The grass was dry and withered, and the cows must be taken out of the woods and kept in the barn to be fed. All the bright-colored leaves became dull brown when the cold fall rains began.
There was no more playing under the trees. But Pa was in the house when it rained, and he began again to play the fiddle after supper.
Then the rains stopped. The weather grew colder. In the early mornings everything sparkled with frost. The days were growing short and a little fire burned all day in the cookstove to keep the house warm. Winter was not far away.
The attic and the cellar were full of good things once more, and Laura and Mary had star- ted to make patchwork quilts. Everything was be- ginning to be snug and cosy again.
One night when he came in from doing the chores Pa said that after supper he would go to his deer-lick and watch for a deer. There had been no fresh meat in the little house since spring, but now the fawns were grown up, and Pa would go hunting again.
Pa had made a deer-lick, in an open place in the woods, with trees nearby in which he could sit to watch it. A deer-lick was a place where the deer came to get salt. When they found a salty place in the ground, they came there to lick it, and that was called a deer-lick. Pa had made one by sprinkling salt over the ground.
After supper Pa took his gun and went into the woods, and Laura and Mary went to sleep without any stories or music.
As soon as they woke in the morning they ran to the window, but there was no deer hanging in the trees. Pa had never before gone out to get a deer and come home without one. Laura and Mary did not know what to think.
All day Pa was busy, banking the little house and the barn with dead leaves and straw, held down by stones, to keep out the cold. The weather grew colder all day, and that night there was once more a fire on the hearth and the windows were shut tight and chinked for the winter.
After supper Pa took Laura on his knee, while Mary sat close in her little chair. And Pa said:
“Now I’ll tell you why you had no fresh meat to eat today.
“When I went out to the deer-lick, I climbed up into a big oak tree. I found a place on a branch where I was comfortable and could watch the deer-lick. I was near enough to shoot any animal that came to it, and my gun was loaded and ready on my knee.
“There I sat and waited for the moon to rise and light the clearing.
“I was a little tired from chopping wood all day yesterday, and I must have fallen asleep, for I found myself opening my eyes.
“The big, round moon was just rising. I could see it between the bare branches of the trees, low in the sky. And right against it I saw a deer standing. His head was up, and he was listening. His great, branching horns stood out above his head. He was dark against the moon.
“It was a perfect shot. But he was so beautiful, he looked so strong and free and wild, that I couldn’t kill him. I sat there and looked at him, until he bounded away into the dark woods.
“Then I remembered that Ma and my little girls were waiting for me to bring home some good fresh venison. I made up my mind that next time I would shoot.
“After a while, a big bear came lumbering out into the open. He was so fat from feasting on berries and roots and grubs all summer that he was nearly as large as two bears. His head swayed from side to side as he went on all fours across the clear space in the moonlight, until he came to a rotten log. He smelled it and listened. Then he pawed it apart and sniffed among the broken pieces, eating up the fat white grubs.
“Then he stood up on his hind legs, perfectly still, looking all around him. He seemed to be suspicious that something was wrong. He was trying to see or smell what it was.
“He was a perfect mark to shoot at, but I was so much interested in watching him, and the woods were so peaceful in the moonlight, that I forgot all about my gun. I did not even think of shooting him, until he was waddling away into the woods.
“‘This will never do,’ I thought. ‘I’ll never get any meat this way.’
“I settled myself in the tree and waited again. This time I was determined to shoot the next game I saw.
“The moon had risen higher and the moon- light was bright in the little open place. All around it the shadows were dark among the trees. “After a long while, a doe and her yearling fawn came stepping daintily out of the shadows. They were not afraid at all. They walked over to the place where I had sprinkled the salt, and they both licked up a little of it.
“Then they raised their heads and looked at each other. The fawn stepped over and stood be- side the doe. They stood there together, looking at the woods and the moonlight. Their large eyes were shining and soft.
“I just sat there looking at them, until they walked away among the shadows. Then I climbed down out of the tree and came home.”
Laura whispered in his ear, “I’m glad you didn’t shoot them!”
Mary said, “We can eat bread and butter.”
Pa lifted Mary up out of her chair and hugged them both together.
“You’re my good girls,” he said. “And now it’s bedtime. Run along, while I get my fiddle.”
When Laura and Mary had said their prayers and were tucked snugly under the trundle bed’s covers, Pa was sitting in the firelight with the fiddle. Ma had blown out the lamp because she did not need its light. On the other side of the hearth she was swaying gently in her rocking chair and her knitting needles flashed in and out above the sock she was knitting.
The long winter evenings of fire-light and music had come again.
Pa’s fiddle wailed while Pa was singing:
“Oh, Susi-an-na, don’t you cry for me, I’m going to Cal-i-for-ni-a, The gold dust for to see.”
Then Pa began to play again the song about Old Grimes. But he did not sing the words he had sung when Ma was making cheese. These words were different. Pa’s strong, sweet voice was softly singing:
“Shall auld acquaintance be forgot,
And never brought to mind? Shall auld acquaintance be forgot, And the days of auld lang syne?
And the days of auld lang syne, my friend, And the days of auld lang syne,
Shall auld acquaintance be forgot, And the days of auld lang syne?”
When the fiddle had stopped singing Laura called out softly, “What are days of auld lang syne, Pa?”
“They are the days of a long time ago, Laura,” Pa said. “Go to sleep, now.”
But Laura lay awake a little while, listening to Pa’s fiddle softly playing and to the lonely sound of the wind in the Big Woods. She looked at Pa sitting on the bench by the hearth, the fire- light gleaming on his brown hair and beard and glistening on the honey-brown fiddle. She looked at Ma, gently rocking and knitting.
She thought to herself, “This is now.”
She was glad that the cosy house, and Pa and Ma and the fire-light and the music, were now. They could not be forgotten, she thought, because now is now. It can never be a long time ago.