Little Town on the Prairie (Chaprer 4)
Little Town on the Prairie
Laura Ingalls Wilder
The Happy Days
Pa said that the new town was growing fast. New settlers were crowding in, hurrying to put up buildings to shelter them. One evening Pa and Ma walked to town to help organize a church, and soon a foundation was laid for a church building. There were not carpenters enough to do all the building that was wanted, so Pa got carpenter work to do.
Every morning he did the chores and walked to town, taking a lunch in a tin pail. He began working promptly at seven o’clock, and by taking only a short nooning he was through work at half past six, and home again for a late supper. And every week he was earning fifteen dollars.
That was a happy time, for the garden was growing well, the corn and oats were thriving, the calf was weaned so that now there was skim-milk for cottage cheese and there was cream to make butter and buttermilk, and best of all, Pa was earning so much money.
Often while Laura worked in the garden, she thought of Mary’s going to college. It was nearly two years since they had heard there was a college for the blind in Iowa. Every day they had thought of that, and every night they prayed that Mary might go. The sorest grief in Mary’s blindness was that it hindered her studying. She liked so much to read and learn, and she had always wanted to be a schoolteacher. Now she could never teach school. Laura did not want to, but now she must; she had to be able to teach school as soon as she grew old enough, to earn money for Mary’s college education.
“Never mind,” she thought, while she hoed, “I can see.”
She saw the hoe, and the colors of the earth, and all the leafy little lights and shadows of the pea vines. She had only to glance up, and she saw miles of blowing grasses, the far blue skyline, the birds flying, Ellen and the calves on the green slope, and the different blues of the sky, the snowy piles of huge summer clouds. She had so much, and Mary saw only darkness.
She hoped, though she hardly dared to, that perhaps Mary might go to college that fall. Pa was making so much money. If Mary could only go now, Laura would study with all her might, she would work so hard that surely she could teach school as soon as she was sixteen years old, and then her earnings would keep Mary in college.
They all needed dresses and they all needed shoes, and Pa always had to buy flour and sugar and tea and salt meat. There was the lumber bill for the new half of the house, and coal must be bought for winter, and there were taxes. But this year there was the garden, and the corn and oats. By year after next, almost all they ate could be raised from the land.
If they had hens and a pig, they would even have meat. This was settled country now, hardly any game was left, and they must buy meat or raise it. Perhaps next year Pa could buy hens and a pig. Some settlers were bringing them in.
One evening Pa came home beaming.
“Guess what, Caroline and girls!” he sang out. “I saw Boast in town today, and he sent word from Mrs. Boast. She’s setting a hen for us!”
“Oh, Charles!” Ma said.
“As soon as the chicks are big enough to scratch for themselves, he’s going to bring us the whole batch,” said Pa.
“Oh, Charles, this is good news. It’s just like Mrs. Boast to do it, too,” Ma said thankfully. “How is she, did he say?”
“Said they’re getting along fine. She’s so busy, she hasn’t been able to get to town this spring, but she’s certainly keeping you in mind.”
“A whole setting of chicks,” said Ma. “There’s not many that would do it.”
“They don’t forget how you took them in when they came out here, just married, and got lost in a snowstorm, and we were the only settlers in forty miles,” Pa reminded her. “Boast often speaks of it.”
“Pshaw,” said Ma. “That was nothing. But a whole setting of eggs— It saves us a year in starting a flock.”
If they could raise the chicks, if hawks or weasels or foxes did not get them, some would be pullets that summer. Next year the pullets would begin laying, then there would be eggs to set. Year after next, there would be cockerels to fry, and more pullets to increase the flock. Then there would be eggs to eat, and when the hens grew too old to lay eggs, Ma could make them into chicken pie.
“And if next spring Pa can buy a young pig,” said Mary, “then in a couple of years we’ll have fried ham and eggs. And lard and sausages and spareribs and head-cheese!”
“And Grace can roast the pig’s tail!” Carrie chimed in.
“Why?” Grace wanted to know. “What is a pig’s tail?”
Carrie could remember butchering time, but Grace had never held a pig’s skinned tail in front of the cookstove grate and watched it sizzling brown. She had never seen Ma take from the oven the dripping pan full of brown, crackling, juicy spareribs. She had never seen the blue platter heaped with fragrant sausage-cakes, nor spooned their red-brown gravy onto pancakes. She remembered only Dakota Territory, and the meat she knew was the salt, white, fat pork that Pa bought sometimes.
But someday they would have all the good things to eat again, for better times were coming. With so much work to do now, and everything to look forward to, the days were flying by. They were all so busy that they hardly missed Pa during the day. Then every night there was his coming home, when he brought news of the town, and they always had so much to tell him.
All day they had been saving a most exciting thing to tell him. They could hardly expect him to believe it, for this was what had happened:
While Ma was making the beds and Laura and Carrie were washing the breakfast dishes, they all heard the kitten cry out piteously. Kitty’s eyes were open now and she could scamper across the floor, chasing a scrap of paper that Grace drew on a string.
“Grace, be careful!” Mary exclaimed. “Don’t hurt the kitty.”
“I’m not hurting the kitty,” Grace answered earnestly.
Before Mary could speak, the kitten squalled again.
“Don’t, Grace!” Ma said from the bedroom. “Did you step on it?”
“No, Ma,” Grace answered. The kitten cried desperately, and Laura turned around from the dishpan.
“Stop it, Grace! What are you doing to the kitty?”
“I’m not doing anything to the kitty!” Grace wailed. “I can’t find it!”
The kitten was nowhere to be seen. Carrie looked under the stove and behind the woodbox. Grace crawled under the tablecloth to see beneath the table. Ma looked under the whatnot’s bottom shelf and Laura hunted through both bedrooms.
Then the kitten squalled again, and Ma found it behind the opened door. There, between the door and the wall, the tiny kitten was holding fast to a mouse. The mouse was full grown and strong, nearly as big as the wobbling little kitten, and it was fighting. It squirmed and bit. The kitten cried when the mouse bit her, but she would not let go. She braced her little legs and kept her teeth set in a mouthful of the mouse’s loose skin. Her baby legs were so weak that she almost fell over. The mouse bit her again and again.
Ma quickly got the broom. “Pick up the kitten, Laura, I’ll deal with the mouse.”
Laura was obeying, of course, but she couldn’t help saying, “Oh, I hate to, Ma! She’s hanging on. It’s her fight.”
Right under Laura’s grasping hand the tiny kitten made one great effort. She leaped onto the mouse. She held it down under both her front legs and screamed again as its teeth bit into her. Then her own little teeth snapped hard, into the mouse’s neck. The mouse squeaked shrilly and went limp. All by herself, the kitten had killed it; her first mouse.
“I declare,” Ma said. “Whoever heard of a cat-and-mouse fight!”
The baby kitten should have had its mother to lick its wounds and purr proudly over it. Ma carefully washed the bites and fed her warmed milk, Carrie and Grace stroked her wee nose and fuzzy soft head, and under Mary’s warm hand she cuddled to sleep. Grace carried the dead mouse out by the tail and threw it far away. And all the rest of that day they often said, What a tale they had to tell Pa when he came home!
They waited until he had washed, and combed his hair, and sat down to supper. Laura answered his question about the chores; she had watered the horses and Ellen and the calves, and moved their picket pins. The nights were so pleasant now that she need not put them in the stable. They slept under the stars, and woke and grazed whenever they liked. Then came the time to tell Pa what the kitten had done.
He said he had never heard anything like it. He looked at the little blue and white kitty, walking carefully across the floor with her thin tail standing straight up, and he said, “That kitten will be the best hunter in the county.”
The day was ending in perfect satisfaction. They were all there together. All the work, except the supper dishes, was done until tomorrow. They were all enjoying good bread and butter, fried potatoes, cottage cheese, and lettuce leaves sprinkled with vinegar and sugar.
Beyond the open door and window the prairie was dusky but the sky was still pale, with the first stars beginning to quiver in it. The wind went by, and in the house the air stirred, pleasantly warmed by the cookstove and scented with prairie freshness and food and tea and a cleanness of soap and a faint lingering smell of the new boards that made the new bedrooms.
In all that satisfaction, perhaps the best part was knowing that tomorrow would be like today, the same and yet a little different from all other days, as this one had been. But Laura did not know this, until Pa asked her, “How would you like to work in town?”