Little Town on the Prairie (Chaprer 3)
Little Town on the Prairie
Laura Ingalls Wilder
The Necessary Cat
Now the first yellow-green spears of corn were dotted like fluttering ribbon-ends along the furrows of broken sod. One evening Pa walked across the field to look at them. He came back tired and exasperated.
“I’ve got to replant more than half the cornfield,” he said.
“Oh, Pa. Why?” Laura asked.
“Gophers,” said Pa. “Well, this is what a man gets for putting in the first corn in a new country.”
Grace was hugging his legs. He picked her up and tickled her cheek with his beard to make her laugh. She remembered the planting rhyme, and sitting on his knee she chanted it proudly
“One for the blackbird,
One for the crow,
And that will leave
Just two to grow.”
“The man that made that up was an Easterner,” Pa told her. “Out here in the Territory we’ll have to make our own rhyme, Grace. How’s this for a try?
“One for a gopher,
Two for a gopher,
Three for a gopher,
Four don’t go fur.”
“Oh, Charles,” Ma protested, laughing. She did not think puns were funny, but she could not help laughing at the naughty look Pa gave her when he made one.
He had no sooner planted the seed corn than the striped gophers found it. All over the field they had been scampering, and stopping to dig into the little spots of fine soil with their tiny paws. It was a wonder that they knew exactly where the kernels were buried.
It was amazing that those little gophers, scampering, digging, sitting up straight and nibbling, each one, at one kernel of corn held in its paws, had eaten more than half of that whole field of corn.
“They are pests!” said Pa. “I wish we had a cat like old Black Susan used to be. She’d have thinned ’em out.”
“I need a cat in the house, too,” Ma agreed. “I declare the mice are getting so thick I can’t leave food uncovered in the cupboard. Is there a cat to be had, Charles?”
“There’s not a cat in this whole country, that I know of,” Pa answered. “The storekeepers in town are complaining, too. Wilmarth’s talking of getting a cat shipped out from the East.”
That very night, Laura was startled out of a sound sleep. Through the partition between the bedrooms she heard a gasp, a grunt and a sudden thud of something small and squashing. She heard Ma say, “Charles! What is it?”
“I dreamed it,” Pa said, low. “I dreamed a barber was cutting my hair.”
Ma spoke low, too, because this was the middle of the night and the house was asleep. “It was only a dream. Lie down again and let me have some of the covers back.”
“I heard the barber’s shears go snip, snip,” said Pa.
“Well, lie down and go to sleep,” Ma yawned.
“My hair was being cut,” said Pa.
“I never knew you to be upset by a dream before.” Ma yawned again. “Lie down and turn over and you won’t go on dreaming it.”
“Caroline, my hair was being cut,” Pa repeated.
“What do you mean?” Ma asked, more awake now.
“I am telling you,” Pa said. “In my sleep I put up my hand and— Here. Feel my head.”
“Charles! Your hair’s been cut!” Ma exclaimed. Laura heard her sit up in bed. “I can feel it, there’s a place on your head—”
“Yes, that’s the spot,” said Pa. “I put up my hand—”
Ma interrupted. “A place as big as my hand, shorn clean off.”
“I put up my hand,” said Pa, “and I took hold of— something—”
“What? What was it?” Ma asked.
“I think,” said Pa, “I think it was a mouse.”
“Where is it?” Ma cried out.
“I don’t know. I threw it away, as hard as I could,” said Pa.
“My goodness!” Ma said weakly. “It must have been a mouse. Cutting off your hair to make itself a nest.”
After a minute Pa said, “Caroline, I swear—”
“No, Charles,” Ma murmured.
“Well, I would swear, if I did, that I can’t lie awake nights to keep mice out of my hair.”
“I do wish we had a cat,” Ma wished hopelessly.
Sure enough, in the morning a mouse lay dead by the bedroom wall where Pa had thrown it. And Pa appeared at breakfast with an almost bare spot on the back of his head, where the mouse had shorn his hair away.
He would not have minded so much, but there was not time for the hair to grow before he must go to a meeting of county commissioners. The country was settling so rapidly that already a county was being organized, and Pa must help. As the oldest settler, he could not shirk his duty.
The meeting was to be held at Whiting’s homestead claim, four miles northeast of town. No doubt Mrs. Whiting would be there, and Pa could hot keep his hat on.
“Never mind,” Ma consoled him. “Just tell them how it happened. Likely they have mice.”
“There’ll be more important things to talk about,” said Pa. “No, better just let them think this is the way my wife cuts my hair.”
“Charles, you wouldn’t!” Ma exclaimed, before she saw that he was teasing her.
When he drove away in the wagon that morning, he told Ma not to expect him for dinner. He had a ten-mile drive to make, on top of the time spent at the meeting.
It was supper time when he came driving to the stable. He unhitched and came hurrying to the house so quickly that he met Carrie and Grace running out.
“Girls! Caroline!” he called. “Guess what I’ve brought you!” His hand was in his pocket and his eyes were twinkling.
“Candy!” Carrie and Grace answered together.
“Better than that!” said Pa.
“A paper,” Mary guessed. “Maybe The Advance.”
Laura was watching Pa’s pocket. She was certain that something, not Pa’s hand, was moving inside it.
“Let Mary see it first,” Pa warned the others. He took his hand from his pocket. There on his palm lay a tiny blue and white kitten.
He laid it carefully in Mary’s hand. She stroked its soft fur with a finger tip. Gently she touched its tiny ears and its nose and its wee paws.
“A kitten,” she said wonderingly. “Such a very little kitten.”
“Its eyes aren’t open yet,” Laura told her. “Its baby fur is as blue as tobacco smoke, and its face and its breast and its paws and the very tip of its tail are white. Its claws are the tiniest wee white things.”
“It’s too small to take from its mother,” Pa said. “But I had to take it while I had the chance, before somebody else did. Whiting had the cat sent out to them from the East. She had five kittens, and they sold four of them today for fifty cents apiece.”
“You didn’t pay fifty cents for this kitten, Pa?”
Laura asked him, wide-eyed.
“Yes, I did,” said Pa.
Quickly Ma said, “I don’t blame you, Charles. A cat in this house will be well worth it.”
“Can we raise such a little kitten?” Mary asked anxiously.
“Oh, yes,” Ma assured them. “We will have to feed it often, wash its eyes carefully, and keep it warm. Laura, find a small box and pick out the softest, warmest scraps from the scrap bag.”
Laura made a snug, soft nest for the kitten in a pasteboard box, while Ma warmed some milk. They all watched while Ma took the kitten in her hand and fed it, a drop of milk at a time, from a teaspoon. The kitten’s wee paws clutched at the spoon and its pink mouth tried to suck, and drop by drop it sucked in the warm milk, though some ran down its chin. Then they put it in its nest, and under Mary’s warm hand it snuggled down to sleep.
“It has nine lives like any cat, and it will live all right,” said Ma. “You’ll see.”