CROSSING THE CREEK
Pet and Patty began to trot briskly, as if they were glad, too. Laura held tight to the wagon bow and stood up in the jolting wagon. Beyond Pa’s shoulder and far across the waves of green grass she could see the trees, and they were not like any trees she had seen before. They were no taller than bushes.
“Whoa!” said Pa, suddenly. “Now which way?” he muttered to himself.
The road divided here, and you could not tell which was the more-traveled way. Both of them were faint wheel tracks in the grass. One went to- ward the west, the other sloped downward a little, toward the south. Both soon vanished in the tall, blowing grass.
“Better go downhill, I guess,” Pa decided. “The creek’s down in the bottoms. Must be this is the way to the ford.” He turned Pet and Patty to- ward the south.
The road went down and up and down and up again, over gently curving land. The trees were nearer now, but they were no taller. Then Laura gasped and clutched the wagon bow, for almost under Pet’s and Patty’s noses there was no more blowing grass, there was no land at all. She looked beyond the edge of the land and across the tops of trees.
The road turned there. For a little way it went along the cliff’s top, then it went sharply down- ward. Pa put on the brakes; Pet and Patty braced themselves backward and almost sat down. The wagon wheels slid onward, little by little lowering the wagon farther down the steep slope into the ground. Jagged cliffs of bare red earth rose up on both sides of the wagon. Grass waved along their tops, but nothing grew on their seamed, straight-up-and-down sides. They were hot, and heat came from them against Laura’s face. The wind was still blowing overhead, but it did not blow down into this deep crack in the ground. The stillness seemed strange and empty.
Then once more the wagon was level. The narrow crack down which it had come opened into the bottom lands. Here grew the tall trees whose tops Laura had seen from the prairie above. Shady groves were scattered on the rolling meadows, and in the groves, deer were lying down, hardly to be seen among the shadows. The deer turned their heads toward the wagon, and curious fawns stood up to see it more clearly.
Laura was surprised because she did not see the creek. But the bottom lands were wide. Down here, below the prairie, there were gentle hills and open sunny places. The air was still and hot. Under the wagon wheels the ground was soft. In the sunny open spaces the grass grew thin, and deer had cropped it short.
For a while, the high, bare cliffs of red earth stood up behind the wagon. But they were almost hidden behind hills and trees when Pet and Patty stopped to drink from the creek.
The rushing sound of the water filled the still air. All along the creek banks the trees hung over it and made it dark with shadows. In the middle it ran swiftly, sparkling silver and blue.
“This creek’s pretty high,” Pa said. “But I guess we can make it all right. You can see this is a ford, by the old wheel ruts. What do you say, Caroline?”
“Whatever you say, Charles,” Ma answered.
Pet and Patty lifted their wet noses. They pricked their ears forward, looking at the creek; then they pricked them backward to hear what Pa would say. They sighed and laid their soft noses together to whisper to each other. A little way up- stream, Jack was lapping the water with his red tongue.
“I’ll tie down the wagon-cover,” Pa said. He climbed down from the seat, unrolled the canvas sides, and tied them firmly to the wagon box. Then he pulled the rope at the back, so that the canvas puckered together in the middle, leaving only a tiny round hole, too small to see through.
Mary huddled down on the bed. She did not like fords; she was afraid of the rushing water. But Laura was excited; she liked the splashing. Pa climbed to the seat, saying, “They may have to swim, out there in the middle. But we’ll make it all right, Caroline.”
Laura thought of Jack and said, “I wish Jack could ride in the wagon, Pa.”
Pa did not answer. He gathered the reins tightly in his hands. Ma said, “Jack can swim, Laura. He will be all right.”
The wagon went forward softly in mud. Water began to splash against the wheels. The splashing grew louder. The wagon shook as the noisy water struck at it. Then all at once the wagon lifted and balanced and swayed. It was a lovely feeling.
The noise stopped, and Ma said, sharply, “Lie down, girls!”
Quick as a flash, Mary and Laura dropped flat on the bed. When Ma spoke like that, they did as they were told. Ma’s arm pulled a smothering blanket over them, heads, and all.
“Be still, just as you are. Don’t move!” she said.
Mary did not move; she was trembling and still. But Laura could not help wriggling a little bit. She did so want to see what was happening. She could feel the wagon swaying and turning; the splashing was noisy again, and again it died away. Then Pa’s voice frightened Laura. It said, “Take them, Caroline!”
The wagon lurched; there was a sudden heavy splash beside it. Laura sat straight up and clawed the blanket from her head.
Pa was gone. Ma sat alone, holding tight to the reins with both hands. Mary hid her face in the blanket again, but Laura rose up farther. She couldn’t see the creek bank. She couldn’t see any- thing in front of the wagon but water rushing at it. And in the water, three heads; Pet’s head and Patty’s head and Pa’s small, wet head. Pa’s fist in the water was holding tight to Pet’s bridle.
Laura could faintly hear Pa’s voice through the rushing of the water. It sounded calm and cheerful, but she couldn’t hear what he said. He was talking to the horses. Ma’s face was white and scared.
“Lie down, Laura,” Ma said.
Laura lay down. She felt cold and sick. Her eyes were shut tight, but she could still see the terrible water and Pa’s brown beard drowning in it.
For a long, long time the wagon swayed and swung, and Mary cried without making a sound, and Laura’s stomach felt sicker and sicker. Then the front wheels struck and grated, and Pa shouted. The whole wagon jerked and jolted and tipped backward, but the wheels were turning on the ground. Laura was up again, holding to the seat; she saw Pet’s and Patty’s scrambling wet backs climbing a steep bank, and Pa running be- side them, shouting, “Hi, Patty! Hi, Pet! Get up! Get up! Whoopsy-daisy! Good girls!”
At the top of the bank they stood still, panting and dripping. And the wagon stood still, safely out of that creek.
Pa stood panting and dripping, too, and Ma said, “Oh, Charles!”
“There, there, Caroline,” said Pa. “We’re all safe, thanks to a good tight wagon-box well fastened to the running-gear. I never saw a creek rise so fast in my life. Pet and Patty are good swimmers, but I guess they wouldn’t have made it if I hadn’t helped them.”
If Pa had not known what to do, or if Ma had been too frightened to drive, or if Laura and Mary had been naughty and bothered her, then they would all have been lost. The river would have rolled them over and over and carried them away and drowned them, and nobody would ever have known what became of them. For weeks, perhaps, no other person would come along that road.
“Well,” said Pa, “all’s well that ends well,” and Ma said, “Charles, you’re wet to the skin.”
Before Pa could answer, Laura cried, “Oh, where’s Jack?”
They had forgotten Jack. They had left him on the other side of that dreadful water and now they could not see him anywhere. He must have tried to swim after them, but they could not see him struggling in the water now.
Laura swallowed hard, to keep from crying. She knew it was shameful to cry, but there was crying inside her. All the long way from Wisconsin poor Jack had followed them so patiently and faithfully, and now they had left him to drown. He was so tired, and they might have taken him into the wagon. He had stood on the bank and seen the wagon going away from him, as if they didn’t care for him at all. And he would never know how much they wanted him.
Pa said he wouldn’t have done such a thing to Jack, not for a million dollars. If he’d known how that creek would rise when they were in mid- stream, he would never have let Jack try to swim it. “But that can’t be helped now,” he said.
He went far up and down the creek bank, looking for Jack, calling him and whistling for him.
It was no use. Jack was gone.
At last there was nothing to do but to go on. Pet and Patty were rested. Pa’s clothes had dried on him while he searched for Jack. He took the reins again, and drove uphill, out of the river bottoms.
Laura looked back all the way. She knew she wouldn’t see Jack again, but she wanted to. She didn’t see anything but low curves of land coming between the wagon and the creek, and beyond the creek those strange cliffs of red earth rose up again.
Then other bluffs just like them stood up in front of the wagon. Faint wheel tracks went into a crack between those earthen walls. Pet and Patty climbed till the crack became a small grassy valley. And the valley widened out to the High Prairie once more.
No road, not even the faintest trace of wheels or of a rider’s passing, could be seen anywhere. That prairie looked as if no human eye had ever seen it before. Only the tall wild grass covered the endless empty land and a great empty sky arched over it. Far away the sun’s edge touched the rim of the earth. The sun was enormous, and it was throbbing and pulsing with light. All around the sky’s edge ran a pale pink glow, and above the pink was yellow, and above that blue. Above the blue the sky was no color at all. Purple shadows were gathering over the land, and the wind was mourning.
Pa stopped the mustangs. He and Ma got out of the wagon to make camp, and Mary and Laura climbed down to the ground, too.
“Oh, Ma,” Laura begged, “Jack has gone to heaven, hasn’t he? He was such a good dog; can’t he go to heaven?”
Ma did not know what to answer, but Pa said: “Yes, Laura, he can. God that doesn’t forget the sparrows won’t leave a good dog like Jack out in the cold.”
Laura felt only a little better. She was not happy. Pa did not whistle about his work as usual, and after a while he said, “And what we’ll do in a wild country without a good watchdog I don’t know.”