Little House on the Prairie, Page 2Laura Ingalls Wilder
“I’ll tie down the wagon-cover,” Pa said. He climbed down from the seat, unrolled the canvas sides and tied them firmly to the wagon box. Then he pulled the rope at the back, so that the canvas puckered together in the middle, leaving only a tiny round hole, too small to see through.
Mary huddled down on the bed. She did not like fords; she was afraid of the rushing water. But Laura was excited; she liked the splashing. Pa climbed to the seat, saying, “They may have to swim, out there in the middle. But we’ll make it all right, Caroline.”
Laura thought of Jack and said, “I wish Jack could ride in the wagon, Pa.”
Pa did not answer. He gathered the reins tightly in his hands. Ma said, “Jack can swim, Laura. He will be all right.”
The wagon went forward softly in mud. Water began to splash against the wheels. The splashing grew louder. The wagon shook as the noisy water struck at it. Then all at once the wagon lifted and balanced and swayed. It was a lovely feeling.
The noise stopped, and Ma said, sharply, “Lie down, girls!”
Quick as a flash, Mary and Laura dropped flat on the bed. When Ma spoke like that, they did as they were told. Ma’s arm pulled a smothering blanket over them, heads and all.
“Be still, just as you are. Don’t move!” she said.
Mary did not move; she was trembling and still. But Laura could not help wriggling a little bit. She did so want to see what was happening. She could feel the wagon swaying and turning; the splashing was noisy again, and again it died away. Then Pa’s voice frightened Laura. It said, “Take them, Caroline!”
The wagon lurched; there was a sudden heavy splash beside it. Laura sat straight up and clawed the blanket from her head.
Pa was gone. Ma sat alone, holding tight to the reins with both hands. Mary hid her face in the blanket again, but Laura rose up farther. She couldn’t see the creek bank. She couldn’t see anything in front of the wagon but water rushing at it. And in the water, three heads; Pet’s head and Patty’s head and Pa’s small, wet head. Pa’s fist in the water was holding tight to Pet’s bridle.
Laura could faintly hear Pa’s voice through the rushing of the water. It sounded calm and cheerful, but she couldn’t hear what he said. He was talking to the horses. Ma’s face was white and scared.
“Lie down, Laura,” Ma said.
Laura lay down. She felt cold and sick. Her eyes were shut tight, but she could still see the terrible water and Pa’s brown beard drowning in it.
For a long, long time the wagon swayed and swung, and Mary cried without making a sound, and Laura’s stomach felt sicker and sicker. Then the front wheels struck and grated, and Pa shouted. The whole wagon jerked and jolted and tipped backward, but the wheels were turning on the ground. Laura was up again, holding to the seat; she saw Pet’s and Patty’s scrambling wet backs climbing a steep bank, and Pa running beside them, shouting, “Hi, Patty! Hi, Pet! Get up! Get up! Whoopsy-daisy! Good girls!”
At the top of the bank they stood still, panting and dripping. And the wagon stood still, safely out of that creek.
Pa stood panting and dripping, too, and Ma said, “Oh, Charles!”
“There, there, Caroline,” said Pa. “We’re all safe, thanks to a good tight wagon-box well fastened to the running-gear. I never saw a creek rise so fast in my life. Pet and Patty are good swimmers, but I guess they wouldn’t have made it if I hadn’t helped them.”
If Pa had not known what to do, or if Ma had been too frightened to drive, or if Laura and Mary had been naughty and bothered her, then they would all have been lost. The river would have rolled them over and over and carried them away and drowned them, and nobody would ever have known what became of them. For weeks, perhaps, no other person would come along that road.
“Well,” said Pa, “all’s well that ends well,” and Ma said, “Charles, you’re wet to the skin.”
Before Pa could answer, Laura cried, “Oh, where’s Jack?”
They had forgotten Jack. They had left him on the other side of that dreadful water and now they could not see him anywhere. He must have tried to swim after them, but they could not see him struggling in the water now.
Laura swallowed hard, to keep from crying. She knew it was shameful to cry, but there was crying inside her. All the long way from Wisconsin poor Jack had followed them so patiently and faithfully, and now they had left him to drown. He was so tired, and they might have taken him into the wagon. He had stood on the bank and seen the wagon going away from him, as if they didn’t care for him at all. And he would never know how much they wanted him.
Pa said he wouldn’t have done such a thing to Jack, not for a million dollars. If he’d known how that creek would rise when they were in midstream, he would never have let Jack try to swim it. “But that can’t be helped now,” he said.
He went far up and down the creek bank, looking for Jack, calling him and whistling for him.
It was no use. Jack was gone.
At last there was nothing to do but to go on. Pet and Patty were rested. Pa’s clothes had dried on him while he searched for Jack. He took the reins again, and drove uphill, out of the river bottoms.
Laura looked back all the way. She knew she wouldn’t see Jack again, but she wanted to. She didn’t see anything but low curves of land coming between the wagon and the creek, and beyond the creek those strange cliffs of red earth rose up again.
Then other bluffs just like them stood up in front of the wagon. Faint wheel tracks went into a crack between those earthen walls. Pet and Patty climbed till the crack became a small grassy valley. And the valley widened out to the High Prairie once more.
No road, not even the faintest trace of wheels or of a rider’s passing, could be seen anywhere. That prairie looked as if no human eye had ever seen it before. Only the tall wild grass covered the endless empty land and a great empty sky arched over it. Far away the sun’s edge touched the rim of the earth. The sun was enormous and it was throbbing and pulsing with light. All around the sky’s edge ran a pale pink glow, and above the pink was yellow, and above that blue. Above the blue the sky was no color at all. Purple shadows were gathering over the land, and the wind was mourning.
Pa stopped the mustangs. He and Ma got out of the wagon to make camp, and Mary and Laura climbed down to the ground, too.
“Oh, Ma,” Laura begged, “Jack has gone to heaven, hasn’t he? He was such a good dog, can’t he go to heaven?”
Ma did not know what to answer, but Pa said: “Yes, Laura, he can. God that doesn’t forget the sparrows won’t leave a good dog like Jack out in the cold.”
Laura felt only a little better. She was not happy. Pa did not whistle about his work as usual, and after a while he said, “And what we’ll do in a wild country without a good watchdog I don’t know.”
Camp on the High Prairie
Pa made camp as usual. First, he unhitched and unharnessed Pet and Patty, and he put them on their picket-lines. Picket-lines were long ropes fastened to iron pegs driven into the ground. The pegs were called picket-pins. When horses were on picket-lines they could eat all the grass that the long ropes would let them reach. But when Pet and Patty were put on them, the first thing they did was to lie down and roll back and forth and over. They rolled till the feeling of the harness was all gone from their backs.
While Pet and Patty were rolling, Pa pulled all the grass from a large, round space of ground. There was old, dead grass at the roots of the green grass, and Pa would take no chance of setting the prairie on fire. If fire once started in that dry under-grass, it would sweep that whole country bare and black. Pa said, “Best be on the safe side, it saves trouble in the end.”
When the space was clear of grass, Pa laid a handful of dry grass in its center. From the creek bottoms he brought an armful of twigs and dead wood. He laid small twigs and larger twigs and then the wood on the handful of dry grass, and he lighted the grass. The fire crackled merrily inside the ring of bare ground that it couldn’t get
Then Pa brought water from the creek, while Mary and Laura helped Ma get supper. Ma measured coffee beans into the coffee-mill and Mary ground them. Laura filled the coffee-pot with the water Pa brought, and Ma set the pot in the coals. She set the iron bake-oven in the coals, too.
While it heated, she mixed cornmeal and salt with water and patted it into little cakes. She greased the bake-oven with a pork-rind, laid the cornmeal cakes in it, and put on its iron cover. Then Pa raked more coals over the cover, while Ma sliced fat salt pork. She fried the slices in the iron spider. The spider had short legs to stand on in the coals, and that was why it was called a spider. If it had had no legs, it would have been only a frying pan.
The coffee boiled, the cakes baked, the meat fried, and they all smelled so good that Laura grew hungrier and hungrier.
Pa set the wagon-seat near the fire. He and Ma sat on it. Mary and Laura sat on the wagon tongue. Each of them had a tin plate, and a steel knife and a steel fork with white bone handles. Ma had a tin cup and Pa had a tin cup, and Baby Carrie had a little one all her own, but Mary and Laura had to share their tin cup. They drank water. They could not drink coffee until they grew up.
While they were eating supper the purple shadows closed around the camp fire. The vast prairie was dark and still. Only the wind moved stealthily through the grass, and the large, low stars hung glittering from the great sky.
The camp fire was cozy in the big, chill darkness. The slices of pork were crisp and fat, the corncakes were good. In the dark beyond the wagon, Pet and Patty were eating too. They bit off bites of grass with sharply crunching sounds.
“We’ll camp here a day or two,” said Pa. “Maybe we’ll stay here. There’s good land, timber in the bottoms, plenty of game— everything a man could want. What do you say, Caroline? “
“We might go farther and fare worse,” Ma replied.
“Anyway, I’ll look around tomorrow,” Pa said. “I’ll take my gun and get us some good fresh meat.”
He lighted his pipe with a hot coal, and stretched out his legs comfortably. The warm, brown smell of tobacco smoke mixed with the warmth of the fire. Mary yawned, and slid off the wagon tongue to sit on the grass. Laura yawned, too. Ma quickly washed the tin plates, the tin cups, the knives and forks. She washed the bake-oven and the spider, and rinsed the dish-cloth.
For an instant she was still, listening to the long, wailing howl from the dark prairie. They all knew what it was. But that sound always ran cold up Laura’s backbone and crinkled over the back of her head.
Ma shook the dish-cloth, and then she walked into the dark and spread the cloth on the tall grass to dry. When she came back Pa said: “Wolves. Half a mile away, I’d judge. Well, where there’s deer there will be wolves. I wish—”
He didn’t say what he wished, but Laura knew. He wished Jack were there. When wolves howled in the Big Woods, Laura had always known that Jack would not let them hurt her. A lump swelled hard in her throat and her nose smarted. She winked fast and did not cry. That wolf, or perhaps another wolf, howled again.
“Bedtime for little girls!” Ma said, cheerfully. Mary got up and turned around so that Ma could unbutton her. But Laura jumped up and stood still. She saw something. Deep in the dark beyond the firelight, two green lights were shining near the ground. They were eyes.
Cold ran up Laura’s backbone, her scalp crinkled, her hair stood up. The green lights moved; one winked out, then the other winked out, then both shone steadily, coming nearer.
“Look, Pa, look!” Laura said. “A wolf!”
Pa did not seem to move quickly, but he did. In an instant he took his gun out of the wagon and was ready to fire at those green eyes. The eyes stopped coming. They were still in the dark, looking at him.
“It can’t be a wolf. Unless it’s a mad wolf,” Pa said. Ma lifted Mary into the wagon. “And it’s not that,” said Pa. “Listen to the horses.” Pet and Patty were still biting off bits of grass.
“A lynx?” said Ma.
“Or a coyote?” Pa picked up a stick of wood; he shouted, and threw it. The green eyes went close to the ground, as if the animal crouched to spring. Pa held the gun ready. The creature did not move.
“Don’t, Charles,” Ma said. But Pa slowly walked toward those eyes. And slowly along the ground the eyes crawled toward him. Laura could see the animal in the edge of the dark. It was a tawny animal and brindled. Then Pa shouted and Laura screamed.
The next thing she knew she was trying to hug a jumping, panting, wriggling Jack, who lapped her face and hands with his warm wet tongue. She couldn’t hold him. He leaped and wriggled from her to Pa to Ma and back to her again.
“Well, I’m beat!” Pa said.
“So am I,” said Ma. “But did you have to wake the baby?” She rocked Carrie in her arms, hushing her.
Jack was perfectly well. But soon he lay down close to Laura and sighed a long sigh. His eyes were red with tiredness, and all the under part of him was caked with mud. Ma gave him a cornmeal cake and he licked it and wagged politely, but he could not eat. He was too tired.
“No telling how long he kept swimming,” Pa said. “Nor how far he was carried downstream before he landed.” And when at last he reached them, Laura called him a wolf, and Pa threatened to shoot him.
But Jack knew they didn’t mean it. Laura asked him, “You knew we didn’t mean it, didn’t you, Jack?” Jack wagged his stump of a tail; he knew.
It was past bedtime. Pa chained Pet and Patty to the feed-box at the back of the wagon and fed them their corn. Carrie slept again, and Ma helped Mary and Laura undress. She put their long nightgowns over their heads while they stuck their arms into the sleeves. They buttoned the neckbands themselves, and tied the strings of their nightcaps beneath their chins. Under the wagon Jack wearily turned around three times, and lay down to sleep.
In the wagon Laura and Mary said their prayers and crawled into their little bed. Ma kissed them good night. On the other side of the canvas, Pet and Patty were eating their corn. When Patty whooshed into the feed-box, the whoosh was right at Laura’s ear. There were little scurrying sounds in the grass. In the trees by the creek an owl called, “Who-oo? who-oo?” Farther away another owl answered, “Oo-oo, oooo.” Far away on the prairie the wolves howled, and under the wagon Jack growled low in his chest. In the wagon everything was safe and snug.
Thickly in front of the open wagon-top hung the large, glittering stars. Pa could reach them, Laura thought. She wished he would pick the largest one from the thread on which it hung from the sky, and give it to her. She was wide awake, she was not sleepy at all, but suddenly she was very much surprised. The large star winked at her!
Then she was waking up, next morning.
Soft whickerings were close to Laura’s ear, and grain rattled into the feed-box. Pa was giving Pet and Patty their breakfasts.
“Back, Pet! Don’t be greedy,” he said. “You know it’s Patty’s turn.”
Pet stamped her foot and nickered.
“Now, Patty, keep your own end of the box,” said Pa. “This is for Pet.”
Then a little squeal from Patty.
“Hah! Got nipped, didn’t you?” Pa said. “And serve you right. I told you to eat your own corn.”
Mary and Laura looked at each other and laughed. They could smell bacon and coffee and hear pancakes sizzling, and they scrambled out of bed.
Mary could dress herself, all but the middle button. Laura buttoned that one for her, then Mary buttoned Laura all the way up the back. They washed their hands and faces in the tin washbasin on the wagon-step. Ma combed every snarl out of their hair, while Pa brought fresh water from the creek.
Then they sat on the clean grass and ate pancakes and bacon and molasses from the tin plates in their laps.
All around them shadows were moving over the waving grasses, while the sun rose. Meadow larks were springing straight up from the billows of grass into the high, c
lear sky, singing as they went. Small pearly clouds drifted in the intense blueness overhead. In all the weed-tops tiny birds were swinging and singing in tiny voices. Pa said they were dick-cissels.
“Dickie, dickie!” Laura called back to them. “Dickie-bird!”
“Eat your breakfast, Laura,” Ma said. “You must mind your manners, even if we are a hundred miles from anywhere.”
Pa said, mildly, “It’s only forty miles to Independence, Caroline, and no doubt there’s a neighbor or so nearer than that.”
“Forty miles, then,” Ma agreed. “But whether or no, it isn’t good manners to sing at table. Or when you’re eating,” she added, because there was no table.
There was only the enormous, empty prairie, with grasses blowing in waves of light and shadow across it, and the great blue sky above it, and birds flying up from it and singing with joy because the sun was rising. And on the whole enormous prairie there was no sign that any other human being had ever been there.
In all that space of land and sky stood the lonely, small, covered wagon. And close to it sat Pa and Ma and Laura and Mary and Baby Carrie, eating their breakfasts. The mustangs munched their corn, and Jack sat still, trying hard not to beg. Laura was not allowed to feed him while she ate, but she saved bits for him. And Ma made a big pancake for him, of the last of the batter.
Rabbits were everywhere in the grass, and thousands of prairie chickens, but Jack could not hunt his breakfast that day. Pa was going hunting, and Jack must guard the camp.
First Pa put Pet and Patty on their picket-lines. Then he took the wooden tub from the side of the wagon and filled it with water from the creek. Ma was going to do the washing.
Then Pa stuck his sharp hatchet in his belt, he hung his powder-horn beside the hatchet, he put the patch-box and the bullet-pouch in his pocket, and he took his gun on his arm.