In the wake of a frightening near-death experience, ruthless daredevil “Gambini the Great” agrees with his wife’s advice to retire, but when his oldest son refuses to carry on the family business, Gambini disowns him, then chooses to maintain the position until his younger son is old enough to take over. The next stop for Gambini’s act is Walnut Grove, and as they practice in town, Willie and Albert are both influenced by the shocking stunts that they witness. Albert’s thoughtless disregard for his own safety prompts Charles to take action, but nothing can stop Gambini from making his own decisions for his family, and as the night of the big show draws near, everyone is about to learn a painful lesson.
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Percival takes over the family business when his father dies, which means that he and Nellie will remain in New York permanently. Distraught by the news, Harriet and Nels eventually decide that adopting a little girl would bring happiness to their lives again, but when they visit an orphanage in Sleepy Eye, Harriet gravitates to the most unruly child in the building. Meanwhile, when Adam can no longer make a living as a lawyer in Walnut Grove, he and Mary have a difficult choice to make.
Nels and Harriet's newly adopted daughter Nancy settles in quickly at her new home. Harriet delights in spoiling her rotten, but the child is a diabolical monster who creates major trouble everywhere she goes. When her behavior goes too far, everyone--including her adoptive mother--must come together to show her who's boss.
After adopting two more children, Charles and Caroline must adjust to managing five young children. The family tension mounts when James runs away after getting into an argument with Albert.
When Doc Baker's work load becomes too much for one person, arrangements are made for an African-American doctor and his wife to join the community. Racism ends up rearing its ugly head, even with the usually kindhearted Doc Baker, and when they can't find a way to get along, the person who may suffer the most is one of their patients.
When Eliza Jane invites Laura to Arizona for a summer literature course that features Ralph Waldo Emerson, Laura is thrilled to accept. Once there, she attempts to find a teaching position to cover her expenses, but the only job she gets involves washing dishes for a coldhearted restaurant owner. Meanwhile, Eliza Jane is immediately smitten with one of the handsome professors, and although Mr. Westehoff is not interested in her, the married man has quite a proposition for Laura. As Laura struggles to hang onto her smalltown values, this unconventional love triangle is enough to create tension between her and Eliza Jane, not to mention Mr. Westehoff, who--after being immediately rejected by Laura-- will stop at nothing to have the upper hand.
In the wake of a frightening near-death experience, ruthless daredevil "Gambini the Great" agrees with his wife's advice to retire, but when his oldest son refuses to carry on the family business, Gambini disowns him, then chooses to maintain the position until his younger son is old enough to take over. The next stop for Gambini's act is Walnut Grove, and as they practice in town, Willie and Albert are both influenced by the shocking stunts that they witness. Albert's thoughtless disregard for his own safety prompts Charles to take action, but nothing can stop Gambini from making his own decisions for his family, and as the night of the big show draws near, everyone is about to learn a painful lesson.
While traveling in his wagon one afternoon, Nels Oleson is captured by two rather dimwitted crooks, who are itching for gold that Nels doesn't have with him. Believing that Nels is their one shot at making it big, the men send two ransom letters back to Harriet, who blatantly refuses to take the bait (even when threatened with her husband's life). Now that their options are running out, an angry Nels decides to help the guys get their money, but that means putting on a mask and assisting to kidnap his own wife, along with several other people from Walnut Grove. The race is on to get these crooks what they want before they hurt anyone, all while Charles and Almanzo hatch a plan of their own to stop the madness.
Charles travels to Chicago to comfort a deeply grieving Mr. Edwards, whose son John Jr. had died in a tragic accident. But that grief soon gives way to rage when it becomes apparent John Jr.'s death was no accident. Charles and Mr. Edwards enlist the aid of the editor of the newspaper where John Jr. worked to uncover the truth.
A new student named Elmer joins the class in Walnut Grove, and while he is a sweet kid who gets along well with the other children, the students can't help but snicker over his obesity. Essentially clueless about the person she really is, Elmer can't take his eyes off the beautiful Nancy, who agrees to be his girlfriend as a malicious effort to satisfy her own ulterior motives. While he is originally good-natured about the fat jokes, Elmer finally makes a drastic choice of his own after enduring too much verbal torment from Nancy.
When Harriet is pressed on by a slick businessman to transform Walnut Grove's eatery into a chain restaurant, Nellie's Restaurant is scarcely recognizable as Harriet purchases flashy new tables and stools, then gets rid of the menus to accommodate a three-mealsonly strategy. Things start out well when the new "Sullivan's Restaurant" rakes in an impressive amount of money, but as Caroline, Harriet, and Hester Sue are forced to give practically 24/7 attention to this demanding job, Nels and Charles must take over the responsibilities at home. Flustered with cooking every day and taking care of the kids, Nels and Charles know that their wives regret these recent developments, but this time, it may be up to the men to fix things up.
Mary, Adam, Hester Sue, and the Wilders all make a special visit to Charles and Caroline's for Christmas Eve. An unrelenting blizzard prevents everyone from heading home after dinner, but they all pass time by recalling Christmases of personal significance in their lives. Caroline remembers her struggle as a child to accept her new stepfather, as well as the thoughtful gesture he made one Christmas Eve to earn her respect. Almanzo reflects upon the year that taught him to believe in Santa without question, and Laura shares the classic story of her family's very first Christmas in Kansas's Indian Territory, but it is Hester Sue's bittersweet tale of racial inequality that holds perhaps the greatest poignancy in this heartwarming episode about family togetherness.
When a timid young boy named Gideon arrives at Walnut Grove's school for the first time, his stuttering problem is quickly ridiculed by the other children. The child is hopeful when James reaches out and befriends him, but their budding friendship stands to be destroyed when James makes a foolish mistake right in front of Gideon. The next day, James is crushed to learn that Gideon has run away from home. Determined to cheer his son, Charles invites James to accompany him on a delivery trip to Minneapolis. Along the way, they encounter a wolf/dog mix, who takes an immediate interest in James. The creature follows them throughout their trip, even when they reach the city. The two eventually take him back to Walnut Grove to be examined by Doc Baker, and meanwhile, after days of wandering on his own, Gideon goes out of his way to make sure nobody finds him.
Charles and Almanzo have a chance at raking in a nice paycheck by making a delivery trip to Arizona, but that would mean being on the road for two months. Almanzo reluctantly agrees to go along, despite his wife being five months pregnant, and with Walnut Grove experiencing a terrible drought, Laura must now juggle her responsibilities at home and as a teacher. With a large orchard to water each day, Laura stubbornly refuses help from her family, which could create grave consequences for herself and her unborn child. Meanwhile, Willie Oleson shows signs that he might finally be turning into a motivated student, and the school children draw upon the message of a special story to learn how to give back to their community during a difficult time.
After spending time with a man who ends up dying of a sudden heart attack, Charles starts thinking about passing on a legacy for future generations. He decides to trade in his farming lifestyle for a career in building tables - a decision that Caroline is reluctant to support. Charles starts out by making it a part-time job, but as he experiences the harsh realities of the business world, he must re-evaluate what a legacy really is.
An elderly relative of James and Cassandra's, who rejected them immediately after their parents' deaths, arrives unexpectedly in Walnut Grove to get better acquainted with the children. The three of them hit it off immediately, and all is going beautifully until Jed--who is now a wealthy man and would like the kids for companionship--places them in a position to choose. Although James and Cassandra adore their uncle, their final decision is less than favorable to Jed, who takes matters into his own hands to get exactly what he wants.
Kindly African American man Sam Terhoun arrives in Walnut Grove looking for work, but it's obvious that he is searching for much more when he stops by to visit his ex-wife Hester Sue. After being burned several years ago by his excessive drinking and gambling, Hester Sue refuses Sam's obvious attempts to rebuild their relationship, but with the sweet and gentle-natured Sam making all kinds of friends in town, it's getting harder and harder for Hester Sue to ignore him. In time, she agrees to a friendship, which then quickly blossoms into rekindled love. Just days before they are to get married again, a dangerous secret about Sam is discovered by Charles, but nothing can prepare anyone for who ends up knocking on Hester Sue's door the day of the wedding.
The Wilders' budding marriage is put to its first major test when Almanzo, who is recovering from diphtheria, does not take proper care of himself and ends up having a severe stroke. Left with speech deficiencies and a partial paralysis, his deteriorating spirit is cured by nothing, and while Laura does her best to help him through, the friction between husband and wife is aggravated by an unexpected visit from Eliza Jane. After giving birth to a beautiful baby girl named Rose, Laura is devastated to learn that she and Almanzo might lose their home, and things get even messier when Almanzo is interested in accepting a shocking offer from Eliza Jane.
Although the arrival of her first child should be a beautiful time for Laura, it is tainted by Almanzo's increasingly bitter attitude, as well as the possibility that Laura and Almanzo might lose their home. Matters worsen when Eliza Jane pursues an office job for Almanzo in the city without consulting her sister-in-law. Frustration meets with severe anger as Laura feels that her marriage is slipping away, and when a fateful tornado brings the Wilders to an all-time low, it might actually hold the key to both of their futures.
As he drinks heavily to drown out the pain of his oldest son's death, Mr. Edwards is hanging by a thread with his family. Eventually, enough is enough, and an emotionally exhausted Grace tells him to pack his bags and leave. Lonely without his wife and children, he decides to seek solace in Walnut Grove. Upon settling in with his old friends, he is immeditely asked by Laura to be her baby daughter's godfather. The man is in a position to put his life back together now, but alcoholism is a truly dangerous addiction, and as Isaiah begins falling apart again, he makes a drunken mistake that may cost him his last chance-- unless there's still someone out there willing to pull for him.
A longtime friend of Caroline writes to her and asks for help. Her friend is pregnant and lives at a gold prospector's camp where there is an outbreak of influenza. Caroline finds out some dark secrets about her friend's husband, and when the woman's delivery creates tragic results, Caroline must decide how best to cope with what remains.
Tragedy strikes when James, who is traveling with Charles, Albert and Mr. Edwards to Sleepy Eye--is shot during a brutal bank robbery. When James slips into a coma, Charles goes with Mr. Edwards and Albert to track down the criminals and bring them to justice.
As James lies in a coma at the Ingalls house, Charles increases the distress of his family by denying the child's impending death. Angry that nobody--not even Doc Baker--offers any hope for James' recovery, Charles takes his son away to the mountains, where he builds a temple and prays fiercely for a miracle.