The sun was slung low against the sky, a ball of pure yellow butter on the bruised blue star-spangled background. Laura squinted into its brightness, pushing back her dusty bonnet as she tried to judge the distance between the sun and her small, sun-browned body. Her joy felt infinite, enormous, and she wanted to run like a strong-legged colt, wanted to hoot her happiness and her barely-contained energy. She should be inside where it was safe and warm but she honestly couldn't bear the idea of leaving nature and its beauty that evening. Ma would be calling when supper was done; when candle-time approached, and she would have to go inside when Ma called for her.
But the last thing Laura wanted to do was hem in her desires and dreams – to be as good as she must be. Today’d made her blood run and race like a firefly across the prairie. Today had taught her that she wasn’t meant for life as a farmer’s wife – no, it had opened her eyes and shown her that she could even do better than marrying a railroad conductor.
She could become one herself.
It was a matter of money, she knew – she’d have to buy her own boxcar and then getting it on track. But Laura also understood that there were women out there who weren’t just mothers or teachers or nuns; they weren’t just storekeepers or saints. They could ride the rails with freedom and run right past the sunset into another sunrise. The tracks and the smell of coal burning and the sound of people calling and laughing in the boxcars would be all hers if she could find a way in.
She knew. She knew because she’d seen her, a dark-haired, steely-eyed determination of a woman, her hand on the throttle guiding the train that drove the Ingalls family straight to Silver Lake.
Laura hadn’t meant to startle her. At the time she’d been looking for a window to lean out, to better tell Mary what the world outside looked like. Instead she’d encountered the conductor. The woman had seemed startled and shoved the door quickly closed before her but Laura had already been woken. She’d seen her future today, all dressed up like an iron locomotive.
She learned later that the woman’s name was Susan Morningstar, and when she found a picture of her in one of Pa’s dime novels she pasted it on the back cover of her copy book, to look at whenever she needed a bit of inspiration.
She wanted to be a teacher.
Laura told people that that dream had formed in her teens as she watched her sister learn to adapt to the world as a blind woman. If she could ease even the tiniest bit of her discomfort then she’d make a difference in the world, Laura had thought to herself. There had to be a way someone as fortunate as she could do to ease the suffering of people like Mary; the deaf and blind who had been given a life sentence by society, stuck on the wrong side of a dividing line they'd never drawn. Now that her sister was nearly an adult and less dependent on the word-pictures spun for her by her sister, Laura turned her focus toward other children, other cases. Maybe she’d try teaching at a school for the abandoned and help out other children even more vulnerable than Mary had been.
But her altruism dried up and turned to dust when she allowed her mind to wander. She allowed herself to dream, to imagine that her lesson plans and her polished apples would take her a hundred miles away from South Dakota. Maybe they’d take her to the ocean, to the warm azure lapping waves licking the California coast. Maybe she’d teach children their ABCS while sitting on a stump in the middle of logging country in Canada. Or she’d wind up in the bustling world of San Francisco, trying to live off of gold nuggets and wild plums.
Or maybe she’d find an abandoned railcar and drive herself there, from coast to coast.
She bent closer to her chapbook and drilled herself, absorbing facts and numbers until her brain felt ready to bust.
The lard emerged from between her knuckles, poking out of the flour like thick ,fat worms. Laura wrinkled her nose at the mental image, wicking back a lock of her thick brown hair. The sun was high and hot on the roof of her little farmhouse kitchen and Manly was busy in the fields, leaving Laura alone to make dinner and take care of Rose.
The whole afternoon lay before her, endless and spiritless, a parade of chores to commit before collapsing into bed. Her imaginative mind stalled at the gate in the belching gasps of smoke with no direction home or to any grander palace. Involuntarily, her memory harkened back to that little girl on the prairie who wanted to marry, and then become, an engineer. Hah! What train depot would take a pregnant mother in and let them drive a steam engine across the continent? She was chained to her farm and her family and her field now. Most days it didn’t feel like a burden, most days she didn't have to imagine that she was Susan Morningstar, running away from the world in her shiny steam engine, her mind made lumpy stories of her youthful indiscretions; most days she was grateful. On the between days, she at least in her tiny daughter she had a captive audience and could recite the family tales aloud just to please her own ears.
Laura stopped in mid-action; thought deeply for a moment. She could always write those stories down, couldn't she? Wouldn’t that be a wonderful idea? Then Rose would always have a record of what her mother had been like as a child in an era that was disappearing so rapidly into the distance.
Part of Laura knew that this was her way of leaping onto a speeding locomotive far from the scent of dirty diapers and unmilked cows; a mental escape instead of a physical one. But she supposed every person deserved their own special indulgence. Rose loved cake, Manly loved spending time with his fellow threshers, she loved to tell stories.
Laura abandoned the bread to pick up her daughter and tickle Rose beneath her chin. Then started to tell her all about the sweet and sour dross of Missus Olsen’s lemonade and fine white sugar cake.
“Have you ever been on a train before?”
Laura glanced up from her copy of the DeSmet Gazette and took notice of her inquisitor - a small girl sitting across the aisle with a small stuffed dog. Definitely a potential client, she thought, straightening her spine. “Oh, once,” she said. “When I was a little girl not much older than you.” She took a look out the window situated beside her and added, “when the prairies were wider. There was so much more open land back then, and a lot less people.”
The girl pouted thoughtfully. “What’s so exciting about a train?”
“Trains meant freedom when I was younger. Oh, I wanted to become a conductor and drive as far away as I could from my own little dull life,” she smiled. “I wanted to move out to California and own my own steam engine.” She adjusted her spectacles and said, “but that didn't happen.”
“Are you sorry it didn’t?”
There was a question Laura hadn’t considered. “Why no,” she said. “I'm much happier with the life I have now.”
The girl paused to consider this. “One day,” she says, “I’m going to fly like a bird. My mommy says people can't do that, but I want to and she can't stop me.”
Laura smiled. “If you have faith in yourself you can do nearly anything.” She sounded just like her ma – or so she hoped.
The locomotive powered down slowly, finally coming to rest at the station. The porter called and she climbed, carefully to her feet. All Laura had with her was a satchel, and that she took down the hallway to meet a man in a porkpie hat in a very dark suit holding a small sign bearing her name.
He kissed her hand and applied every last drop of charm he could to the situation. “I trust the journey agreed with you, Missus Wilder.”
“Of course,” she said. “Is this where the dedication ceremony will take place tomorrow?” She peered out the open door and saw a wooden platform, a stationmaster house, and the back end of a large market. Not much, but a town all the same.
“Indeed,” he beamed. “The Laura Ingalls Wilder Station will be the grandest train station in the Dakotas thanks to your kind donation.”
“I was happy to help,” she said. “But I’ve been wondering – could you do me a small favor?”
She smiled. “Let me into the front of that train as they take it around, just once.”
He was hesitant, but she was persistent, and in the end Laura ended up sitting beside the engineer, driving the twelve-ten through the Black Hills and back again. It wasn’t quite as grand as running off in the middle of her youth to live in the wilds of California. It wasn’t like owning her own business or driving her own locomotive. But it was just as grand an experience, and better than any dream she could conjure to life.