A ROOF AND A FLOOR
All day long, every day, Laura and Mary were busy. When the dishes were washed and the beds made, there was always plenty to do and to see and to listen to.
They hunted for birds’ nests in the tall grass and when they found them the mother birds squawked and scolded. Sometimes they touched a nest gently, and all in an instant a nest full of downiness became a nest full of wide-gaping beaks, hungrily squawking. Then the mother bird scolded like anything, and Mary and Laura quietly went away because they did not want to worry her too much.
In the tall grass they lay still as mice and watched flocks of little prairie chickens running and pecking around their anxiously clucking, smooth brown mothers. They watched striped snakes rippling between the grass stems or lying so still that only their tiny flickering tongues and glittering eyes showed that they were alive. They were garter snakes and would not hurt anybody, but Laura and Mary did not touch them. Ma said snakes were best left alone, because some snakes would bite, and it was better to be safe than sorry. And sometimes there’d be a great gray rabbit, so still in the lights and shadows of a grass clump that you were near enough to touch him before you saw him. Then, if you were very quiet, you might stand a long time looking at him. His round eyes stared at yours without meaning anything. His nose wiggled, and sunlight was rosy through his long ears, that had delicate veins in them and the softest short fur on their outsides. The rest of his fur was so thick and soft that at last you couldn’t help trying, very carefully, to touch it.
Then he was gone in a flash and the place where he had been sitting was hollowed and smooth and still warm from his warm behind.
All the time, of course, Laura or Mary was minding Baby Carrie, except when she had her afternoon nap. Then they sat and soaked in the sunshine and the wind until Laura forgot that the baby was sleeping. She jumped up and ran and shouted till Ma came to the door and said, “Dear me, Laura, must you yell like an Indian? I declare,” Ma said, “if you girls aren’t getting to look like Indians! Can I never teach you to keep your sunbonnets on?”
Pa was up on the house wall beginning the roof. He looked down at them and laughed.
“One little Indian, two little Indians, three little Indians,” he sang, softly. “No, only two.”
“You make three,” Mary said to him. “You’re brown, too.”
“But you aren’t little, Pa,” said Laura. “Pa, when are we going to see a papoose?”
“Goodness!” Ma exclaimed. “What do you want to see an Indian baby for? Put on your sun- bonnet, now, and forget such nonsense.”
Laura’s sunbonnet hung down her back. She pulled it up by its strings, and its sides came past her cheeks. When her sunbonnet was on, she could see only what was in front of her, and that was why she was always pushing it back and let- ting it hang by its strings tied around her throat. She put her sunbonnet on when Ma told her to, but she did not forget the papoose.
This was Indian country and she didn’t know why she didn’t see Indians. She knew she would see them sometime, though. Pa said so, but she was getting tired of waiting.
Pa had taken the canvas wagon-top off the house, and now he was ready to put the roof on. For days and days, he had been hauling logs from the creek bottoms and splitting them into thin, long slabs. Piles of slabs lay all around the house and slabs stood against it.
“Come out of the house, Caroline,” he said. “I don’t want to risk anything falling on you or Carrie.”
“Wait, Charles, till I put away the china shepherdess,” Ma answered. In a minute she came out, with a quilt and her mending and Baby Carrie. She spread the quilt on the shady grass by the stable and sat there to do her mending and watch Carrie play.
Pa reached down and pulled up a slab. He laid it across the ends of the sapling rafters. Its edge stuck out beyond the wall. Then Pa put some nails in his mouth and took his hammer out of his belt, and he began to nail the slab to the rafters.
Mr. Edwards had lent him the nails. They had met in the woods, where they were both chopping down trees, and Mr. Edwards had insisted that Pa borrow nails for the roof.
“That’s what I call a good neighbor!” Pa said when he told Ma about it.
“Yes,” said Ma. “But I don’t like to be beholden, not even to the best of neighbors.”
“Nor I,” Pa replied. “I’ve never been beholden to any man yet, and I never will be. But neighborliness is another matter, and I’ll pay him back every nail as soon as I can make the trip to Independence.”
Now Pa carefully took the nails one by one from his mouth, and with ringing blows of the hammer he drove them into the slab. It was much quicker than drilling holes and whittling pegs and driving them into the holes. But every now and then a nail sprang away from the tough oak when the hammer hit it, and if Pa was not holding it firmly, it went sailing through the air.
Then Mary and Laura watched it fall and they searched in the grass till they found it. Sometimes it was bent. Then Pa carefully pounded it straight again. It would never do to lose or waste a nail.
When Pa had nailed down two slabs, he got up on them. He laid and nailed more slabs, all the way up to the top of the rafters. The edge of each slab lapped over the edge of the slab below it.
Then he began again on the other side of the house, and he laid the roof all the way up from that side. A little crack was left between the highest slabs. So, Pa made a little trough of two slabs, and he nailed this trough firmly, upside down over the crack.
The roof was done. The house was darker than it had been, because no light came through the slabs. There was not one single crack that would let rain come in.
“You have done a splendid job, Charles,” Ma said, “and I’m thankful to have a good roof over my head.”
“You shall have furniture, too, as fine as I can make it,” Pa replied. “I’ll make a bedstead as soon as the floor is laid.”
He began again to haul logs. Day after day he hauled logs. He did not even stop hauling logs to go hunting; he took his gun on the wagon and brought back at night whatever meat he had shot from the wagon-seat.
When he had hauled enough logs to make the floor, he began to split them. He split each log straight down the middle. Laura liked to sit on the woodpile and watch him.
First, with a mighty blow of his ax he split the butt of the log. Into the crack he slipped the thin edge of an iron wedge. Then he wrenched the ax out of the log, and he drove the wedge deeper in- to the crack. The tough wood split a little farther. All the way up the log Pa fought that tough oak. He struck with his ax into the crack. He drove blocks of wood into it and moved the iron wedge higher. Little by little he followed the crack up the log.
He swung the ax high and brought it down with a great swing and a grunt from his chest. “Ugh!” The ax whizzed and struck, plunge! It al- ways struck exactly where Pa wanted it to.
At last, with a tearing, cracking sound, the whole log split. Its two halves lay on the ground, showing the tree’s pale insides and the darker streak up its middle. Then Pa wiped the sweat from his forehead, he took a fresh grip on the ax, and he tackled another log.
One day the last log was split, and next morning Pa began to lay the floor. He dragged the logs into the house and laid them one by one, flat side up. With his spade he scraped the ground underneath and fitted the round side of the log firmly down into it. With his ax he trimmed away the edge of bark and cut the wood straight, so that each log fitted against the next, with hardly a crack between them.
Then he took the head of the ax in his hand, and with little, careful blows he smoothed the wood. He squinted along the log to see that the surface was straight and true. He took off last little bits, here and there. Finally, he ran his hand over the smoothness, and nodded.
“Not a splinter!” he said. “That’ll be all right for little bare feet to run over.”
He left that log fitted into its place and dragged in another.
When he came to the fireplace, he used shorter logs. He left a space of bare earth for a hearth, so that when sparks or coals popped out of the fire, they would not burn the floor.
One day the floor was done. It was smooth and firm and hard, a good floor of solid oak that would last, Pa said, forever.
“You can’t beat a good puncheon floor,” he said, and Ma said she was glad to be up off the dirt. She put the little china woman on the mantelshelf and spread a red-checked cloth on the table.
“There,” she said. “Now we’re living like civilized folks again.”
After that Pa filled the cracks in the walls. He drove thin strips of wood into them, and plastered them well with mud, filling every chink.
“That’s a good job,” Ma said. “That chinking will keep out the wind, no matter how hard it blows.”
Pa stopped whistling to smile at her. He slapped the last bit of mud between the logs and smoothed it and set down the bucket. At last the house was finished.
“I wish we had glass for the windows,” Pa said.
“We don’t need glass, Charles,” said Ma. “Just the same if I do well with my hunting
and trapping this winter, I’m going to get some glass in Independence next spring,” said Pa. “And hang the expense!”
“Glass windows would be nice if we can afford them,” Ma said. “But we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”
They were all happy that night. The fire on the hearth was pleasant, for on the High Prairie even the summer nights were cool. The red- checked cloth was on the table, the little china woman glimmered on the mantelshelf, and the new floor was golden in the flickering firelight. Outside, the night was large and full of stars. Pa sat for a long time in the doorway and played his fiddle and sang to Ma and Mary and Laura in the house and to the starry night outside.