Little House on the Prairie (Chapter 22)
Little House on the Prairie
Laura Ingalls Wilder
Spring had come. The warm winds smelled exciting, and all outdoors was large and bright and sweet. Big white shining clouds floated high up in clearmspace. Their shadows floated over the prairie. The shadows were thin and brown, and all the rest of the prairie was the pale, soft colors of dead grasses.
Pa was breaking the prairie sod, with Pet and Patty hitched to the breaking-plow. The sod was a tough, thick mass of grass-roots. Pet and Patty slowly pulled with all their might and the sharp plow slowly turned over a long, unbroken strip of that sod.
The dead grass was so tall and thick that it held up the sod. Where Pa had plowed, he didn’t have a plowed field. The long strips of grass-roots lay on top of grass, and grass stuck out between them.
But Pa and Pet and Patty kept on working. He said that sod potatoes and sod corn would grow this year, and next year the roots and the dead grasses would be rotted. In two or three years he would have nicely plowed fields. Pa liked the land because it was so rich, and there wasn’t a tree or a stump or a rock in it.
Now a great many Indians came riding along the Indian trail. Indians were everywhere. Their guns echoed in the creek bottoms where they were hunting. No one knew how many Indians were hidden in the prairie which seemed so level but wasn’t. Often Laura saw an Indian where no one had been an instant before.
Indians often came to the house. Some were friendly, some were surly and cross. All of them wanted food and tobacco, and Ma gave them what they wanted. She was afraid not to. When an Indian pointed at something and grunted, Ma gave him that thing. But most of the food was kept hidden and locked up.
Jack was cross all the time, even with Laura. He was never let off the chain, and all the time he lay and hated the Indians. Laura and Mary were quite used to seeing them now. Indians didn’t surprise them at all. But they always felt safer near Pa or Jack.
One day they were helping Ma get dinner. Baby Carrie was playing on the floor in the sunshine, and suddenly the sunshine was gone.
“I do believe it is going to storm,” Ma said, looking out of the window. Laura looked, too, and great black clouds were billowing up in the south, across the sun.
Pet and Patty were coming running from the field, Pa holding to the heavy plow and bounding in long leaps behind it.
“Prairie fire!” he shouted. “Get the tub full of water! Put sacks in it! Hurry!”
Ma ran to the well, Laura ran to tug the tub to it. Pa tied Pet to the house. He brought the cow and calf from the picket-line and shut them in the stable.
He caught Bunny and tied her fast to the north corner of the house. Ma was pulling up buckets of water as fast as she could. Laura ran to get the sacks that Pa had flung out of the stable.
Pa was plowing, shouting at Pet and Patty to make them hurry. The sky was black now, the air was as dark as if the sun had set. Pa plowed a long furrow west of the house and south of the house, and back again east of the house. Rabbits came bounding past him as if he wasn’t there.
Pet and Patty came galloping, the plow and Pa bounding behind them. Pa tied them to the other north corner of the house. The tub was full of water. Laura helped Ma push the sacks under the water to soak them.
“I couldn’t plow but one furrow; there isn’t time,” Pa said. “Hurry,
Caroline. That fire’s coming faster than a horse can run.”
A big rabbit bounded right over the tub while Pa and Ma were lifting it. Ma told Laura to stay at the house. Pa and Ma ran staggering to the furrow with the tub.
Laura stayed close to the house. She could see the red fire coming under the billows of smoke. More rabbits went leaping by. They paid no attention to Jack and he didn’t think about them; he stared at the red under sides of the rolling smoke and shivered and whined while he crowded close to Laura.
The wind was rising and wildly screaming. Thousands of birds flew before the fire, thousands of rabbits were running.
Pa was going along the furrow, setting fire to the grass on the other side of it. Ma followed with a wet sack, beating at the flames that tried to cross the furrow. The whole prairie was hopping with rabbits. Snakes rippled across the yard. Prairie hens ran silently, their necks outstretched and their wings spread. Birds screamed in the screaming wind.
Pa’s little fire was all around the house now, and he helped Ma fight it with the wet sacks. The fire blew wildly, snatching at the dry grass inside the furrow. Pa and Ma thrashed at it with the sacks, when it got across the furrow they stamped it with their feet. They ran back and forth in the smoke, fighting that fire. The prairie fire was roaring now, roaring louder and louder in the screaming wind. Great flames came roaring, flaring and twisting high. Twists of flame broke loose and came down on the wind to blaze up in the grasses far ahead of the roaring wall of fire. A red light came from the rolling black clouds of smoke overhead.
Mary and Laura stood against the house and held hands and trembled. Baby Carrie was in the house. Laura wanted to do something, but inside her head was a roaring and whirling like the fire. Her middle shook, and tearspoured out of her stinging eyes. Her eyes and her nose and her throat stung with smoke.
Jack howled. Bunny and Pet and Patty were jerking at the ropes and squealing horribly.
The orange, yellow, terrible flames were coming faster than horses can run, and their quivering light danced over everything.
Pa’s little fire had made a burned black strip. The little fire went backing slowly away against the wind, it went slowly crawling to meet the racing furious big fire. And suddenly the big fire swallowed the little one.
The wind rose to a high, crackling, rushing shriek, flames climbed into the crackling air. Fire was all around the house. Then it was over. The fire went roaring past and away.
Pa and Ma were beating out little fires here and there in the yard. When they were all out, Ma came to the house to wash her hands and face. She was all streaked with smoke and sweat, and she was trembling.
She said there was nothing to worry about. “The back-fire saved us,” she said, “and all’s well that ends well.”
The air smelled scorched. And to the very edge of the sky, the prairie was burned naked and black. Threads of smoke rose from it. Ashes blew on the wind. Everything felt different and miserable. But Pa and Ma were cheerful because the fire was gone and it had not done any harm.
Pa said that the fire had not missed them far, but a miss is as good as smile. He asked Ma, “If it had come while I was in Independence, what would you have done?”
“We would have gone to the creek with the birds and the rabbits, of course,” Ma said.
All the wild things on the prairie had known what to do. They ran and flew and hopped and crawled as fast as they could go, to the water that would keep them safe from fire. Only the little soft striped gophers had gone down deep into their holes, and they were the first to come up and look around at the bare, smoking prairie.
Then out of the creek bottoms the birds came flying over it, and a rabbit cautiously hopped and looked. It was a long, long time before the snakes crawled out of the bottoms and the prairie hens came walking.
The fire had gone out among the bluffs. It had never reached the creek bottoms or the Indian camps.
That night Mr. Edwards and Mr. Scott came to see Pa. They were worried because they thought that perhaps the Indians had started that fire on purpose to burn out the white settlers.
Pa didn’t believe it. He said the Indians had always burned the prairie to make green grass grow more quickly, and traveling easier. Their ponies couldn’t gallop through the thick, tall, dead grass. Now the ground was clear.
And he was glad of it, because plowing would be easier. While they were talking, they could hear drums beating in the Indian camps, and shouts. Laura sat still as a mouse on the doorstep and listened to the talk and to the Indians. The stars hung low and large and quivering over the burned prairie, and the wind blew gently in Laura’s hair.
Mr. Edwards said there were too many Indians in those camps; he didn’t like it. Mr. Scott said he didn’t know why so many of those savages were coming together, if they didn’t mean devilment.
“The only good Indian is a dead Indian,” Mr. Scott said.
Pa said he didn’t know about that. He figured that Indians would be as peaceable as anybody else if they were let alone. On the other hand, they had been moved west so many times that naturally they hated white folks. But an Indian ought to have sense enough to know when he was licked. With soldiers at Fort Gibson and Fort Dodge, Pa didn’t believe these Indians would make any trouble. “As to why they are congregating in these camps, Scott, I can tell you that,” he said. “They’re getting ready for their big spring buffalo hunt.”
He said there were half a dozen tribes down in those camps. Usually the tribes were fighting each other, but every spring they made peace and all came together for the big hunt.
“They’re sworn to peace among themselves,” he said, “and they’re thinking about hunting the buffalo. So it’s not likely they’ll start on the war- path against us. They’ll have their talks and their feasts, and then one day they’ll all hit the trail after the buffalo herds. The buffalo will be working their way north pretty soon, following the green grass. By George! I’d like to go on a hunt like that, myself. It must be a sight to see.”
“Well, maybe you’re right about it, Ingalls,” Mr. Scott said, slowly.
“Anyway, I’ll be glad to tell Mrs. Scott what you say. She can’t get the Minnesota massacres out of her head.”