THE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE
Laura and Mary were up next morning earlier than the sun. They ate their breakfast of cornmeal mush with prairie-hen gravy and hurried to help Ma wash the dishes. Pa was loading everything else into the wagon and hitching up Pet and Patty.
When the sun rose, they were driving on across the prairie. There was no road now. Pet and Patty waded through the grasses, and the wagon left be- hind it only the tracks of its wheels.
Before noon, Pa said, “Whoa!” The wagon stopped.
“Here we are, Caroline!” he said. “Right here we’ll build our house.”
Laura and Mary scrambled over the feedbox and dropped to the ground in a hurry. All around them there was nothing, but grassy prairie spreading to the edge of the sky.
Quite near them, to the north, the creek bot- toms lay below the prairie. Some darker green treetops showed, and beyond them bits of the rim of earthen bluffs held up the prairie’s grasses. Far away to the east, a broken line of different greens lay on the prairie, and Pa said that was the river.
“That’s the Verdigris River,” he said, pointing it out to Ma.
Right away, he and Ma began to unload the wagon. They took out everything and piled it on the ground. Then they took off the wagon-cover and put it over the pile. Then they took even the wagon-box off, while Laura and Mary and Jack watched.
The wagon had been home for a long time. Now there was nothing left of it but the four wheels and the part that connected them. Pet and Patty were still hitched to the tongue. Pa took a bucket and his ax, and sitting on this skeleton wagon, he drove away. He drove right down into the prairie, out of sight.
“Where’s Pa going?” Laura asked, and Ma said, “He’s going to get a load of logs from the creek bottoms.”
It was strange and frightening to be left without the wagon on the High Prairie. The land and the sky seemed too large, and Laura felt small. She wanted to hide and be still in the tall grass, like a little prairie chicken. But she didn’t. She helped Ma, while Mary sat on the grass and minded Baby Carrie.
First Laura and Ma made the beds, under the wagon-cover tent. Then Ma arranged the boxes and bundles, while Laura pulled all the grass from a space in front of the tent. That made a bare place for the fire. They couldn’t start the fire until Pa brought wood.
There was nothing more to do, so Laura explored a little. She did not go far from the tent. But she found a queer little kind of tunnel in the grass. You’d never notice it if you looked across the waving grass tops. But when you came to it, there it was—a narrow, straight, hard path down between the grass stems. It went out into the end- less prairie.
Laura went along it a little way. She went slowly, and more slowly, and then she stood still and felt queer. So, she turned around and came back quickly. When she looked over her shoulder, there wasn’t anything there. But she hurried.
When Pa came riding back on a load of logs, Laura told him about that path. He said he had seen it yesterday. “It’s some old trail,” he said.
That night by the fire Laura asked again when she would see a papoose, but Pa didn’t know. He said you never saw Indians unless they wanted you to see them. He had seen Indians when he was a boy in New York State, but Laura never had. She knew they were wild men with red skins, and their hatchets were called tomahawks.
Pa knew all about wild animals, so he must know about wild men, too. Laura thought he would show her a papoose someday, just as he had shown her fawns, and little bears, and wolves.
For days Pa hauled logs. He made two piles of them, one for the house and one for the stable. There began to be a road where he drove back and forth to the creek bottoms. And at night on their picket-lines Pet and Patty ate the grass, till it was short and stubby all around the log-piles.
Pa began the house first. He paced off the size of it on the ground, then with his spade he dug a shallow little hollow along two sides of that space. Into these hollows he rolled two of the biggest logs. They were sound, strong logs, because they must hold up the house. They were called sills.
Then Pa chose two more strong, big logs, and he rolled these logs onto the ends of the sills, so that they made a hollow square. Now with his ax he cut a wide, deep notch near each end of these logs. He cut these notches out of the top of the log, but with his eye he measured the sills, and he cut the notches so that they would fit around half of the sill.
When the notches were cut, he rolled the log over. And the notches fitted down over the sill.
That finished the foundation of the house. It was one log high. The sills were half buried in the ground, and the logs on their ends fitted snugly to the ground. At the corners, where they crossed, the notches let them fit together so that they were no thicker than one log. And the two ends stuck out beyond the notches.
Next day Pa began the walls. From each side he rolled up a log, and he notched its ends so that it fitted down over the end logs. Then he rolled up logs from the ends and notched them so that they fitted down over the side logs. Now the whole house was two logs high.
The logs fitted solidly together at the corners. But no log is ever perfectly straight, and all logs are bigger at one end than at the other end, so cracks were left between them all along the walls. But that did not matter, because Pa would chink those cracks.
All by himself, he built the house three logs high. Then Ma helped him. Pa lifted one end of a log onto the wall, then Ma held it while he lifted the other end. He stood up on the wall to cut the notches, and Ma helped roll and hold the log while he settled it where it should be to make the corner perfectly square.
So, log by log, they built the walls higher, till they were pretty high, and Laura couldn’t get over them anymore. She was tired of watching Pa and Ma build the house, and she went into the tall grass, exploring. Suddenly she heard Pa shout, “Let go! Get out from under!”
The big, heavy log was sliding. Pa was trying to hold up his end of it, to keep it from falling on Ma. He couldn’t. It crashed down. Ma huddled on the ground.
She got to Ma almost as quickly as Pa did. Pa knelt down and called Ma in a dreadful voice, and Ma gasped, “I’m all right.”
The log was on her foot. Pa lifted the log and Ma pulled her foot from under it. Pa felt her to see if any bones were broken.
“Move your arms,” he said. “Is your back hurt? Can you turn your head?” Ma moved her arms and turned her head.
“Thank God,” Pa said. He helped Ma to sit up. She said again, “I’m all right, Charles. It’s just my foot.”
Quickly Pa took off her shoe and stocking. He felt her foot all over, moving the ankle and the instep and every toe. “Does it hurt much?” he asked.
Ma’s face was gray, and her mouth was a tight line. “Not much,” she said.
“No bones broken,” said Pa. “It’s only a bad sprain.”
Ma said, cheerfully: “Well, a sprain soon mended. Don’t be so upset, Charles.”
“I blame myself,” said Pa. “I should have used skids.”
He helped Ma to the tent. He built up the fire and heated water. When the water was as hot as Ma could bear, she put her swollen foot into it.
It was Providential that the foot was not crushed. Only a little hollow in the ground had saved it.
Pa kept pouring more hot water into the tub in which Ma’s foot was soaking. Her foot was red from the heat and the puffed ankle began to turn purple. Ma took her foot out of the water and bound strips of rag tightly around and around the ankle. “I can manage,” she said.
She could not get her shoe on. But she tied more rags around her foot, and she hobbled on it. She got supper as usual, only a little more slowly.
But Pa said she could not help to build the house until her ankle was well.
He hewed out skids. These were long, flat slabs. One end rested on the ground, and the other end rested on the log wall. He was not going to lift any more logs; he and Ma would roll them up these skids.
But Ma’s ankle was not well yet. When she unwrapped it in the evenings, to soak it in hot water, it was all purple and black and green and yellow. The house must wait.
Then one afternoon Pa came merrily whist- ling up the creek road. They had not expected him home from hunting so soon. As soon as he saw them, he shouted, “Good news!”
They had a neighbor, only two miles away on the other side of the creek. Pa had met him in the woods. They were going to trade work and that would make it easier for everyone.
“He’s a bachelor,” said Pa, “and he says he can get along without a house better than you and the girls can. So, he’s going to help me first. Thenas soon as he gets his logs ready, I’ll go over and help him.”
They need not wait any longer for the house, and Ma need not do any more work on it.
“How do you like that, Caroline?” Pa asked, joyfully; and Ma said, “That’s good, Charles. I’m glad.”
Early next morning Mr. Edwards came. He was lean and tall and brown. He bowed to Ma and called her “Ma’am,” politely. But he told Laura that he was a wildcat from Tennessee. He wore tall boots and a ragged jumper, and a coonskin cap, and he could spit tobacco juice farther than Laura had ever imagined that anyone could spit tobacco juice. He could hit anything he spit at, too. Laura tried and tried, but she could never spit so far or so well as Mr. Edwards could.
He was a fast worker. In one day, he and Pa built those walls as high as Pa wanted them. They joked and sang while they worked, and their axes made the chips fly.
On top of the walls they set up a skeleton roof of slender poles. Then in the south wall they cut a tall hole for a door, and in the west wall and the east wall they cut square holes for windows.
Laura couldn’t wait to see the inside of the house. As soon as the tall hole was cut, she ran inside. Everything was striped there. Stripes of sun- shine came through the cracks in the west wall, and stripes of shadow came down from the poles overhead. The stripes of shade and sunshine were all across Laura’s hands and her arms and her bare feet. And through the cracks between the logs she could see stripes of prairie. The sweet smell of the prairie mixed with the sweet smell of cut wood.
Then, as Pa cut away the logs to make the window hole in the west wall, chunks of sunshine came in. When he finished, a big block of sun- shine lay on the ground inside the house.
Around the door hole and the window holes, Pa and Mr. Edwards nailed thin slabs against the cut ends of the logs. And the house was finished, all but the roof. The walls were solid, and the house was large, much larger than the tent. It was a nice house.
Mr. Edwards said he would go home now, but Pa and Ma said he must stay to supper. Ma had cooked an especially good supper because they had company.
There was stewed jack rabbit with white flour dumplings and plenty of gravy. There was a steaming-hot, thick cornbread flavored with ba- con fat. There was molasses to eat on the corn- bread, but because this was a company supper, they did not sweeten their coffee with molasses. Ma brought out the little paper sack of pale- brown store sugar.
Mr. Edwards said he surely did appreciate that supper.
Then Pa brought out his fiddle.
Mr. Edwards stretched out on the ground, to listen. But first Pa played for Laura and Mary. He played their very favorite song, and he sang it. Laura liked it best of all because Pa’s voice went down deep, deep, deeper in that song.
“Oh, I am a Gypsy King!
I come and go as I please!
I pull my old nightcap down And take the world at my ease.”
Then his voice went deep, deep down, deeper than the very oldest bullfrog’s.
“Oh, I am a Gypsy KING!”
They all laughed. Laura could hardly stop laughing.
“Oh, sing it again, Pa! Sing it again!” she cried before she remembered that children must be seen and not heard. Then she was quiet.
Pa went on playing, and everything began to dance. Mr. Edwards rose up on one elbow, then he sat up, then he jumped up and he danced. He danced like a jumping-jack in the moonlight, while Pa’s fiddle kept on rollicking and his foot kept tapping the ground, and Laura’s hands and Mary’s hands were clapping together and their feet were patting, too.
“You’re the fiddlin’est fool that ever I see!” Mr. Edwards shouted admiringly to Pa. He didn’t stop dancing; Pa didn’t stop playing. He played “Money Musk” and “Arkansas Traveler,” “Irish Washerwoman” and the “Devil’s Hornpipe.”
Baby Carrie couldn’t sleep in all that music. She sat up in Ma’s lap, looking at Mr. Edwards with round eyes, and clapping her little hands and laughing.
Even the firelight danced, and all around its edge the shadows were dancing. Only the new house stood still and quiet in the dark, till the big moon rose and shone on its gray walls and the yellow chips around it.
Mr. Edwards said he must go. It was a long way back to his camp on the other side of the woods and the creek. He took his gun and said good night to Laura and Mary and Ma. He said a bachelor got mighty lonesome, and he surely had enjoyed this evening of home life.
“Play, Ingalls!” he said. “Play me down the road!” So, while he went down the creek road and out of sight, Pa played, and Pa and Mr. Edwards and Laura sang with all their might.
“Old Dan Tucker was a fine old man;
He washed his face in the frying-pan,
He combed his hair with a wagon wheel,
And died of the toothache in his heel.
“Git out of the way for old Dan Tucker!
He’s too late to get his sup- per!
Supper’s over and the dishes washed,
Nothing left but a piece of squash!
“Old Dan Tucker went to town,
Riding a mule, leading a houn’ . . .”
Far over the prairie rang Pa’s big voice and Laura’s little one, and faintly from the creek bot- toms came a last whoop from Mr. Edwards.
“Git out of the way for old Dan Tucker!
He’s too late to get his sup- per!”
When Pa’s fiddle stopped, they could not hear Mr. Edwards anymore. Only the wind rustled in the prairie grasses. The big, yellow moon was sailing high overhead. The sky was so full of light that not one star twinkled in it, and all the prairie was a shadowy mellowness.
Then from the woods by the creek a nightingale began to sing.
Everything was silent, listening to the nightingale’s song. The bird sang on and on. The cool wind moved over the prairie and the song was round and clear above the grasses’ whispering. The sky was like a bowl of light overturned on the flat black land.
The song ended. No one moved or spoke. Laura and Mary were quiet, Pa and Ma sat motionless. Only the wind stirred, and the grasses sighed. Then Pa lifted the fiddle to his shoulder and softly touched the bow to the strings. A few notes fell like clear drops of water into the still- ness. A pause, and Pa began to play the nightingale’s song. The nightingale answered him. The nightingale began to sing again. It was singing with Pa’s fiddle.
When the strings were silent, the nightingale went on singing. When it paused, the fiddle called to it and it sang again. The bird and the fiddle were talking to each other in the cool night under the moon.
The walls are up,” Pa was saying to Ma in the morning. “We’d better move in and get along as best we can without a floor or other fixings. I must build the stable as fast as I can, so Pet and Patty can be inside walls, too. Last night I could hear wolves howling from every direction, seemed like, and close, too.”
“Well, you have your gun, so I’ll not worry,” said Ma.
“Yes, and there’s Jack. But I’ll feel easier in my mind when you and the girls have good solid walls around you.”
“Why do you suppose we haven’t seen any Indians?” Ma asked.
“Oh, I don’t know,” Pa replied, carelessly. “I’ve seen their camping-places among the bluffs. They’re away on a hunting-trip now, I guess.”
Then Ma called: “Girls! The sun’s up!” and Laura and Mary scrambled out of bed and into their clothes.
“Eat your breakfasts quickly,” Ma said, put- ting the last of the rabbit stew on their tin plates. “We’re moving into the house today, and all the chips must be out.”
So, they ate quickly, and hurried to carry all the chips out of the house. They ran back and forth as fast as they could, gathering their skirts full of chips and dumping them in a pile near the fire. But there were still chips on the ground in- side the house when Ma began to sweep it with her willow-bough broom.
Ma limped, though her sprained ankle was beginning to get well. But she soon swept the earthen floor, and then Mary and Laura began to help her carry things into the house.
Pa was on top of the walls, stretching the can- vas wagon-top over the skeleton roof of saplings. The canvas billowed in the wind, Pa’s beard blew wildly, and his hair stood up from his head as if it were trying to pull itself out. He held on to the canvas and fought it. Once it jerked so hard that Laura thought he must let go or sail into the air like a bird. But he held tight to the wall with his legs, and tight to the canvas with his hands, and he tied it down.
“There!” he said to it. “Stay where you are, and be—”
“Charles!” Ma said. She stood with her arms full of quilts and looked up at him reprovingly.
“—and be good,” Pa said to the canvas. “Why, Caroline, what did you think I was going to say?”
“Oh, Charles!” Ma said. “You scalawag!”
Pa came right down the corner of the house. The ends of the logs stuck out, and he used them for a ladder. He ran his hand through his hair so that it stood up even more wildly, and Ma burst out laughing. Then he hugged her, quilts, and all.
Then they looked at the house and Pa said, “How’s that for a snug house!”
“I’ll be thankful to get into it,” said Ma.
There was no door and there were no windows. There was no floor except the ground and no roof except the canvas. But that house had good stout walls, and it would stay where it was. It was not like the wagon that every morning went on to some other place.
“We’re going to do well here, Caroline,” Pa said. “This is a great country. This is a country I’ll be contented to stay in the rest of my life.”
“Even when it’s settled up?” Ma asked. “Even when it’s settled up. No matter how
thick and close the neighbors get, this country will never feel crowded. Look at that sky!”
Laura knew what he meant. She liked this place, too. She liked the enormous sky and the winds, and the land that you couldn’t see to the end of. Everything was so free and big and splendid.
By dinner time the house was in order. The beds were neatly made on the floor. The wagon- seat and two ends of logs were brought in for chairs. Pa’s gun lay on its pegs above the door- way. Boxes and bundles were neat against the walls. It was a pleasant house. A soft light came through the canvas roof, wind and sunshine came through the window holes, and every crack in the four walls glowed a little because the sun was overhead.
Only the campfire stayed where it had been. Pa said he would build a fireplace in the house as soon as he could. He would hew out slabs to make a solid roof, too, before winter came. He would lay a puncheon floor and make beds and tables and chairs. But all that work must wait un- til he had helped Mr. Edwards and had built a stable for Pet and Patty.
“When that’s all done,” said Ma, “I want a clothes-line.”
Pa laughed. “Yes, and I want a well.”
After dinner he hitched Pet and Patty to the wagon, and he hauled a tubful of water from the creek so that Ma could do the washing. “You could wash clothes in the creek,” he told her. “Indian women do.”
“If we wanted to live like Indians, you could make a hole in the roof to let the smoke out, and we’d have the fire on the floor inside the house,” said Ma. “Indians do.”
That afternoon she washed the clothes in the tub and spread them on the grass to dry.
After supper they sat for a while by the campfire. That night they would sleep in the house; they would never sleep beside a campfire again. Pa and Ma talked about the folks in Wisconsin, and Ma wished she could send them a letter. But Independence was forty miles away, and no letter could go until Pa made the long trip to the post- office there.
Back in the Big Woods so far away, Grandpa and Grandma and the aunts and uncles and cous- ins did not know where Pa and Ma and Laura and Mary and Baby Carrie were. And sitting there by the campfire, no one knew what might have happened in the Big Woods. There was no way to find out.
“Well, it’s bedtime,” Ma said. Baby Carrie was already asleep. Ma carried her into the house and undressed her, while Mary unbuttoned Laura’s dress and petticoat waist down the back, and Pa hung a quilt over the door hole. The quilt would be better than no door. Then Pa went out to bring Pet and Patty close to the house.
He called back, softly, “Come out here, Caroline, and look at the moon.”
Mary and Laura lay in their little bed on the ground inside the new house and watched the sky through the window hole to the east. The edge of the big, bright moon glittered at the bot- tom of the window space, and Laura sat up. She looked at the great moon, sailing silently higher in the clear sky.
Its light made silvery lines in all the cracks on that side of the house. The light poured through the window hole and made a square of soft radiance on the floor. It was so bright that Laura saw Ma plainly when she lifted the quilt at the door and came in.
Then Laura very quickly lay down, before Ma saw her naughtily sitting up in bed.
She heard Pet and Patty whinnying softly to Pa. Then the faint thuds of their feet came into her ear from the floor. Pet and Patty and Pa were coming toward the house, and Laura heard Pa singing:
“Sail on, silver moon!
Shed your radiance o’er the sky—”
His voice was like a part of the night and the moonlight and the stillness of the prairie. He came to the doorway, singing:
“By the pale, silver light of the moon—”
Softly Ma said, “Hush, Charles. You’ll wake the children.”
So, Pa came in without a sound. Jack followed at his heels and lay down across the doorway. Now they were all inside the stout walls of their new home, and they were snug and safe. Drowsily Laura heard a long wolf-howl rising from far away on the prairie, but only a little shiver went up her backbone and she fell asleep.