So how does little Almanzo Wilder get his precious colts, you ask? It may just be the most interesting thing in the book.
The last two chapters see Almanzo going to town with his father, just the two of them, to sell some hay. On the way there Almanzo notices something in the snow, which turns out to be a wallet with a ton of cash in it. Father is smart: he susses out whose it is and sends Almanzo to find the man, Mr. Thompson, while Father is waiting to trade with Mr. Case, the storekeeper. When Almanzo returns the wallet, Mr. Thompson is rude to him. A friend of the family comes to the boy’s defense and ends up bullying Mr. Thompson into giving Almanzo $200 as a reward—an amount so exorbitant I can only assume this bit is made up, but who knows. This friend, Mr. Paddock, is the wheelwright, and while explaining the situation to Father he makes an offer. Mr. Paddock wants to take Almanzo on as an apprentice.
Father is thoughtful, and when they return to the farm he tells Mother what has happened:
“Well!” Mother snapped. She was all ruffled, like an angry hen. “A pretty pass the word’s coming to, if any man thinks it’s a step up in the world to leave a good farm and go to town! How does Mr. Paddock make his money, if it isn’t catering to us? I guess if he didn’t make wagons to suit farmers, he wouldn’t last long!”
“That’s true enough,” said father. “But—.”
“There’s no ‘but’ about it!” Mother said. “Oh, it’s bad enough to see Royal come down to being nothing but a storekeeper! Maybe he’ll make money, but he’ll never be the man you are. Truckling to other people for his living, all his days— He’ll never be able to call his soul his own.”
For a minute Almanzo wondered if Mother was going to cry.
This is serious business; Mother does not cry for no reason. Father wants to leave the decision up to Almanzo, who
could not speak till he was spoken to, but he thought to himself that he was old enough to know he’d rather be like Father than like anybody else. He did not want to be like Mr. Paddock, even. Mr. Paddock had to please a mean man like Mr. Thompson, or lose the sale of a wagon. Father was free and independent; if he went out of his way to please anybody, it was because he wanted to.
Father wants to give Almanzo the truth, as he sees it of course, but it’s a pretty fair truth. He explains that with Mr. Paddock Almanzo will have it easy in many ways: no rising at dawn, no spending cold winter nights outdoors forcing the cattle to move about rather than freeze, no working in bad weather. But:
“You’d have to depend on other folks, son, in town. Everything you got, you’d get from other folks.
“A farmer depends on himself, and the land and the weather. If you’re a farmer, you raise what you eat, you raise what you wear, and you keep warm with wood out of your own timber. You work hard, but you work as you please, and no man can tell you to go or come. You’ll be free and independent, son, on a farm.”
The push for almost total self-sufficiency is interesting. The Wilders really are nearly independent: they raise their own food and clothes and heating and cooling materials. Shoes are just about the only thing that must be bought, and they also buy some cloth but only for special occasions; unlike Mrs. Ingalls, Mrs. Wilder does a lot of weaving, and the family raises sheep. Father does sell his hay, and potatoes, and colts, but it’s questionable how “dependent” he really is on the buyers. The sales lead to money in the bank, but to all appearances he would be fine without that money as well.
But self-sufficiency does not lead to (material) prosperity. I suppose you could say that Father and Mother reject gains from trade in favor of increased independence; they are not willing to trade off power over their own going and coming for greater wealth. But they are wealthy, much wealthier than the Ingalls family at least, and have the best farm for miles around. How did they get this way?
One thing I know, because I’ve been down this whole path before, is that Almanzo and Laura do not end up the same. Almanzo decides to become a farmer man, and he gets his colts by making that decision, but he never enjoys the prosperity of his father, and his going and coming will be hindered later on by mortgages and debt. Debt, the ultimate dependency, is something that Father never even addresses. We’re better off looking to Pa, who hates to be beholden to anyone for anything (including to his friend for a few nails), does get into debt, and while it’s not ruinous it’s not wonderful either. And his dependence on the weather and the land proves in some cases more precarious than his dependence on other people.