Little House on the Prairie (Chapter 26)
Little House on the Prairie
Laura Ingalls Wilder
After breakfast next morning, Pa and Ma packed the wagon. First all the bedding was made into two beds, laid on top of each other across the back of the wagon, and carefully covered with a pretty plaid blanket. Mary and Laura and Baby Carrie would ride there in the daytime. At night the top bed would be put in the front of the wagon, for Pa and Ma to sleep in.
And Mary and Laura would sleep in the bottom bed, where it was. Next Pa took the small cupboard from the wall, and in it Ma packed the food and the dishes. Pa put the cupboard under the wagon-seat, and in front of it he laid a sack of corn for the horses.
“It will make a good rest for our feet, Caroline,” he said to Ma.
Ma packed all the clothing in two carpet-bags, and Pa hung them to the wagon bows inside the wagon. Opposite them he hung his rifle in its straps, and his bullet-pouch and powder-horn hung beneath it. His fiddle in its box he laid on one end of the bed, where it would ride softly.
Ma wrapped the black iron spider, the bake-oven, and the coffee-pot in sacks, and put them in the wagon, while Pa tied the rocking-chair and the tub outside, and hung the water-bucket and the horse-bucket underneath. And he put the tin lantern carefully in the front corner of the wagon-box, where the sack of corn held it still.
Now the wagon was loaded. The only thing they could not take was the plow. Well, that could not be helped. There was no room for it. When they came to wherever they were going, Pa could get more furs to trade for another plow.
Laura and Mary climbed into the wagon and sat on the bed in the back. Ma put Baby Carrie between them. They were all freshly washed and combed. Pa said they were clean as a hound’s tooth, and Ma told them they were bright as new pins.
Then Pa hitched Pet and Patty to the wagon. Ma climbed to her place on the seat and held the lines. And suddenly Laura wanted to see the house again. She asked Pa please to let her look out. So he loosened the rope in the back of the wagon-cover, and that made a large round hole. Laura and Mary could look out of it, but still the rope held up enough canvas to keep Carrie from tumbling into the feed-box.
The snug log house looked just as it always had. It did not seem to know they were going away. Pa stood a moment in the doorway and looked all around inside; he looked at the bedstead and the fireplace and the glass windows. Then he closed the door carefully, leaving the latch-string out.
“Someone might need shelter,” he said. He climbed to his place beside Ma, gathered the reins into his own hands, and chirruped to Pet and Patty.
Jack went under the wagon. Pet whinnied to Bunny, who came to walk beside her. And they were off. Just before the creek road went down into the bottoms, Pa stopped the mustangs, and they all looked back. As far as they could see, to the east and to the south and to the west, nothing was moving on all the vastness of the High Prairie. Only the green grass was rippling in the wind, and white clouds drifted in the high, clear sky.
“It’s a great country, Caroline,” Pa said. “But there will be wild Indians and wolves here for many a long day.”
The little log house and the little stable sat lonely in the stillness. Then Pet and Patty briskly started onward. The wagon went down from the bluffs into the wooded creek bottoms, and high in a tree-top a mockingbird began to sing. “I never heard a mockingbird sing so early,” said Ma, and Pa answered, softly, “He is telling us good-by.”
They rode down through the low hills to the creek. The ford was low, an easy crossing. On they went, across the bottoms where antlered deer stood up to watch them passing, and mother deer with their fawns bounded into the shadows of the woods. And up between the steep red-earth cliffs the wagon climbed to prairie again. Pet and Patty were eager to go. Their hoofs had made a muffled sound in the bottoms, but now they rang on the hard prairie. And the wind sang shrill against the foremost wagon bows.
Pa and Ma were still and silent on the wagon-seat, and Mary and Laura were quiet, too. But Laura felt all excited inside. You never know what will happen next, nor where you’ll be tomorrow, when you are traveling in a covered wagon. At noon Pa stopped beside a little spring to let the mustangs eat and drink and rest. The spring would soon be dry in the summer’s heat, but there was plenty of water now. Ma took cold cornbread and meat from the food-box, and they all ate, sitting on the clean grass in the shade of the wagon. They drank from the spring, and Laura and Mary ran around in the grass, picking wild flowers, while Ma tidied the food-box and Pa hitched up Pet and Patty again.
Then for a long time they went on, across the prairie. There was nothing to be seen but the blowing grass, the sky, and the endless wagon track. Now and then a rabbit bounded away. Sometimes a prairie hen with her brood of prairie chicks scuttled out of sight in the grass. Baby Carrie slept, and Mary and Laura were almost asleep when they heard Pa say, “Something’s wrong there.”
Laura jumped up, and far ahead on the prairie she saw a small, light-colored bump. She couldn’t see anything else unusual. “Where?” she asked Pa. “There,” Pa said, nodding toward that bump. “It isn’t moving.” Laura didn’t say any more. She kept on looking, and she saw that that bump was a covered wagon. Slowly it grew bigger. She saw that no horses were hitched to it. Nothing moved, anywhere around it. Then she saw something dark in front of it. The dark thing was two people sitting on the wagon tongue. They were a man and a woman. They sat looking down at their feet, and they moved only their heads to look up when Pet and Patty stopped in front of them. “What’s wrong? Where are your horses?” Pa asked. “I don’t know,” the man said. “I tied them to the wagon last night, and this morning they were gone. Somebody cut the ropes and took them away in the night.” “What about your dog?” said Pa. “Haven’t got a dog,” the man said. Jack stayed under the wagon. He didn’t growl but he didn’t come out. He was a sensible dog, and knew what to do when he met strangers. “Well, your horses are gone,” Pa told the man. “You’ll never see them again. Hanging’s too good for horse-thieves.”
“Yes,” the man said. Pa looked at Ma, and Ma barely nodded. Then Pa said, “Come ride with us to Independence.” “No,” said the man. “All we’ve got is in this wagon. We won’t leave it.” “Why, man! What will you do?” Pa exclaimed. “There may be nobody along here for days, weeks. You can’t stay here.” “I don’t know,” the man said. “We’ll stay with our wagon,” the woman said. She was looking down at her hands clasped in her lap, and Laura couldn’t see her face; she could see only the side of the sunbonnet. “Better come,” Pa told them. “You can come back for your wagon.” “No,” the woman said.
They wouldn’t leave the wagon; everything they owned in the world was in it. So at last Pa drove on, leaving them sitting on the wagon tongue, all alone on the prairie. Pa muttered to himself: “Tenderfeet! Everything they own, and no dog to watch it. Didn’t keep watch himself. And tied his horses with ropes!” Pa snorted. “Tenderfeet!” he said again. “Shouldn’t be allowed loose west of the Mississippi!” “But, Charles! Whatever will become of them?” Ma asked him. “There are soldiers at Independence,” said Pa. “I’ll tell the captain, and he’ll send out men to bring them in. They can hold out that long. But it’s durned lucky for them that we came by. If we hadn’t, there’s no telling when they would have been found.”
Laura watched that lonely wagon until it was only a small lump on the prairie. Then it was a speck. Then it was gone. All the rest of that day Pa drove on and on. They didn’t see anybody else. When the sun was setting, Pa stopped by a well. A house had once been there, but it was burned. The well held plenty of good water, and Laura and Mary gathered bits of half-burned wood to make the fire, while Pa unhitched and watered the horses and put them on picket-lines.
Then Pa took the seat down from the wagon and lifted out the food-box. The fire burned beautifully, and Ma quickly got supper. Everything was just as it used to be before they built the house. Pa and Ma and Carrie were on the wagon-seat, Laura and Mary sat on the wagon tongue. They ate the good supper, hot from the camp fire. Pet and Patty and Bunny munched the good grass, and Laura saved bits for Jack, who mustn’t beg but could eat his fill as soon as supper was over.
Then the sun went down, far away in the west, and it was time to make the camp ready for night. Pa chained Pet and Patty to the feed-box at the end of the wagon. He chained Bunny to the side. And he fed them all their supper of corn. Then he sat by the fire and smoked his pipe, while Ma tucked Mary and Laura into bed and laid Baby Carrie beside them. She sat down beside Pa at the fire, and Pa took his fiddle out of its box and began to play. “Oh, Susanna, don’t you cry for me,” the fiddle wailed, and Pa began to sing.
“I went to California With my wash-pan on my knee, And every time I thought of home, I wished it wasn’t me.” “Do you know, Caroline,” Pa stopped singing to say, “I’ve been thinking what fun the rabbits will have, eating that garden we planted.”
“Don’t, Charles,” Ma said. “Never mind, Caroline!” Pa told her. “We’ll make a better garden. Anyway, we’re taking more out of Indian Territory than we took in.” “I don’t know what,” Ma said, and Pa answered, “Why, there’s the mule!” Then Ma laughed, and Pa and the fiddle sang again. “In Dixie land I’ll take my stand, And live and die in Dixie! Away, away, away, away, Away down south in Dixie!”
They sang with a lilt and a swing that almost lifted Laura right out of bed. She must lie still and not wake Carrie. Mary was sleeping, too, but Laura had never been wider awake. She heard Jack making his bed under the wagon. He was turning round and round, trampling down the grass. Then he curled into that round nest with a flop and a sigh of satisfaction. Pet and Patty were munching the last of their corn, and their chains rattled. Bunny lay down beside the wagon. They were all there together, safe and comfortable for the night, under the wide, starlit sky. Once more the covered wagon was home.
The fiddle began to play a marching tune, and Pa’s clear voice was singing like a deep-toned bell. “And we’ll rally round the flag, boys, We’ll rally once again, Shouting the battle-cry of Freedom!” Laura felt that she must shout, too. But softly Ma looked in through the round hole in the wagon-cover.
“Charles,” Ma said, “Laura is wide awake. She can’t go to sleep on such music as that.” Pa didn’t answer, but the voice of the fiddle changed. Softly and slurringly it began a long, swinging rhythm that seemed to rock Laura gently. She felt her eyelids closing. She began to drift over endless waves of prairie grasses, and Pa’s voice went with her, singing:
“Row away, row o’er the waters so blue, Like a feather we sail in our gum-tree canoe. Row the boat lightly, love, over the sea; Daily and nightly I’ll wander with thee.”