The days were short and gray now, the nights were very dark and cold. Clouds hung low above the little house and spread low and far over the bleak prairie. Rain fell, and sometimes snow was driven on the wind. Hard little bits of snow whirled in the air and scurried over the humped backs of miserable grasses. And next day the snow was gone.
Every day Pa went hunting and trapping. In the cozy, firelit house Mary and Laura helped Ma with the work. Then they sewed quilt-patches. They played Patty Cake with Carrie, and they played Hide the Thimble. With a piece of string and their fingers, they played Cat’s Cradle. And they played Bean Porridge Hot. Facing each other, they clapped their hands together and against each other’s hands, keeping time while they said:
“Bean porridge hot, Bean porridge cold,
Bean porridge in the pot, Nine days old.
“Some like it hot, Some like it cold,
Some like it in the pot, Nine days old.
“I like it hot,
I like it cold,
I like it in the pot,
Nine days old.”
That was true. No supper was so good as the thick bean porridge, flavored with a small bit of salt pork, that Ma dipped onto the tin plates when Pa had come home cold and tired from his hunting. Laura liked it hot, and she liked it cold, and it was always good as long as it lasted. But it never really lasted nine days. They ate it up before that. All the time the wind blew, shrieking, howling, wailing, screaming, and mournfully sobbing. They were used to hearing the wind. All day they heard it, and at night in their sleep they knew it was blowing. But one night they heard such a terrible scream that they all woke up.
Pa jumped out of bed, and Ma said: “Charles! What was it?”
“It’s a woman screaming,” Pa said. He was dressing as fast as he could. “Sounded like it came from Scott’s.”
“Oh, what can be wrong!” Ma exclaimed.
Pa was putting on his boots. He put his foot in, and he put his fingers through the strap ears at the top of the long boot leg. Then he gave a mighty pull, and he stamped hard on the floor, and that boot was on.
“Maybe Scott is sick,” he said, pulling on the other boot.
“You don’t suppose—?” Ma asked, low. “No,” said Pa. “I keep telling you they won’t make any trouble. They’re perfectly quiet and peaceable down in those camps among the bluffs.”
Laura began to climb out of bed, but Ma said, “Lie down and be still, Laura.” So, she lay down.
Pa put on his warm, bright plaid coat, and his fur cap, and his muffler. He lighted the candle in the lantern, took his gun, and hurried outdoors.
Before he shut the door behind him, Laura saw the night outside. It was black dark. Not one star was shining. Laura had never seen such solid darkness.
“Ma?” she said.
“What makes it so dark?”
“It’s going to storm,” Ma answered. She pulled the latchstring in and put a stick of wood on the fire. Then she went back to bed. “Go to sleep, Mary and Laura,” she said.
But Ma did not go to sleep, and neither did Mary and Laura. They lay wide awake and listened. They could not hear anything but the wind.
Mary put her head under the quilt and whispered to Laura, “I wish Pa’d come back.”
Laura nodded her head on the pillow, but she couldn’t say anything. She seemed to see Pa striding along the top of the bluff, on the path that went toward Mr. Scott’s house. Tiny bright spots of candlelight darted here and there from the holes cut in the tin lantern. The little flickering lights seemed to be lost in the black dark.
After a long time, Laura whispered, “It must be ’most morning.” And Mary nodded. All that time they had been lying and listening to the wind, and Pa had not come back.
Then, high above the shrieking of the wind they heard again that terrible scream. It seemed quite close to the house.
Laura screamed, too, and leaped out of bed. Mary ducked under the covers. Ma got up and began to dress in a hurry. She put another stick of wood on the fire and told Laura to go back to bed. But Laura begged so hard that Ma said she could stay up. “Wrap yourself in the shawl,” Ma said.
They stood by the fire and listened. They couldn’t hear anything but the wind. And they could not do anything. But at least they were not lying down in bed.
Suddenly fists pounded on the door and Pa shouted: “Let me in! Quick, Caroline!”
Ma opened the door and Pa slammed it quickly behind him. He was out of breath. He pushed back his cap and said: “Whew! I’m scared yet.”
“What was it, Charles?” said Ma. “A panther,” Pa said.
He had hurried as fast as he could go to Mr. Scott’s. When he got there, the house was dark and everything was quiet. Pa went all around the house, listening, and looking with the lantern. He could not find a sign of anything wrong. So, he felt like a fool, to think he had got up and dressed in the middle of the night and walked two miles, all because he heard the wind howl.
He did not want Mr. and Mrs. Scott to know about it. So, he did not wake them up. He came home as fast as he could because the wind was bitter cold. And he was hurrying along the path, where it went on the edge of the bluff, when all of a sudden, he heard that scream right under his feet.
“I tell you my hair stood up till it lifted my cap,” he told Laura. “I lit out for home like a scared rabbit.”
“Where was the panther, Pa?” she asked him. “In a tree-top,” said Pa. “In the top of that big cottonwood that grows against the bluffs there.”
“Pa, did it come after you?” Laura asked, and he said, “I don’t know, Laura.”
“Well, you’re safe now, Charles,” said Ma. “Yes, and I’m glad of it. This is too dark a night to be out with panthers,” Pa said. “Now, Laura, where’s my bootjack?”
Laura brought it to him. The bootjack was a thin oak slab with a notch in one end and a cleat across the middle of it. Laura laid it on the floor with the cleat down, and the cleat lifted up the notched end. Then Pa stood on it with one foot, he put the other foot into the notch, and the notch held the boot by the heel while Pa pulled his foot out. Then he pulled off his other boot, the same way. The boots clung tightly, but they had to come off.
Laura watched him do this, and then she asked, “Would a panther carry off a little girl, Pa?”
“Yes,” said Pa. “And kill her and eat her, too. You and Mary must stay in the house till I shoot that panther. As soon as daylight comes, I will take my gun and go after him.”
All the next day Pa hunted that panther. And he hunted the next day and the next day. He found the panther’s tracks, and he found the hide and bones of an antelope that the panther had eaten, but he did not find the panther anywhere. The panther went swiftly through tree-tops, where it left no tracks.
Pa said he would not stop till he killed that panther. He said, “We can’t have panthers running around in a country where there are little girls.”
But he did not kill that panther, and he did stop hunting it. One day in the woods he met an Indian. They stood in the wet, cold woods and looked at each other, and they could not talk because they did not know each other’s words. But the Indian pointed to the panther’s tracks, and he made motions with his gun to show Pa that he had killed that panther. He pointed to the treetops and to the ground, to show that he had shot it out of a tree. And he motioned to the sky, and west and east, to say that he had killed it the day before.
So that was all right. The panther was dead. Laura asked if a panther would carry off a little papoose and kill and eat her, too, and Pa said yes. Probably that was why the Indian had killed that panther.