INDIANS IN THE HOUSE
Early one morning Pa took his gun and went hunting.
He had meant to make the bedstead that day. He had brought in the slabs, when Ma said she had no meat for dinner. So, he stood the slabs against the wall and took down his gun.
Jack wanted to go hunting, too. His eyes begged Pa to take him, and whines came up from his chest and quivered in his throat till Laura almost cried with him. But Pa chained him to the stable.
“No, Jack,” Pa said. “You must stay here and guard the place.” Then he said to Mary and Laura, “Don’t let him loose, girls.”
Poor Jack lay down. It was a disgrace to be chained, and he felt it deeply. He turned his head from Pa and would not watch him going away with the gun on his shoulder. Pa went farther and farther away, till the prairies swallowed him and he was gone.
Laura tried to comfort Jack, but he would not be comforted. The more he thought about the chain, the worse he felt. Laura tried to cheer him up to frisk and play, but he only grew more sullen.
Both Mary and Laura felt that they could not leave Jack while he was so unhappy. So, all that morning they stayed by the stable. They stroked Jack’s smooth, brindled head and scratched around his ears, and told him how sorry they were that he must be chained. He lapped their hands a little bit, but he was very sad and angry.
His head was on Laura’s knee and she was talking to him, when suddenly he stood up and growled a fierce, deep growl. The hair on his neck stood straight up and his eyes glared red.
Laura was frightened. Jack had never growled at her before. Then she looked over her shoulder, where Jack was looking, and she saw two naked, wild men coming, one behind the other, on the Indian trail.
“Mary! Look!” she cried. Mary looked and saw them, too.
They were tall, thin, fierce-looking men. Their skin was brownish-red. Their heads seemed to go up to a peak, and the peak was a tuft of hair that stood straight up and ended in feathers. Their eyes were black and still and glittering, like snake’s eyes.
They came closer and closer. Then they went out of sight, on the other side of the house.
Laura’s head turned and so did Mary’s, and they looked at the place where those terrible men would appear when they came past the house.
“Indians!” Mary whispered. Laura was shivering; there was a queer feeling in her middle and the bones in her legs felt weak. She wanted to sit down. But she stood and looked and waited for those Indians to come out from beyond the house. The Indians did not do that.
All this time Jack had been growling. Now he stopped growling and was lunging against the chain. His eyes were red and his lips curled back and all the hair on his back was bristling. He bounded and bounded, clear off the ground, trying to get loose from the chain. Laura was glad that the chain kept him right there with her.
“Jack’s here,” she whispered to Mary. “Jack won’t let them hurt us. We’ll be safe if we stay close to Jack.”
“They are in the house,” Mary whispered. “They are in the house with Ma and Carrie.”
Then Laura began to shake all over. She knew she must do something. She did not know what those Indians were doing to Ma and Baby Carrie. There was no sound at all from the house.
“Oh, what are they doing to Ma!” she screamed, in a whisper.
“Oh, I don’t know!” Mary whispered.
“I’m going to let Jack loose,” Laura whispered, hoarsely. “Jack will kill them.”
“Pa said not to,” Mary answered. They were too scared to speak out loud. They put their heads together and watched the house and whispered.
“He didn’t know Indians would come,” Laura said.
“He said not to let Jack loose.” Mary was al- most crying.
Laura thought of little Baby Carrie and Ma, shut in the house with those Indians. She said, “I’m going in to help Ma!”
She ran two steps, and walked a step, then she turned and flew back to Jack. She clutched him wildly and hung on to his strong, panting neck. Jack wouldn’t let anything hurt her.
“We mustn’t leave Ma in there alone,” Mary whispered. She stood still and trembled. Mary never could move when she was frightened.
Laura hid her face against Jack and held on to him tightly.
Then she made her arms let go. Her hands balled into fists and her eyes shut tight and she ran toward the house as fast as she could run.
She stumbled and fell down and her eyes popped open. She was up again, and running be- fore she could think. Mary was close behind her. They came to the door. It was open, and they slipped into the house without a sound.
The naked wild men stood by the fireplace. Ma was bending over the fire, cooking something. Carrie clung to Ma’s skirts with both hands and her head was hidden in the folds.
Laura ran toward Ma, but just as she reached the hearth, she smelled a horribly bad smell and she looked up at the Indians. Quick as a flash she ducked behind the long, narrow slab that leaned against the wall.
The slab was just wide enough to cover both her eyes. If she held her head perfectly still and pressed her nose against the slab, she couldn’t see the Indians. And she felt safer. But she couldn’t help moving her head just a little, so that one eye peeped out and she could see the wild men.
First, she saw their leather moccasins. Then their stringy, bare, red-brown legs, all the way up. Around their waists each of the Indians wore a leather thong, and the furry skin of a small animal hung down in front. The fur was striped black and white, and now Laura knew what made that smell. The skins were fresh skunk skins.
A knife-like Pa’s hunting-knife, and a hatchet like Pa’s hatchet, were stuck into each skunk skin. The Indians’ ribs made little ridges up their bare sides. Their arms were folded on their chests. At last Laura looked again at their faces, and she dodged quickly behind the slab.
Their faces were bold and fierce and terrible. Their black eyes glittered. High on their fore- heads and above their ears where hair grows, these wild men had no hair. But on top of their heads a tuft of hair stood straight up. It was wound around with string, and feathers were stuck in it.
When Laura peeked out from behind the slab again, both Indians were looking straight at her. Her heart jumped into her throat and choked her with its pounding. Two black eyes glittered down into her eyes. The Indian did not move, not one muscle of his face moved. Only his eyes shone and sparkled at her. Laura didn’t move, either. She didn’t even breathe.
The Indian made two short, harsh sounds in his throat. The other Indian made one sound, like “Hah!” Laura hid her eyes behind the slab again. She heard Ma take the cover off the bake- oven. She heard the Indians squat down on the hearth. After a while she heard them eating.
Laura peeked, and hid, and peeked again, while the Indians ate the cornbread that Ma had baked. They ate every morsel of it, and even picked up the crumbs from the hearth. Ma stood and watched them and stroked Baby Carrie’s head. Mary stood close behind Ma and held on to her sleeve.
Faintly Laura heard Jack’s chain rattling. Jack was still trying to get loose.
When every crumb of the cornbread was gone, the Indians rose up. The skunk smell was stronger when they moved. One of them made harsh sounds in his throat again. Ma looked at him with big eyes; she did not say anything. The Indian turned around, the other Indian turned, too, and they walked across the floor and out through the door. Their feet made no sound at all. Ma sighed a long, long sigh. She hugged Laura tight in one arm and Mary tight in the other arm, and through the window they watched those Indians going away, one behind the other, on the dim trail toward the west. Then Ma sat down on the bed and hugged Laura and Mary tighter, and trembled. She looked sick.
“Do you feel sick, Ma?” Mary asked her. “No,” said Ma. “I’m just thankful they’re gone.”
Laura wrinkled her nose and said, “They smell awful.”
“That was the skunk skins they wore,” Ma said.
Then they told her how they had left Jack and had come into the house because they were afraid the Indians would hurt her and Baby Carrie. Ma said they were her brave little girls.
“Now we must get dinner,” she said. “Pa will be here soon, and we must have dinner ready for him. Mary, bring me some wood. Laura, you may set the table.”
Ma rolled up her sleeves and washed her hands and mixed cornbread, while Mary brought the wood and Laura set the table. She set a tin plate and knife and fork and cup for Pa, and the same for Ma, with Carrie’s little tin cup beside Ma’s. And she set tin plates and knives and forks for her and Mary, but only their one cup between the plates.
Ma made the cornmeal and water into two thin loaves, each shaped in a half circle. She laid the loaves with their straight sides together in the bake-oven, and she pressed her hand flat on top of each loaf. Pa always said he did not ask any other sweetening, when Ma put the prints of her hands on the loaves.
Laura had hardly set the table when Pa was there. He left a big rabbit and two prairie hens outside the door and stepped in and laid his gun on its pegs. Laura and Mary ran and clutched him, both talking at once.
“What’s all this? What’s all this?” he said, rumpling their hair. “Indians? So, you’ve seen Indians at last, have you, Laura? I noticed they have a camp in a little valley west of here. Did Indians come to the house, Caroline?”
“Yes, Charles, two of them,” Ma said. “I’m sorry, but they took all your tobacco, and they ate a lot of cornbread. They pointed to the cornmeal and made signs for me to cook some. I was afraid not to. Oh Charles! I was afraid!”
“You did the right thing,” Pa told her. “We don’t want to make enemies of any Indians.” Then he said, “Whew! what a smell.”
“They wore fresh skunk skins,” said Ma. “And that was all they wore.”
“Must have been thick while they were here,” Pa said.
“It was, Charles. We were short of cornmeal, too.”
“Oh well. We have enough to hold out awhile yet. And our meat is running all over the country. Don’t worry, Caroline.”
“But they took all your tobacco.”
“Never mind,” Pa said. “I’ll get along without tobacco till I can make that trip to Independence. The main thing is to be on good terms with the Indians. We don’t want to wake up some night with a band of the screeching dev—”
He stopped. Laura dreadfully wanted to know what he had been going to say. But Ma’s lips were pressed together, and she shook a little shake of her head at Pa.
“Come on, Mary and Laura!” Pa said. “We’ll skin that rabbit and dress the prairie hens while that cornbread bakes. Hurry! I’m hungry as a wolf!”
They sat on the woodpile in the wind and sunshine and watched Pa work with his hunting- knife. The big rabbit was shot through the eye, and the prairie hens’ heads were shot clean away. They never knew what hit them, Pa said.
Laura held the edge of the rabbit skin while Pa’s keen knife ripped it off the rabbit meat. “I’ll salt this skin and peg it out on the house wall to dry,” he said. “It will make a warm fur cap for some little girl to wear next winter.”
But Laura could not forget the Indians. She said to Pa that if they had turned Jack loose, he would have eaten those Indians right up.
Pa laid down the knife. “Did you girls even think of turning Jack loose?” he asked, in a dread- ful voice.
Laura’s head bowed down, and she whispered, “Yes, Pa.”
“After I told you not to?” Pa said, in a more dreadful voice.
Laura couldn’t speak, but Mary choked, “Yes, Pa.”
For a moment Pa was silent. He sighed a long sigh like Ma’s sigh after the Indians went away.
“After this,” he said, in a terrible voice, “you girls remember always to do as you’re told. Don’t you even think of disobeying me. Do you hear?”
“Yes, Pa,” Laura and Mary whispered.
“Do you know what would have happened if you had turned Jack loose?” Pa asked.
“No, Pa,” they whispered.
“He would have bitten those Indians,” said Pa. “Then there would have been trouble. Bad trouble. Do you understand?”
“Yes, Pa,” they said. But they did not understand.
“Would they have killed Jack?” Laura asked. “Yes. And that’s not all. You girls remember this: You do as you’re told, no matter what happens.”
“Yes, Pa,” Laura said, and Mary said, “Yes, Pa.” They were glad they had not turned Jack loose.
“Do as you’re told,” said Pa, “and no harm will come to you.”