A Secret Plan

LHOP inspired fan fiction by Cheryl C. Malandrinos

Disclaimer: I do not own the Little House on the Prairie television series, book series, or any of the characters.

Almanzo couldn't believe his luck. When he saw Mr. Crowley hanging that help wanted sign, he knew it was an answer to his prayer. He hated how that foul-tempered little man in the bowler had treated Laura. No one spoke to his Beth that way. It took all his willpower not to hop up on the platform and pound some manners into Mr. Pims.

Laura was right. No one would rent that building in the condition it was in. Almanzo had driven by it several times since moving to Sleepy Eye. In its rundown condition, it would only attract mice. It looked like Laura and her friends were doing a fine job of fixing up the place, but it still needed a lot of work.

He wasn't sure that he had convinced Mr. Crowley he could handle the extra job, but he was glad the owner of the general store was willing to give him a try. Tomorrow he would stop by the courthouse, hopefully when Laura wasn't there, to talk to the old man with the wispy white hair poking out from under his hat. Mr. Pims had called him Houston. He didn't know if that was the old man's first or last name, but he sure sounded like the person Almanzo should talk to.

Almanzo had just finished his last delivery of ice and had about an hour off before he had to be back at the general store. Exhausted, he rubbed his eyes and then shuffled down to the courthouse. There was a flurry of activity, but he didn't see Laura anywhere. He hoped they wouldn't run into each other. How could he explain why he was back?

Climbing the steps, he jumped aside as a teenage boy ran out the front door and down the stairs. Almanzo removed his hat before walking inside. He looked left and right, hoping to catch sight of Houston. Finally, a girl maybe a few years younger than Laura smiled at him.

"Can I help you, mister?"

"Uh, yeah." He fiddled with the rim of his hat to hide his nervousness. "I was lookin' for Houston."

The girl scowled. "That grump. I don't know why anyone would want to talk to him." She pointed up the staircase. "He's in his room. Just listen for that horrible harmonica playing."

Almanzo nodded. "Thanks." He took the stairs two at a time, rushing before changing his mind. He didn't even know why he was nervous. It wasn't like the man would refuse the money.

Following the sound of music floating from Houston's room, Almanzo rapped three times on the door. The music stopped and Almanzo heard boots shuffling across the floor.

The door flew open. Houston scowled at Almanzo, his face crinkled like used brown paper. "What do you want?"

Almanzo's eyebrows rose. Geesh, he's cranky. "Uh, I was wondering if you would be the man to speak to about the rent."

Houston's gaze traveled the length of Almanzo's body, sizing him up. Still in his coat, sweat began to trickle down Almanzo's spine. "Why are you worried about the rent?" Houston stepped into the hallway and stared into Almanzo's face. "Who are you?"

Almanzo cleared his throat, running his fingers around the rim of the hat in his hands. "I'm Beth's beau…at least I used to be."

"Beth?"

"Oh, I mean, Laura. Laura Ingalls."

Houston rubbed his stubbly chin and chuckled. "You was courtin' that feisty little devil?" His belly shook as he laughed.

Almanzo shrugged. "Yeah."

"Oh, I remember you." Houston snapped his fingers. "You were talking to Laura the day Mr. Pims came by." Almanzo nodded. "Why ain't you her beau anymore?"

Almanzo hadn't planned to discuss his love life with the old man. He only wanted to see if he could pick up the difference in the rent so that the blind school could re-open. He felt ridiculous talking about this to a man he didn't even know.

"We had a fight and-"

Houston pumped his arm in the air across his stomach. "I bet it was a doozy."

Almanzo rubbed the back of his neck with his right hand. It sure was getting warm. "Yeah, well, Beth has her own mind about things."

"I could tell that the first time I laid eyes on her." Houston scratched his head. "Can I ask you something?"

"I guess."

"Why do you call her Beth? It ain't her name."

Almanzo glanced down at the floor, a crooked smile lighting up his face. "See, when I first met Laura, she made a mistake with my name. My name's Almanzo, but most people call me Mannie."

"That a family name?"

"Yes. So, when Laura called me Mannie, I decided I had to come up with a nickname for her. Her middle name is Elizabeth, so I started calling her Beth."

Houston smirked. "Bet her Pa didn't like that too much."

"No." Almanzo squinted in confusion. "You've met Mr. Ingalls?"

"Sure did. He dropped Laura off on his way into town the other day." Houston rubbed his chin again. "Why do you want to talk to me about the rent?"

Noise downstairs made Almanzo whip his head around. He certainly didn't want Laura to see him talking to Houston. She would know he was up to something, and one thing he didn't want was her being nice to him just because he was helping out with the rent.

"Is there somewhere we can talk more privately?" Almanzo glanced down the stairs. "I don't want Laura to know I'm here."

Houston grabbed him by the elbow. "You come right into my room, Almanzee. We can talk there."

Houston offered Almanzo the rocking chair, but he preferred to stand. Once Houston was settled into his chair, he told Houston why he would like to help with the rent, but Laura mustn't know.

"Mr. Pims is coming back on Saturday. Will you have the rest of the money by then?"

Almanzo dug in his pockets. "Here's ten dollars. I get paid on Friday. I'll stop by around the same time then and give you the rest."

Houston stood. "Okay. You got yourself a deal."

"I best be getting back to work. My next shift starts soon."

Almanzo followed Houston to the door. Houston opened it and looked out. "I don't think anyone is around. Most everyone will be getting hungry for lunch right about now."

Almanzo's stomach growled, reminding him that he hadn't eaten yet. He extended his arm to shake Houston's hand.

"Thanks Houston. I'll see you Friday."

"See you then, Almanzee."

Almanzo stepped out into the hallway. Everything seemed quiet. He turned back to Houston. "Remember, don't say anything to Laura."

"Don't you worry. It will be our little secret."

Almanzo walked downstairs as quietly as he could and looked out the front door to make sure Laura wasn't on the platform before stepping outside. He jaunted over to the general store, where he bought an apple to snack on before he had to run errands for Mr. Crowley. He thought about his strange conversation with Houston. He was an odd old man, but Almanzo liked him. He only hoped he would keep his word and not mention anything to Laura.