while staring at the thermometer.

He could go. He should go. She'd expect him.

He couldn't go; she'd told him not to.

The entire week, if he shut his eyes, hers were waiting for him, bright and blue and challenging.

She was a slip of thing; just a girl, still, no woman, for all that she was a teacher. He repeated this to himself over and over, once aloud, mistakenly while Royal was near, and held it over Almanzo’s head for two days.

She was young, but when he heard her laugh, his heart skipped, and Almanzo had never in his life felt the least bit romantic. Yet, here he was, mooning.

“Hullo, Ingalls! Pull up a chair, why don’t ya?”

Almanzo turned to the door, where Charles Ingalls stood stamping the snow off his boots, blowing into his hands.

“Getting colder out there,” Ingalls said to the general crowd. A murmur of assent went through the room, and Fuller engaged Ingalls in a brief exchange about the weather.

Almanzo kept his ear turned to their conversation, wondering whether Ingalls was there to kill time or get some kind of supplies for a “little light hauling.”

Eventually, Ingalls came over and took a seat next to Almanzo, who offered him a piece of licorice.

“Obliged,” he said, and Almanzo nodded.

A little time went by, the checkers players changed out. The thermometer read twenty-five below.

Ingalls stood and put his hat on his head.

“Boys,” he said, nodding to the group that had gathered.  Almanzo stood with him.

“Think I oughta get going, if I’m gonna go,” Ingalls said, this time in a low tone, to Almanzo alone. 

They looked at each other, and Almanzo inclined his head. It was for her father to collect her, truly.

The men walked out together, and parted ways.

-

Almanzo took blankets out to his barn, for his horses, he said to himself. It had to be approaching thirty below now, and it was getting worse. The sky, still marbled, swirled a bit now, threatening to add to their winter discontent, to the obstacles already mounted against Almanzo’s intentions.

His intentions.  What did he intend, exactly, going out to Brewster’s each week?  Royal had scoffed, last Friday; what was the point?

She was homesick and heartsore; she’d fairly leapt into the cutter each week when he arrived, and dragged her feet when it was time for the return trip. He wanted to believe that she enjoyed his company, but he’d really always known better – she was going with him to get home. And he had to be okay with that, because he hadn’t asked for more, and she had never offered it.

In the store, Ingalls had looked at Almanzo, his gaze questioning. Would he go, in spite of the weather, in spite of Laura’s declaration? Did Ingalls even know she’s said anything?

Likely Ingalls didn’t want Almanzo making any overtures any way. He appreciated what Almanzo had done, but courting Laura, truly courting her, that would be a bit much for Ingalls’ taste.  She was young, and this was her first experience in the world without her family.

So Almanzo did nothing, except lay the blankets in the cutter. 

He went back to the storefront, to check the temperature, just check it, he said to himself. Good to know so he could lay in firewood for the night.

As he stood at the window, squinting at the thermometer and unsure of what he read there, he heard a whistle.

“God hates a coward, Wilder,” said Cap Garland, coming to stand beside him. 

Almanzo turned, eyes wide.

“’S a fact,” Cap said. “So, are you?”

Almanzo grinned back, saying nothing. He walked away, straight to the Ingalls’ across the way.

-

Charles felt restless. The cold was getting worse; the prairie wind was nothing they hadn’t experienced before, but it had a bite to it, exacerbating the air temperature. He figured, it would get worse as the day went on, with no sunshine to cut the cold and nothing to break the wind.

If he was going to leave, it had to be soon.

He put some bricks to warm in the stove, hung his coat on a hook near it to do the same. Behind him, Caroline had stacked a few quilts, and was bent over mending some socks he could take to put over his or Laura’s hands in addition to their mittens.

The thermometer Charles had installed by the barn door, after the last winter’s brutality, had frozen as the temperature crashed a short while before. Laura had never said, but Charles was aware the claim shanty she was staying it was thin-walled, the company crude. Whatever had passed between her and Wilder the Sunday before, he seemed disinclined to press on Laura’s goodwill even with the weather, so it would be up to her father to rescue her this time.

“As it should be,” he murmured, causing Caroline to look at him in confusion. He shook his head at her, and she went back to the mending.

A knock at the door startled them all.  It was Carrie who reached it first, having watched the Wilder boy’s progress across the street. 

In the doorway, Wilder doffed his hat, and Caroline called for him to come in, not to stand on ceremony in this weather.

“I would, ma’am, but I am headed directly to my stables. I’m headed to Brewster’s, and came to let you know.”

Caroline looked up at Charles, waiting for his nod.

He walked over to the door, and stuck out his hand to Wilder. “It’ll be a wretched drive, you’ll need more supplies.  Stop here, and I’ll help you load.”

So it was that Charles Ingalls and Almanzo Wilder came to a silent agreement. Laura would have two men in her life, until she declared she would not.  And the handshake that Charles offered to Almanzo as the younger man prepared to leave was a passing-on of duty.

“Keep her warm,” he said.

“I will.”

-

It was a long, cold drive there to Brewster’s, but Almanzo didn’t feel it at all when he drove up to the school and Laura came out to meet him.

She was relieved, happy, and something in her eyes told him, everything would work out.

It would.

 

-

 

[1] Wilder, Laura Ingalls. “These Happy Golden Years,” pg 62