Summary: A What Happened Instead for the Little House episode “At the End of the Rainbow.” Thank you to the writers group I first shared this story with, who encouraged its development and helped to bring it to its present form. No copyright infringement intended.
Category: Little House on the Prairie
Word Count: 2623
“Whacha going to give Pa for his birthday?” Laura Ingalls asked her older sister, Mary, as they walked home from town on the last day of school.
“That’s months away. Why are you thinking about that now?” Mary scolded as she brushed back the long, blonde hair out of her eyes.
The freckle-faced, pigtailed youngster shrugged, not really sure why she was asking the question when she knew their father’s birthday was at harvest time.
Mary shook her head and said, “There are a lot of other things to think about right now, you know. Chores at home, and maybe some of that fishing you like so much.”
“I know, I just wanted to think about something fun.”
“Fishin’s fun, if you like to bait the hook,” Mary reminded her, grimacing.
“It’s been a long time since we had a party. Pa hasn’t played his fiddle in ages.”
Mary smiled, then said “You want Pa to have a birthday so he can play the fiddle?”
“No, I miss hearing him play the fiddle like he does on a winter night.”
Mary started to laugh, and Laura frowned, stopping in her tracks. “Leave it to you to want the opposite of what we’ve got. Last winter, you couldn’t wait for school to be out so you could go fishing.” Laura laughed and agreed silently that she might as well be glad for what she had instead of wishing for what she would have before long.
“Guess I’ll go fishing tomorrow, once my chores are done,” Laura suggested as they turned the corner to the road that led them to their farm.
And go fishing the next day she did. Jonah, one of her classmates, happened to be at the pond when she arrived, fishing pole in hand.
“Hi Jonah, are you going to catch a whale?” she asked, smiling as she thought of the Bible story about Jonah and the whale.
“Very funny,” the boy wearing overalls answered, then moved over on the bank so she had room to sit there, too.
She sat down and they chattered about what they were going to do during the summer. Jonah was planning to help his father plant another wheat field, and Laura planned to fish every chance she had.
“You really like fishing, don’t you?”
“Not in the middle of winter,” she admitted.
“Maybe Pa will let me do that, too.”
“That would be fun, Jonah. I’ll look for you when I get to go, and you look for me when you get to go.”
Jonah didn’t respond, and Laura started to repeat what she said.
“Laura, look!” he said, pointing to the pond and running into it.
She missed what he was pointing to and the harder he pointed, the more she couldn’t see what he was talking about.
“Gold,” he whispered finally, and she saw it then.
Something shiny was floating on the top of the water, and Jonah scooped up some water, then held up a flake that glistened in the sun.
“Jonah, you found gold,” Laura said as she approached the water, dropping the pole.
“I know. What are we going to do about it?”
She thought for a minute, then said, “We’ll mine it, and surprise our families with all the money it brings us.”
“You think it’ll be a lot of money?”
“Only one way to find out,” she suggested. “I’ll run home and get something so we can mine, just like Miss Beadle told us about when we studied Sutter’s Mill and the California gold rush.” She started out of the pond, then said, “Oh, no! We can’t tell anyone about this, Jonah. If we do…”
“It’ll be Sutter’s Mill all over again,” he continued.
At that moment, she remembered her promise to her mother that she would fish from the bank, not in the pond as she’d attempted to after seeing a grown-up neighbor do that at last year’s Fourth of July town picnic. Squeezing out some of the water from her everyday dress and bonnet, she remembered her fishing pole and tried to figure out what to tell her mother.
She still didn’t have an explanation as she dashed into the barn at home and her father called out, “Half-pint, you’re sure in a hurry.” She didn’t stop to say a word and grabbed the milking bucket near the family cow. “Whoa, what do you need a bucket for?”
She looked around the barn for something smaller, something he wouldn’t need for awhile. Grabbing a smaller bucket from a hook near the livestock stalls, she began to run off again.
“You didn’t answer my question. And how did you get so wet?”
“It’s a birthday surprise for you,” she answered, knowing that the money they got from the gold would help her buy him a present so it really wasn’t a lie.
“My birthday’s not for months, but I appreciate the thought,” her Pa said, laughing as she ran out the door.
Over the weeks of summer break, anytime someone asked her where she was going after her chores were done, she told them she was going fishing or that she was planning a birthday surprise for her father. Ma said she hoped Laura would be so thoughtful when it was time for her birthday, Mary teased her about looking too far ahead into the future, and her younger sister Carrie was more interested in all the goings-on around the house and the barn to pay attention to Laura.
As the weeks passed and the first day of school approached, Laura began to worry.
Not about someone finding out they were panning for gold, since she and Jonah long ago started to return to their find a different way every time so no one could follow them. They planned that after she saw Nellie and Willie Olsen spying on them from behind a stand of trees while they were fishing one day.
She worried about how to get the gold to town so Mr. Sprague, the town banker, could tell them what it was worth.
“We’ll take it to town together, Laura,” Jonah suggested.
“But how do we get it there?”
“We could borrow your pa’s rig,” he suggested.
“He’s already asking me why I’m spending so much time here and haven’t caught many fish.”
“What did you say?”
“I told him I thought the fish wanted a different kind of bait,” she answered.
They continued the panning for a few minutes, then an answer occurred to her. “I’ll put some of the gold in one of my spare socks, carry it to town.”
“Sunday, when we go to church.”
“But the bank is closed on Sunday.”
“Mr. Sprague will be in church, and I could ask him about it then.”
“I thought we wanted to keep the gold a secret.”
Laura thought about it for a minute, perplexed. Jonah shrugged, then continued panning.
They continued in silence until she said, “I know what we can do.”
“The gold, silly.”
“Mr. Sprague likes to fish, so I’ll ask him to go fishing out here, and he can look at the gold then. We wouldn’t be in town, so no one else would be around to ask where it came from.”
“That’s a good idea, Laura. You’re a, a…a genie.”
“Genies come out of magic lamps. I think you mean genius.”
Jonah shrugged, then said, “I did remember the bank is closed on Sunday.”
“But I thought of everything else,” she said, then started to giggle.
Laura continued to swish the water out of her handful, then asked, “What kind of sandwich did you bring today?”
There was no answer.
She didn’t see him nearby, but thought he would be back shortly.
After awhile, with no way to tell the time other than to look at the shadow the sun would leave across the ground, she began to wonder if he was coming back.
“Jonah!” she called out repeatedly as she searched for him, before she saw him behind some rocks.
He didn’t answer, so she approached him.
“Why didn’t you answer?” she asked.
He looked at her, pouting. “Go away, and take your stupid gold with you.”
“Huh? It’s your gold, too.”
“You’re such a genius, go figure it out.”
“I don’t understand.”
“You get words mixed up too, Laura. So you’re not the genius you think you are.”
“Oh,” she said as understanding dawned. “Guess I shouldn’t have laughed.”
“Genie or genius, what does it matter?”
“I’m sorry, Jonah,” she responded.
“You haven’t thought of everything.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean that I saw the gold first. It was your idea to mine it together, but I saw it first.”
Nodding in agreement that he had seen it first, she asked, “What should we do about the gold?”
“Hide it for now and keep an eye on it until Mr. Sprague has a chance to look at it for us,” he suggested, brightening a little.
The next day after church, Laura invited the banker to go fishing with them that week. He had told her he was too busy taking care of the bank to go fishing right now, but when she told him that the fish were biting so much they’d had fish for every meal for a week last week, he’d agreed that a little time off would benefit him.
While the children were fishing and waiting for him, they talked about what they would do with their share of the money.
“A new barn for Pa, maybe the field next to ours so we can plant even more wheat next spring. Or we could even plant another crop. What about you, Laura?”
“A big new house, a big barn, the finest clothing, a white coach to ride in like I saw in one of my ma’s books one time. All the candy Carrie wants for Christmas, and…” she continued with a grin, “a birthday present for my pa.”
“That’s a long list.”
Laura continued fishing as Jonah said “Will you get yourself something?”
“Summer all year round.”
“You can’t buy that.”
“There must be something you want.”
Before Laura could think of another answer, Sprague and his horse and buggy arrived. A balding older gentleman dressed up for a day of work at the bank, he draped his suit coat across a low-hanging branch near the pond. His shoes were neatly lined up on a rock underneath the same tree, the socks tucked inside the shoes.
“And where are those fish you told me about, little lady?” he asked an hour or so later, when none of them had caught so much as a nibble on their fishing lines.
“Guess they’re just not hungry,” she said, looking over at Jonah for agreement.
“There’s something we did see a few weeks ago, and we think it’s really valuable,” Jonah added, looking to Laura, who nodded.
“And what might that be?” the banker asked, setting aside his fishing pole.
Jonah ran to the place they had hidden their find and pulled out a small bag. He opened it and Mr. Sprague reached inside. He studied their find, then each of them, and sighed. “I hate to tell you this, but that’s not gold.”
“It’s not?” the children said in unison.
“Lots of grownups have made the same mistake. It’s iron pyrite, and I’d put it back where you found it and forget about it if I was you,” he’d offered before he prepared to return to town.
It was awful, it was terrible, it was tragical. No, a tragedy.
Tragedy in Laura’s eyes as she sat on the pond’s bank. Jonah was long gone, after they dropped all the sacks of “wealth” into a big mound that was slowly finding its way back to its source in that pond.
Tears streamed down the pig-tailed youngster’s freckled face as she recalled all that she had planned to buy for her family during the weeks that they had worked so hard. So much for the big house, the big barn, and everything else she was hoping to buy for them with the money the “gold” was worth.
And to think they’d dug out all that iron pyrite in secret, fearing another Sutter’s Mill gold rush in their own little town of Walnut Grove, Minnesota.
She’d had grand dreams for what she would do with all the money she thought she was going to get.
No point in thinking about all that she wanted to buy her family now or about how she would have surprised her parents since there was no money to surprise them with.
Pa. . . . He worked so hard at the mill and at the farm. Not just during their first months in Walnut Grove, but ever since and in the years they’d lived in the Big Woods in Wisconsin. She remembered his days and days of work building a cabin when they’d settled in Kansas, then moving away from that cabin when they got word they couldn’t stay there.
There’d been a time he had to leave home to find work to feed the family because their crops failed. Leaving home made him sad just as it made her sad.
Failed. . . That’s what she felt like she had done.
How was she going to face them?
Yet again she pictured a white coach carrying her and her older sister Mary to school from their castle.
She frowned, not because it wasn’t going to happen, but because she realized she wouldn’t have had much fun sitting by the sidelines in that white dress with the poufy sleeves so it wouldn’t get dirty. She’d miss getting to play at recess.
Laura looked up from her daydreams to find her pa standing there. In her eyes, he stood 10 feet tall.
“Mr. Sprague told me what happened,” he said as he sat down next to her.
“I bet he had a good laugh about it,” Laura complained.
“Quite the opposite, Half-pint. He was sad that you and Jonah worked so hard for nothing.”
“Oh Pa, I was going to give you and Ma everything. You wouldn’t have to work so hard.”
Pa frowned for a moment, took a deep breath and said, “Now listen here. I work because I choose to work. It’s not just about putting a roof over our heads or food on the table. It’s about providing for my family and giving back some of what you give your ma and me.”
“Even if the crops failed, we’d have food on the table,” Laura added.
Her pa’s eyes filled with tears for a moment, knowing that crops had failed in the past and would fail again. That was the nature of farming. He hadn’t known until now how much his daughter had felt the strain and uncertainty of those times.
“We’ve always had food on the table, Pa,”
He hugged her, not saying a word. A few minutes later, she started to laugh.
“What’s so funny?” he asked
“Thinking about how much work Ma would have had keeping that castle clean,” she answered.
He chuckled, then stood up, took her hand and said, “Let’s go home.”