On The Banks Of Plum (Chapter 26)
On The Banks Of Plum
Laura Ingalls Wilder
One day Laura and Jack wandered down to the creek. Mary liked to sit and read and work sums on the slate, but Laura grew tired of that. Outdoors was so miserable that she did not much like to play, either.
Plum Creek was almost dry. Only a little water seeped through the pebbly sand. The bare willow did not shade the footbridge now. Under the leafless plum thicket the water was scummy. The old crab had gone away.
The dry earth was hot, the sunshine was scorching, and the sky was a brassy color. The whirring of grasshoppers sounded like heat. There were no good smells any more.
Then Laura saw a queer thing. All over the knoll grasshoppers were sitting still with their tails down in the ground. They did not stir, even when Laura poked them.
She poked one away from the hole in which it was sitting, and with a stick she dug out of the hole a gray thing. It was shaped like a fat worm, but it was not alive. She did not know what it was. Jack snuffed at it, and wondered, too.
Laura started toward the wheat-field to ask Pa about it. But Pa was not plowing. Sam and David were standing still with the plow, and Pa was walking on the unplowed ground, looking at it. Then Laura saw him go to the plow and lift it out of the furrow. He went, driving Sam and David toward the stable with the idle plow.
Laura knew that only something dreadful would make Pa stop work in the middle of the morning. She went as fast as she could to the stable. Sam and David were in their stalls and Pa was hanging up their sweaty harness. He came out, and did not smile at Laura. She tagged slowly after him into the house.
Ma looked up at him and said, “Charles! What is the matter now?”
“The grasshoppers are laying their eggs,” said Pa. “The ground’s honeycombed with them. Look at the dooryard, and you’ll see the pits where the eggs are buried a couple of inches deep. All over the wheat-field. Everywhere. You can’t put your finger down between them. Look here.”
He took one of those gray things from his pocket and held it out on his hand.
“That’s one of ’em, a pod of grasshopper eggs. I’ve been cutting them open. There’s thirty-five or forty eggs in every pod. There’s a pod in every hole. There’s eight or ten holes to the square foot. All over this whole country.”
Ma dropped down in a chair and let her hands fall helpless at her sides.
“We’ve got no more chance of making a crop next year than we have of flying,” said Pa. “When those eggs hatch, there won’t be a green thing left in this part of the world.”
“Oh, Charles!” Ma said. “What will we do?”
Pa slumped down on a bench and said, “I don’t know.”
Mary’s braids swung over the edge of the ladder hole and her face looked down between them. She looked anxiously at Laura and Laura looked up at her. Then Mary backed down the ladder without a sound. She stood close beside Laura, backed against the wall.
Pa straightened up. His dim eyes brightened with a fierce light, not like the twinkle Laura had always seen in them.
“But I do know this, Caroline,” he said. “No pesky mess of grasshoppers can beat us! We’ll do something! You’ll see! We’ll get along somehow.”
“Yes, Charles,” said Ma.
“Why not?” said Pa. “We’re healthy, we’ve got a roof over our heads; we’re better off than lots of folks. You get an early dinner, Caroline. I’m going to town. I’ll find something to do. Don’t you worry!”
While he was gone to town, Ma and Mary and Laura planned a fine supper for him. Ma scalded a pan of sour milk and made pretty white balls of cottage cheese. Mary and Laura sliced cold boiled potatoes and Ma made a sauce for them. There were bread and butter and milk besides.
Then they washed and combed their hair. They put on their best dresses and their hair ribbons. They put Carrie’s white dress on her, and brushed her hair and tied the string of Indian beads around her neck. They were all waiting when Pa came up the grasshoppery knoll.
That was a merry supper. When they had eaten every bit of it, Pa pushed back his plate and said, “Well, Caroline.”
“Yes, Charles?” Ma said.
“Here’s the way out,” said Pa. “I’m going east tomorrow morning.”
“Oh, Charles! No!” Ma cried out.
“It’s all right, Laura,” Pa said. He meant, “Don’t cry,” and Laura did not cry.
“It’s harvest time back there,” Pa told them. “The grasshoppers went only about a hundred miles east of here. Beyond that there’s crops. It’s the only chance to get a job, and all the men in the west are heading for those jobs. I’ve got to get there quick.”
“If you think it’s for the best,” Ma said, “the girls and I can get along. But, oh, Charles, it will be such a long walk for you!”
“Shucks! What’s a couple of hundred miles?” said Pa. But he glanced at his old patched boots. Laura knew he was wondering if they would last to walk so far. “A couple of hundred miles don’t amount to anything!” he said.
Then he took his fiddle out of its box. He played for a long time in the twilight, while Laura and Mary sat close to him and Ma rocked Carrie near by.
He played “Dixie Land,” and “We’ll Rally Round the Flag, Boys!” He played “All the Blue Bonnets Are Over the Border,” and
“Oh, Susanna, don’t you cry for me!
I’m going to California
With my washpan on my knee!”
He played “The Campbells Are Coming, Hurrah! Hurrah!” Then he played “Life Let Us Cherish.” And he put away the fiddle. He must go to bed early, to get an early start in the morning.
“Take good care of the old fiddle, Caroline,” he said. “It puts heart into a man.”
After breakfast, at dawn, Pa kissed them all and went away. His extra shirt and pair of socks were rolled in his jumper and slung on his shoulder. Just before he crossed Plum Creek he looked back and waved. Then he went on, all the way out of sight, without turning again. Jack stood pressed close against Laura.
They all stood still for a moment after Pa was gone. Then Ma said, cheerfully, “We have to take care of everything now, girls. Mary and Laura, you hurry with the cow to meet the herd.”
She went briskly into the house with Carrie, while Laura and Mary ran to let Spot out of the stable and drive her toward the creek. No prairie grass was left, and the hungry cattle could only wander along the creek banks, eating willow sprouts and plum brush and a little dead, dry grass left from last summer.