Little House on the Prairie (Chapter 17)
Little House on the Prairie
Laura Ingalls Wilder
PA GOES TO TOWN
Before dawn, Pa went away. When Laura and Mary woke, he was gone and everything was empty and lonely. It was not as though Pa had only gone hunting. He was going to town, and he would not be back for four long days. Bunny had been shut in the stable, so she couldn’t follow her mother. The trip was too long for a colt. Bunny whinnied lonesomely. Laura and Mary stayed in the house with Ma. Outdoors was too large and empty to play in when Pa was away. Jack was uneasy, too, and watchful.
At noon Laura went with Ma to water Bunny and to move the cow’s picket-pin to fresh grass. The cow was quite gentle now. She followed where Ma led, and she would even let Ma milk her.
At milking-time Ma was putting on her bonnet, when suddenly all Jack’s hair stood up stiff on his neck and back, and he rushed out of the house. They heard a yell and a scramble and a shout: “Call off your dog! Call off your dog!”
Mr. Edwards was on top of the woodpile, and Jack was climbing up after him.
“He’s got me treed,” Mr. Edwards said, backing along the top of the woodpile. Ma could hardly make Jack come away. Jack grinned savagely and his eyes were red. He had to let Mr. Edwards come down from the woodpile, but he watched him every minute.
Ma said, “I declare, he seems to know that Mr. Ingalls isn’t here.” Mr. Edwards said that dogs knew more than most folks gave them credit for.
On his way to town that morning, Pa had stopped at Mr. Edwards’ house and asked him to come over every day to see that everything was all right.
And Mr. Edwards was such a good neighbor that he had come at chore time, to do the chores for Ma. But Jack had made up his mind not to let anyone but Ma go near the cow or Bunny while Pa was gone. He had to be shut in the house while Mr. Edwards did the chores.
When Mr. Edwards went away he said to Ma, “Keep that dog in the house tonight, and you’ll be safe enough.”
The dark crept slowly all around the house. The wind cried mournfully and owls said, “Who-oo? Oo-oo.” A wolf howled, and Jack growled low in his throat. Mary and Laura sat close to Ma in the firelight. They knew they were safe in the house, because Jack was there and Ma had pulled the latch- string in.
Next day was empty like the first. Jack paced around the stable and around the house, then around the stable and back to the house. He would not pay any attention to Laura.
That afternoon Mrs. Scott came to visit with Ma. While they visited, Laura and Mary sat politely, as still as mice. Mrs. Scott admired the new rocking-chair. The more she rocked in it, the more she enjoyed it, and she said how neat and comfortable and pretty the house was.
She said she hoped to goodness they would have no trouble with Indians. Mr. Scott had heard rumors of trouble. She said, “Land knows, they’d never do anything with this country themselves. All they do is roam around over it like wild animals. Treaties or no treaties, the land belongs to folks that’ll farm it. That’s only common sense and justice.”
She did not know why the government made treaties with Indians. The only good Indian was a dead Indian. The very thought of Indians made her blood run cold. She said, “I can’t forget the Minnesota massacre. My Pa and my brothers went out with the rest of the settlers, and stopped them only fifteen miles west of us. I’ve heard Pa tell often enough how they—”
Ma made a sharp sound in her throat, and Mrs. Scott stopped. Whatever a massacre was, it was something that grown-ups would not talk about when little girls were listening.
After Mrs. Scott had gone, Laura asked Ma what a massacre was. Ma said she could not explain that now; it was something that Laura would understand when she was older.
Mr. Edwards came to do the chores again that evening, and again Jack treed him on the woodpile. Ma had to drag him off. She told Mr. Edwards she couldn’t think what had got into that dog. Maybe it was the wind that upset him.
The wind had a strange, wild howl in it, and it went through Laura’s clothes as if the clothes weren’t there. Her teeth and Mary’s teeth chattered while they carried many armfuls of wood into the house.
That night they thought of Pa, in Independence. If nothing had delayed him, he would be camping there now, near the houses and the people. Tomorrow he would be in the store, buying things. Then, if he could get an early start, he could come part way home and camp on the prairie tomorrow night. And the next night he might come home.
In the morning the wind was blowing fiercely and it was so cold that Ma kept the door shut. Laura and Mary stayed by the fire and listened to the wind,
screaming around the house and howling in the chimney. That afternoon they wondered if Pa was leaving Independence and coming toward them, against the wind.
Then, when it was dark, they wondered where he was camping. The wind was bitterly cold. It came even into the snug house and made their backs shiver while their faces roasted in the heat of the fire. Somewhere on the big, dark, lonesome prairie Pa was camping in that wind.
The next day was very long. They could not expect Pa in the morning, but they were waiting till they could expect him. In the afternoon they began to watch the creek road. Jack was watching it, too. He whined to go out, and he went all around the stable and the house, stopping to look toward the creek bottoms and show his teeth. The wind almost blew him off his feet.
When he came in he would not lie down. He walked about, and worried. The hair rose on his neck, and flattened, and rose again. He tried to look out of the window, and then whined at the door. But when Ma opened it, he changed his mind and would not go out.
“Jack’s afraid of something,” Mary said.
“Jack’s not afraid of anything, ever!” Laura contradicted.
“Laura, Laura,” Ma said. “It isn’t nice to contradict.”
In a minute Jack decided to go out. He went to see that the cow and calf and Bunny were safe in the stable. And Laura wanted to tell Mary, “I told you so!” She didn’t, but she wanted to.
At chore-time Ma kept Jack in the house so he could not tree Mr. Edwards on the woodpile. Pa had not come yet. The wind blew Mr. Edwards in through the door. He was breathless, and stiff with cold. He warmed himself by the fire before he did the chores, and when he had done them he sat down to warm himself again.
He told Ma that Indians were camping in the shelter of the bluffs. He had seen the smoke from their fires when he crossed the bottoms. He asked Ma if
she had a gun.
Ma said she had Pa’s pistol, and Mr. Edwards said, “I reckon they’ll stay close in camp, a night like this.”
“Yes,” Ma said.
Mr. Edwards said he could make himself right comfortable with hay in he stable, and he would spend the night there if Ma said so. Ma thanked him
nicely, but said she would not put him to that trouble. They would be safe enough with Jack.
“I am expecting Mr. Ingalls any minute now,” she told him. So Mr. Edwards put on his coat and cap and muffler and mittens and picked up his gun. He said he didn’t guess that anything would bother her, anyway.
“No,” Ma said.
When she shut the door behind him, she pulled the latch-string in, though darkness had not yet come. Laura and Mary could see the creek road plainly, and they watched it until the dark hid it. Then Ma closed and barred the wooden window shutter. Pa had not come.
They ate supper. They washed the dishes and swept the hearth, and still he had not come. Out in the dark where he was, the wind shrieked and wailed and howled. It rattled the door-latch and shook the shutters. It screamed down the chimney and the fire roared and flared.
All the time Laura and Mary strained their ears to hear the sound of wagon wheels. They knew Ma was listening, too, though she was rocking and singing Carrie to sleep.
Carrie fell asleep and Ma went on rocking. At last she undressed Carrie and put her to bed. Laura and Mary looked at each other; they didn’t want to go to bed.
“Bedtime, girls!” Ma said. Then Laura begged to be allowed to sit up till Pa came, and Mary backed her up, till Ma said they might.
For a long, long time they sat up. Mary yawned, then Laura yawned, then they both yawned. But they kept their eyes wide open. Laura’s eyes saw things grow very large and then very small, and sometimes she saw two Marys and sometimes she couldn’t see at all, but she was going to sit up till
Pa came. Suddenly a fearful crash scared her and Ma picked her up. She had fallen off the bench, smack on the floor.
She tried to tell Ma that she wasn’t sleepy enough to have to go to bed, but an enormous yawn almost split her head in two.
In the middle of the night she sat straight up. Ma was sitting still in the rocking-chair by the fire. The door-latch rattled, the shutters shook, the wind was howling. Mary’s eyes were open and Jack walked up and down. Then Laura heard again a wild howl that rose and fell and rose again.
“Lie down, Laura, and go to sleep,” Ma said, gently.
“What’s that howling?” Laura asked.
“The wind is howling,” said Ma. “Now mind me, Laura.”
Laura lay down, but her eyes would not shut. She knew that Pa was out in the dark, where that terrible howling was. The wild men were in the bluffs along the creek bottoms, and Pa would have to cross the creek bottoms in the dark. Jack growled.
Then Ma began to sway gently in the comfortable rocking-chair. Fire- light ran up and down, up and down the barrel of Pa’s pistol in her lap. And Ma sang, softly and sweetly:
“There is a happy land,
Far, far away,
Where saints in glory stand,
Bright, bright as day.
“Oh, to hear the angels sing,
Glory to the Lord, our King—”
Laura didn’t know that she had gone to sleep. She thought the shining angels began to sing with Ma, and she lay listening to their heavenly singing until suddenly her eyes opened and she saw Pa standing by the fire.
She jumped out of bed, shouting, “Oh Pa! Pa!”
Pa’s boots were caked with frozen mud, his nose was red with cold, his hair wildly stood up on his head. He was so cold that coldness came through Laura’s nightgown when she reached him.
“Wait!” he said. He wrapped Laura in Ma’s big shawl, and then he hugged her. Everything was all right. The house was cozy with firelight, there was the warm, brown smell of coffee, Ma was smiling, and Pa was there. The shawl was so large that Mary wrapped the other end of it around her. Pa pulled off his stiff boots and warmed his stiff, cold hands. Then he sat on the
bench and he took Mary on one knee and Laura on the other and he hugged them against him, all snuggled in the shawl. Their bare toes toasted in the heat
from the fire.
“Ah!” Pa sighed. “I thought I never would get here.”
Ma rummaged among the stores he had brought, and spooned brown sugar into a tin cup. Pa had brought sugar from Independence. “Your coffee will be ready in a minute, Charles,” she said.
“It rained between here and Independence, going,” Pa told them. “And coming back, the mud froze between the spokes till the wheels were nearly solid. I had to get out and knock it loose, so the horses could pull the wagon.
And seemed like we’d no more than started, when I had to get out and do it again. It was all I could do to keep Pet and Patty coming against that wind.
They’re so worn out they can hardly stagger. I never saw such a wind; it cuts like a knife.”
The wind had begun while he was in town. People there told him he had better wait until it blew itself out, but he wanted to get home.
“It beats me,” he said, “why they call a south wind a norther, and how a wind from the south can be so tarnation cold. I never saw anything like it.
Down here in this country, the north end of a south wind is the coldest wind I
ever heard of.”
He drank his coffee and wiped his mustache with his handkerchief, and said: “Ah! That hits the spot, Caroline! Now I’m beginning to thaw out.”
Then his eyes twinkled at Ma and he told her to open the square package on the table. “Be careful,” he said. “Don’t drop it.”
Ma stopped unwrapping it and said: “Oh, Charles! You didn’t!”
“Open it,” Pa said.
In that square package there were eight small squares of window-glass. They would have glass windows in their house.
Not one of the squares was broken. Pa had brought them safely all the way home. Ma shook her head and said he shouldn’t have spent so much, but her whole face was smiling and Pa laughed with joy. They were all so pleased. All winter long they could look out of the windows as much as they liked, and the sunshine could come in.
Pa said he thought that Ma and Mary and Laura would like glass windows better than any other present, and he was right. They did. But the windows were not all he had brought them. There was a little paper sack full of pure white sugar. Ma opened it and Mary and Laura looked at the sparkling whiteness of that beautiful sugar, and they each had a taste of it from a spoon.
Then Ma tied it carefully up. They would have white sugar when company came.
Best of all, Pa was safely home again. Laura and Mary went back to sleep, very comfortable all over.
Everything was all right when Pa was there. And now he had nails, and cornmeal, and fat pork, and salt, and everything. He would not have to go to town again for a long time.