FRESH WATER TO DRINK
Pa had made the bedstead.
He had smoothed the oak slabs till there was not a splinter on them. Then he pegged them firmly together. Four slabs made a box to hold the straw-tick. Across the bottom of it Pa stretched a rope, zigzagged from side to side and pulled tight.
One end of the bedstead Pa pegged solidly to the wall, in a corner of the house. Only one corner of the bed was not against a wall. At this corner, Pa set up a tall slab. He pegged it to the bed- stead. As high up as he could reach, he pegged two strips of oak to the walls and to the tall slab. Then he climbed up on them and pegged the top of the tall slab solidly to a rafter. And on the strips of oak he laid a shelf, above the bed.
“There you are Caroline!” he said.
“I can’t wait to see it made up,” said Ma. “Help me bring in the straw-tick.”
She had filled the straw-tick that morning. There was no straw on the High Prairie, so she had filled it with dry, clean, dead grass. It was hot from the sunshine and it had a grassy, sweet smell. Pa helped her bring it into the house and lay it in the bedstead. She tucked the sheets in and spread her prettiest patchwork quilt over them. At the head of the bed she set up the goose- feather pillows and spread the pillow-shams against them. On each white pillow-sham two little birds were outlined with red thread.
Then Pa and Ma and Laura and Mary stood and looked at the bed. It was a very nice bed. The zigzag rope was softer than the floor to sleep on. The straw-tick was plump with the sweet- smelling grass, the quilt lay smooth, and the pretty pillow shams stood up crisply. The shelf was a good place to store things. The whole house had quite an air, with such a bed in it.
That night when Ma went to bed, she settled into the crackling straw-tick and said to Pa, “I declare, I’m so comfortable it’s almost sinful.”
Mary and Laura still slept on the floor, but Pa would make a little bed for them as soon as he could. He had made the big bed, and he had made a stout cupboard and padlocked it, so the Indians could not take all the cornmeal if they came again. Now he had only to dig a well, and then he would make that trip to town. He must dig the well first, so that Ma could have water while he was gone.
Next morning, he marked a large circle in the grass near the corner of the house. With his spade he cut the sod inside the circle and lifted it up in large pieces. Then he began to shovel out the earth, digging himself deeper and deeper down.
Mary and Laura must not go near the well while Pa was digging. Even when they couldn’t see his head anymore, shovelfuls of earth came flying up. At last the spade flew up and fell in the grass. Then Pa jumped. His hands caught hold of the sod, then one elbow gripped it, and then the other elbow, and with a heave Pa came rolling out. “I can’t throw the dirt out from any deeper,” he said.
He had to have help, now. So, he took his gun and rode away on Patty. When he came back, he brought a plump rabbit, and he had traded work with Mr. Scott. Mr. Scott would help him dig this well, and then he would help dig Mr. Scott’s well. Ma and Laura and Mary had not seen Mr. and Mrs. Scott. Their house was hidden somewhere in a little valley on the prairie. Laura had seen the smoke rising up from it, and that was all.
At sunup next morning Mr. Scott came. He was short and stout. His hair was bleached by the sun and his skin was bright red and scaly. He did not tan; he peeled.
“It’s this blasted sun and wind,” he said. “Beg your pardon, ma’am, but it’s enough to make a saint use strong language. I might as well be a snake, the way I keep shedding my skin in this country.”
Laura liked him. Every morning, as soon as the dishes were washed and the beds made, she ran out to watch Mr. Scott and Pa working at the well. The sunshine was blistering, even the winds were hot, and the prairie grasses were turning yellow. Mary preferred to stay in the house and sew on her patchwork quilt. But Laura liked the fierce light and the sun and the wind, and she couldn’t stay away from the well. But she was not allowed to go near its edge.
Pa and Mr. Scott had made a stout windlass. It stood over the well, and two buckets hung from it on the ends of a rope. When the windlass was turned, one bucket went down into the well and the other bucket came up. In the morning Mr. Scott slid down the rope and dug. He filled the buckets with earth, almost as fast as Pa could haul them up and empty them. After dinner, Pa slid down the rope into the well, and Mr. Scott hauled up the buckets.
Every morning, before Pa would let Mr. Scott go down the rope, he set a candle in a bucket and lighted it and lowered it to the bottom. Once Laura peeped over the edge and she saw the candle brightly burning, far down in the dark hole in the ground.
Then Pa would say, “Seems to be all right,” and he would pull up the bucket and blow out the candle.
“That’s all foolishness, Ingalls,” Mr. Scott said. “The well was all right yesterday.”
“You can’t ever tell,” Pa replied. “Better be safe than sorry.”
Laura did not know what danger Pa was looking for by that candlelight. She did not ask, be- cause Pa and Mr. Scott were busy. She meant to ask later, but she forgot.
One morning Mr. Scott came while Pa was eating breakfast. They heard him shout: “Hi, Ingalls! It’s sunup. Let’s go!” Pa drank his coffee and went out.
The windlass began to creak, and Pa began to whistle. Laura and Mary were washing the dishes and Ma was making the big bed, when Pa’s whistling stopped. They heard him say, “Scott!” He shouted, “Scott! Scott!” Then he called: “Caroline! Come quick!”
Ma ran out of the house. Laura ran after her. “Scott’s fainted, or something, down there,”
Pa said. “I’ve got to go down after him.”
“Did you send down the candle?” Ma asked.
“No. I thought he had. I asked him if it was all right, and he said it was.” Pa cut the empty bucket off the rope and tied the rope firmly to the wind- lass.
“Charles, you can’t. You mustn’t,” Ma said. “Caroline, I’ve got to.”
“You can’t. Oh, Charles, no!”
“I’ll make it all right. I won’t breathe till I get out. We can’t let him die down there.”
Ma said, fiercely: “Laura, keep back!” So, Laura kept back. She stood against the house and shivered.
“No, no, Charles! I can’t let you,” Ma said. “Get on Patty and go for help.”
“There isn’t time.”
“Charles, if I can’t pull you up—if you keel over down there and I can’t pull you up—”
“Caroline, I’ve got to,” Pa said. He swung in- to the well. His head slid out of sight, down the rope.
Ma crouched and shaded her eyes, staring down into the well.
All over the prairie meadow larks were rising, singing, flying straight up into the sky. The wind was blowing warmer, but Laura was cold.
Suddenly Ma jumped up and seized the handle of the windlass. She tugged at it with all her might. The rope strained and the windlass creaked. Laura thought that Pa had keeled over, down in the dark bottom of the well, and Ma couldn’t pull him up. But the windlass turned a little, and then a little more.
Pa’s hand came up, holding to the rope. His other hand reached above it and took hold of the rope. Then Pa’s head came up. His arm held on to the windlass. Then somehow, he got to the ground and sat there.
The windlass whirled around and there was a thud deep down in the well. Pa struggled to get up and Ma said: “Sit still, Charles! Laura, get some water. Quick!”
Laura ran. She came hurrying back, lugging the pail of water. Pa and Ma were both turning the windlass. The rope slowly wound itself up, and the bucket came up out of the well, and tied to the bucket and the rope was Mr. Scott. His arms and his legs and his head hung and wobbled, his mouth was partly open, and his eyes half shut.
Pa tugged him onto the grass. Pa rolled him over and he flopped where he was rolled. Pa felt his wrist and listened at his chest and then Pa lay down beside him.
“He’s breathing,” Pa said. “He’ll be all right, in the air. I’m all right, Caroline. I’m plumb tuckered out, is all.”
“Well!” Ma scolded. “I should think you would be! Of the senseless performances! My goodness gracious! scaring a body to death, all for the want of a little reasonable care! My good- ness! I—” She covered her face with her apron and burst out crying.
That was a terrible day.
“I don’t want a well,” Ma sobbed. “It isn’t worth it. I won’t have you running such risks!”
Mr. Scott had breathed a kind of gas that stays deep in the ground. It stays at the bottom of wells because it is heavier than the air. It cannot be seen or smelled, but no one can breathe it very long and live. Pa had gone down into that gas to tie Mr. Scott to the rope, so that he could be pulled up out of the gas.
When Mr. Scott was able, he went home. Be- fore he went he said to Pa: “You were right about that candle business, Ingalls. I thought it was all foolishness and I would not bother with it, but I’ve found out my mistake.”
“Well,” said Pa, “where a light can’t live, I know I can’t. And I like to be safe when I can be. But all’s well that ends well.”
Pa rested awhile. He had breathed a little of the gas and he felt like resting. But that afternoon he raveled a thread from a tow sack, and he took a little powder from his powder-horn. He tied the powder in a piece of cloth with one end of the tow string in the powder.
“Come along, Laura,” he said, “and I’ll show you something.”
They went to the well. Pa lighted the end of the string and waited till the spark was crawling quickly along it. Then he dropped the little bundle into the well.
In a minute they heard a muffled bang! and a puff of smoke came out of the well. “That will bring the gas,” Pa said.
When the smoke was all gone, he let Laura light the candle and stand beside him while he let it down. All the way down in the dark hole the little candle kept on burning like a star.
So next day Pa and Mr. Scott went on digging the well. But they always sent the candle down every morning.
There began to be a little water in the well, but it was not enough. The buckets came up full of mud, and Pa and Mr. Scott worked every day in deeper mud. In the mornings when the candle went down, it lighted oozing-wet walls, and candlelight sparkled in rings over the water when the bucket struck bottom.
Pa stood knee deep in water and bailed out bucketfuls before he could begin digging in the mud.
One day when he was digging, a loud shout came echoing up. Ma ran out of the house and Laura ran to the well. “Pull, Scott! Pull!” Pa yelled. A swishing, gurgling sound echoed down there. Mr. Scott turned the windlass as fast as he could, and Pa came up climbing hand over hand up the rope.
“I’m blamed if that’s not quicksand!” Pa gasped, as he stepped onto the ground, muddy and dripping. “I was pushing down hard on the spade, when all of a sudden it went down, the whole length of the handle. And water came pouring up all around me.”
“A good six feet of this rope’s wet,” Mr. Scott said, winding it up. The bucket was full of water. “You showed sense in getting out of that hand over hand, Ingalls. That water came up faster than I could pull you out.” Then Mr. Scott slapped his thigh and shouted, “I’m blasted if you didn’t bring up the spade!”
Sure enough, Pa had saved his spade.
In a little while the well was almost full of water. A circle of blue sky lay not far down in the ground, and when Laura looked at it, a little girl’s head looked up at her. When she waved her hand, a hand on the water’s surface waved, too.
The water was clear and cold and good. Laura thought she had never tasted anything so good as those long, cold drinks of water. Pa hauled no more stale, warm water from the creek. He built a solid platform over the well, and a heavy cover for the hole that let the water-bucket through. Laura must never touch that cover. But whenever she or Mary was thirsty, Ma lifted the cover and drew a dripping bucket of cold, fresh water from that well.