Little House on the Prairie (Chapter 9)
Little House on the Prairie
Laura Ingalls Wilder
A FIRE ON THE HEARTH
Outside the house, close to the log wall opposite the door, Pa cut away the grass and scraped the ground smooth. He was getting ready to build the fireplace.
Then he and Ma put the wagon-box on the wheels again, and Pa hitched up Pet and Patty. The rising sun was shortening all the shadows. Hundreds of meadow larks were rising from the prairie, singing higher and higher in the air. Their songs came down from the great, clear sky like a rain of music. And all over the land, where the grasses waved and murmured under the wind, thousands of little dickie-birds clung with their tiny claws to the blossoming weeds and sang their thousands of little songs.
Pet and Patty sniffed the wind and whinnied with joy. They arched their necks and pawed at the ground because they were eager to go. Pa was whistling while he climbed to the wagon-seat and took up the reins. Then he looked down at Laura, who was looking up at him, and he stopped whistling and said: “Want to go along, Laura? You and Mary?”
Ma said they could. They climbed up the wheels, clinging to the spokes with their bare toes, and they sat on the high wagon-seat beside Pa. Pet and Patty started with a little jump, and the wagon went jolting down the road that Pa’s wagon wheels had made.
They went down between the bare, reddish-yellow walls of earth, all ridged and wrinkled by forgotten rains. Then they went on, across the rolling land of the creek bottoms. Masses of trees covered some of the low, rounded hills, and some of them were grassy, open spaces. Deer were lying in the shadows of the trees, and deer were grazing in the sunshine on the green grass. They lifted their heads and pricked their ears, and stood chewing and,watching the wagon with their soft, large eyes.
All along the road the wild larkspur was blossoming pink and blue and hite, birds balanced on yellow plumes of goldenrod, and butterflies were fluttering. Starry daisies lighted the shadows under trees, squirrels chattered on branches overhead, white-tailed rabbits hopped along the road, and snakes wriggled quickly across it when they heard the wagon coming.
Deep in the lowest valley the creek was running, in the shadow of dirt bluffs. When Laura looked up those bluffs, she couldn’t see the prairie grass at all. Trees grew up the bluffs where the earth had crumbled, and where the bare dirt was so steep that trees couldn’t grow on it bushes held on desperately with their roots. Half-naked roots were high above Laura’s head.
“Where are the Indian camps?” Laura asked Pa. He had seen the Indians’ deserted camps, here among the bluffs. But he was too busy to show them to her now. He must get the rocks to build the fireplace.
“You girls can play,” he said, “but don’t go out of my sight and don’t go into the water. And don’t play with snakes. Some of the snakes down here are poison.”
So Laura and Mary played by the creek, while Pa dug the rocks he wanted and loaded them into the wagon.
They watched long-legged water-bugs skate over the glassy-still pools. They ran along the bank to scare the frogs, and laughed when the green- coated frogs with their white vests plopped into the water. They listened to the wood-pigeons call among the trees, and the brown thrush singing. They saw the little minnows swimming all together in the shallow places where the creek ran sparkling. The minnows were thin gray shadows in the rippling water, only now and again one minnow flashed the sunshine from its silvery belly.
There was no wind along the creek. The air was still and drowsy-warm. It smelled of damp roots and mud, and it was full of the sound of rustling leaves and of the water running.
In the muddy places where deer’s tracks were thick and every hoof-print held water, swarms of mosquitoes rose up with a keen, sharp buzzing. Laura and Mary slapped at mosquitoes on their faces and necks and hands and legs and wished they could go wading. They were so hot and the water looked so cool. Laura was sure that it would do no harm just to dip one foot in, and when Pa’s back was turned she almost did it.
“Laura,” said Pa, and she snatched the naughty foot back.
“If you girls want to go wading,” Pa said, “you can do it in that shallow place. Don’t go in over your ankles.”
Mary waded only a little while. She said the gravel hurt her feet, and she sat on a log and patiently slapped at mosquitoes. But Laura slapped and kept on wading. When she stepped, the gravel hurt her feet. When she stood still,
the tiny minnows swarmed about her toes and nibbled them with their tiny mouths. It was a funny, squiggling feeling. Laura tried and tried to catch a minnow, but she only got the hem of her dress wet.
Then the wagon was loaded. Pa called, “Come along, girls!” and they climbed to the wagon-seat again and rode away from the creek. Up through the woods and hills they rode again, to the High Prairie where the winds were always blowing and the grasses seemed to sing and whisper and laugh. They had had a wonderful time in the creek bottoms. But Laura liked the High Prairie best. The prairie was so wide and sweet and clean. That afternoon Ma sat sewing in the shade of the house, and Baby Carrie
played on the quilt beside her, while Laura and Mary watched Pa build the
First he mixed clay and water to a beautiful thick mud, in the mustangs’ water bucket. He let Laura stir the mud while he laid a row of rocks around three sides of the space he had cleared by the house-wall. Then with a wooden paddle he spread the mud over the rocks. In the mud he laid another row of rocks, and plastered them over the top and down on the inside with more mud.
He made a box on the ground; three sides of the box were made of rocks and mud, and the other side was the log wall of the house.
With rocks and mud and more rocks and more mud, he built the walls as high as Laura’s chin. Then on the walls, close against the house, he laid a log. He plastered the log all over with mud.
After that, he built up rocks and mud on top of that log. He was making the chimney now, and he made it smaller and smaller.
He had to go to the creek for more rocks. Laura and Mary could not go again, because Ma said the damp air might give them a fever. Mary sat beside Ma and sewed another block of her nine-patch quilt, but Laura mixed another bucketful of mud.
Next day Pa built the chimney as high as the house-wall. Then he stood and looked at it. He ran his fingers through his hair.
“You look like a wild man, Charles,” Ma said. “You’re standing your hair all on end.”
“It stands on end, anyway, Caroline,” Pa answered. “When I was courting you, it never would lie down, no matter how much I slicked it with bear grease.”
He threw himself down on the grass at her feet. “I’m plumb tuckered out, lifting rocks up there.”
“You’ve done well to build that chimney up so high, all by yourself,” Ma said. She ran her hand through his hair and stood it up more than ever. “Why don’t you make it stick-and-daub the rest of the way?” she asked him.
“Well, it would be easier,” he admitted. “I’m blamed if I don’t believe I will!”
He jumped up. Ma said, “Oh, stay here in the shade and rest awhile.” But he shook his head.
“No use lazing here while there’s work to be done, Caroline. The sooner I get the fireplace done, the sooner you can do your cooking inside, out of the wind.”
He hauled saplings from the woods, and he cut and notched them and laid them up like the walls of the house, on top of the stone chimney. As he laid them, he plastered them well with mud. And that finished the chimney.
Then he went into the house, and with his ax and saw he cut a hole in the wall. He cut away the logs that had made the fourth wall at the bottom of the chimney. And there was the fireplace.
It was large enough for Laura and Mary and Baby Carrie to sit in. Its bottom was the ground that Pa had cleared of grass, and its front was the space where Pa had cut away the logs. Across the top of that space was the log that Pa had plastered all over with mud.
On each side Pa pegged a thick slab of green oak against the cut ends of the logs. Then by the upper corners of the fireplace he pegged chunks of oak to the wall, and on these he laid an oak slab and pegged it firmly. That was the mantel-shelf.
As soon as it was done, Ma set in the middle of the mantel-shelf the little china woman she had brought from the Big Woods. The little china woman had come all the way and had not been broken. She stood on the mantelshelf with her little china shoes and her wide china skirts and her tight china bodice, and her pink cheeks and blue eyes and golden hair all made of china.
Then Pa and Ma and Mary and Laura stood and admired that fireplace. Only Carrie did not care about it. She pointed at the little china woman and yelled when Mary and Laura told her that no one but Ma could touch it.
“You’ll have to be careful with your fire, Caroline,” Pa said. “We don’t want sparks going up the chimney to set the roof on fire. That cloth would burn, easy. I’ll split out some clapboards as soon as I can, and make a roof you won’t have to worry about.”
So Ma carefully built a little fire in the new fireplace, and she roasted a prairie hen for supper. And that evening they ate in the house.
They sat at table, by the western window. Pa had quickly made the table of two slabs of oak. One end of the slabs stuck in a crack of the wall, and the other end rested on short, upright logs. Pa had smoothed the slabs with his ax, and the table was very nice when Ma spread a cloth over it.
The chairs were chunks of big logs. The floor was the earth that Ma had swept clean with her willow-bough broom. On the floor, in the corners, the beds were neat under their patchwork quilts. The rays of the setting sun came through the window and filled the house with golden light.
Outside, and far, far away to the pink edge of the sky, the wind went blowing and the wild grasses waved. Inside, the house was pleasant. The good roast chicken was juicy in Laura’s mouth. Her hands and face were washed, her hair was combed, her napkin was tied around her neck. She sat up straight on the round end of log and used her knife and fork nicely, as Ma had taught her. She did not say anything, because children must not speak at table until they are spoken to, but she looked at Pa and Ma and Mary and at Baby Carrie in Ma’s lap, and she felt contented. It was nice to be living in a house again.