CAMP ON THE HIGH PRAIRIE
Pa made camp as usual. First, he unhitched and unharnessed Pet and Patty, and he put them on their picket-lines. Picket-lines were long ropes fastened to iron pegs driven into the ground. The pegs were called picket-pins. When horses were on picket-lines they could eat all the grass that the long ropes would let them reach. But when Pet and Patty were put on them, the first thing they did was to lie down and roll back and forth and over. They rolled till the feeling of the harness was all gone from their backs.
While Pet and Patty were rolling, Pa pulled all the grass from a large, round space of ground. There was old, dead grass at the roots of the green grass, and Pa would take no chance of setting the prairie on fire. If fire once started in that dry under-grass, it would sweep that whole country bare and black. Pa said, “Best be on the safe side, it saves trouble in the end.”
When the space was clear of grass, Pa laid a handful of dry grass in its center. From the creek bottoms he brought an armful of twigs and dead wood. He laid small twigs and larger twigs and then the wood on the handful of dry grass, and he lighted the grass. The fire crackled merrily inside the ring of bare ground that it couldn’t get out of. Then Pa brought water from the creek, while Mary and Laura helped Ma get supper. Ma measured coffee beans into the coffee-mill and Mary ground them. Laura filled the coffee-pot with the water Pa brought, and Ma set the pot in the coals.
She set the iron bake-oven in the coals, too. While it heated, she mixed cornmeal and salt with water and patted it into little cakes. She greased the bake-oven with a pork-rind, laid the cornmeal cakes in it, and put on its iron cover. Then Pa raked more coals over the cover, while Ma sliced fat salt pork. She fried the slices in the iron spider. The spider had short legs to stand on in the coals, and that was why it was called a spider. If it had had no legs, it would have been only a frying pan.
The coffee boiled, the cakes baked, the meat fried, and they all smelled so good that Laura grew hungrier and hungrier.
Pa set the wagon-seat near the fire. He and Ma sat on it. Mary and Laura sat on the wagon tongue. Each of them had a tin plate, and a steel knife and a steel fork with white bone handles. Ma had a tin cup and Pa had a tin cup, and Baby Carrie had a little one of her own, but Mary and Laura had to share their tin cup. They drank water. They could not drink coffee until they grew up.
While they were eating supper, the purple shadows closed around the campfire. The vast prairie was dark and still. Only the wind moved stealthily through the grass, and the large, low stars hung glittering from the great sky.
The campfire was cozy in the big, chill dark- ness. The slices of pork were crisp and fat, the corncakes were good. In the dark beyond the wagon, Pet and Patty were eating, too. They bit off bites of grass with sharply crunching sounds.
“We’ll camp here a day or two,” said Pa. “Maybe we’ll stay here. There’s good land, timber in the bottoms, plenty of game—everything a man could want. What do you say, Caroline?”
“We might go farther and fare worse,” Ma replied.
“Anyway, I’ll look around tomorrow,” Pa said. “I’ll take my gun and get us some good fresh meat.”
He lighted his pipe with a hot coal and stretched out his legs comfortably. The warm, brown smell of tobacco smoke mixed with the warmth of the fire. Mary yawned, and slid off the wagon tongue to sit on the grass. Laura yawned, too. Ma quickly washed the tin plates, the tin cups, the knives, and forks. She washed the bake- oven and the spider and rinsed the dishcloth.
For an instant she was still, listening to the long, wailing howl from the dark prairie. They all knew what it was. But that sound always ran cold up Laura’s backbone and crinkled over the back of her head.
Ma shook the dishcloth, and then she walked into the dark and spread the cloth on the tall grass to dry. When she came back Pa said: “Wolves. Half a mile away, I’d judge. Well, where there’s deer there will be wolves. I wish—”
He didn’t say what he wished, but Laura knew. He wished Jack were there. When wolves howled in the Big Woods, Laura had always known that Jack would not let them hurt her. A lump swelled hard in her throat and her nose smarted. She winked fast and did not cry. That wolf, or perhaps another wolf, howled again.
“Bedtime for little girls!” Ma said, cheerfully. Mary got up and turned around so that Ma could unbutton her. But Laura jumped up and stood still. She saw something. Deep in the dark beyond the firelight, two green lights were shining near the ground. They were eyes.
Cold ran up Laura’s backbone, her scalp crinkled, her hair stood up. The green lights moved; one winked out, then the other winked out, then both shone steadily, coming nearer.
“Look, Pa, look!” Laura said. “A wolf!”
Pa did not seem to move quickly, but he did. In an instant he took his gun out of the wagon and was ready to fire at those green eyes. The eyes stopped coming. They were still in the dark, looking at him.
“It can’t be a wolf. Unless it’s a mad wolf,” Pa said. Ma lifted Mary into the wagon. “And it’s not that,” said Pa. “Listen to the horses.” Pet and Patty were still biting off bits of grass.
“A lynx?” said Ma.
“Or a coyote?” Pa picked up a stick of wood; he shouted and threw it. The green eyes went close to the ground, as if the animal crouched to spring. Pa held the gun ready. The creature did not move.
“Don’t, Charles,” Ma said. But Pa slowly walked toward those eyes. And slowly along the ground the eyes crawled toward him. Laura could see the animal in the edge of the dark. It was a tawny animal and brindled. Then Pa shouted and Laura screamed.
The next thing she knew she was trying to hug a jumping, panting, wriggling Jack, who lapped her face and hands with his warm wet tongue. She couldn’t hold him. He leaped and wriggled from her to Pa to Ma and back to her again.
“Well, I’m beat!” Pa said.
“So am I,” said Ma. “But did you have to wake the baby?” She rocked Carrie in her arms, hushing her.
Jack was perfectly well. But soon he lay down close to Laura and sighed a long sigh. His eyes were red with tiredness, and all the under part of him was caked with mud. Ma gave him a cornmeal cake and he licked it and wagged politely, but he could not eat. He was too tired.
“No telling how long he kept swimming,” Pa said. “Nor how far he was carried downstream before he landed.” And when at last he reached them, Laura called him a wolf, and Pa threatened to shoot him.
But Jack knew they didn’t mean it. Laura asked him, “You knew we didn’t mean it, didn’t you, Jack?” Jack wagged his stump of a tail; he knew.
It was past bedtime. Pa chained Pet and Patty to the feedbox at the back of the wagon and fed them their corn. Carrie slept again, and Ma helped Mary and Laura undress. She put their long nightgowns over their heads while they stuck their arms into the sleeves. They buttoned the neckbands themselves and tied the strings of their nightcaps beneath their chins. Under the wagon Jack wearily turned around three times and lay down to sleep.
In the wagon Laura and Mary said their prayers and crawled into their little bed. Ma kissed them good night.
On the other side of the canvas, Pet and Patty were eating their corn. When Patty whooshed in- to the feedbox, the whoosh was right at Laura’s ear. There were little scurrying sounds in the grass. In the trees by the creek an owl called, “Who-oo? who-oo?” Farther away another owl answered, “Oo-oo, oo-oo.” Far away on the prairie the wolves howled, and under the wagon Jack growled low in his chest. In the wagon everything was safe and snug.
Thickly in front of the open wagon-top hung the large, glittering stars. Pa could reach them, Laura thought. She wished he would pick the largest one from the thread on which it hung from the sky and give it to her. She was wide awake, she was not sleepy at all, but suddenly she was very much surprised. The large star winked at her!
Then she was waking up, next morning.