THE OLD CRAB AND THE BLOODSUCKERS
When Laura jumped out of bed in the morning, her bare feet landed on a smooth, wooden floor. She smelled the piny smell of boards. Overhead was the slanting roof of yellow-bright shingles and the rafters holding them up.
From the eastern window she saw the little path going down the grassy knoll. She saw a square corner of the pale-green, silky wheat-field, and beyond it the gray-green oats. Far, far away was the edge of the great, green earth, and a silver streak of the sun’s edge peeping over it. The willow creek and the dugout seemed far away and long ago.
Suddenly, warm yellow sunshine poured over her in her nightgown. On the clean wood-yellow floor the panes of the window were sunshine, the little bars between them were shadow, and Laura’s head in the nightcap, her braids, and her hands with all the separate fingers when she held them up, were darker, solid shadow.
Downstairs the lids clattered on the new, fine cookstove. Ma’s voice came up through the square hole where the ladder went down. “Mary! Laura! Time to get up, girls!”
That was the way a new day began in the new house.
But while they were eating breakfast in the large, airy downstairs Laura wanted to see the creek. She asked Pa if she might go back to play there.
“No, Laura,” Pa said. “I don’t want you to go back to that creek, where the dark, deep holes are. But when your work is done, you and Mary run along that path that Nelson made coming to work and see what you find!”
They hurried to do the work. And in the lean- to they found a boughten broom! There seemed no end to the wonders in this house. This broom had a long, straight, perfectly round, smooth handle. The broom part was made of thousands of thin, stiff, greeny-yellow bristles. Ma said they were broom straws. They were cut absolutely straight across the bottom, and they curved at the top into flat, firm shoulders. Stitches of red string held them tight. This broom was nothing like the round, willow-bough brooms that Pa made. It seemed too fine to sweep with. And it glided over the smooth floor like magic.
Still, Laura and Mary could hardly wait to follow that path. They worked fast; they put away the broom, and they started. Laura was in such a hurry that she walked nicely only a few steps, then she began to run. Her bonnet slid back and hung by its strings around her neck and her bare feet flew over the dim, grassy path, down the knoll, across a bit of level land, up a low slope. And there was the creek!
Laura was astonished. This was such a different-looking creek, too, so gentle in the sun between its low, grassy banks.
The path stopped in the shade of a great willow tree. A footbridge went on across the water to level, sunny grass. Then the dim path wandered on until it curved around a tiny hill and went out of sight.
Laura thought that little path went on forever wandering on sunny grass and crossing friendly streams and always going around low hills to see what was on the other side. She knew it really must go to Mr. Nelson’s house, but it was a little path that did not want to stop anywhere. It wanted always to be going on.
The creek came flowing out of a thicket of plum trees. The low trees grew thickly on both sides of the narrow water, and their boughs almost touched above it. The water was dark in their shade.
Then it spread out and ran wide and shallow, dimpling and splashing over sand and gravel. It narrowed to slide under the footbridge and ran on gurgling till it stopped in a large pool. The pool was glassy-still by a clump of willows.
Laura waited till Mary came. Then they went wading in the shallow water over the sparkling sand and pebbles. Tiny minnows swam in swarms around their toes. When they stood still the minnows nibbled at their feet. Suddenly Laura saw a strange creature in the water.
He was almost as long as Laura’s foot. He was sleek and greeny-brown. In front he had two long arms that ended in big, flat, pincer-claws. Along his sides were short legs, and his strong tail was flat and scaly, with a thin forked fin at the end. Bristles stuck out of his nose, and his eyes were round and bulging.
“What’s that!” Mary said. She was scared.
Laura did not go any nearer to him. She bent down cautiously to see him, and suddenly he was not there. Faster than a water-bug, he shot back- ward, and a little curl of muddy water came out from under a flat rock where he had gone.
In a minute he thrust out a claw and snapped it. Then he looked out.
When Laura waded nearer, he flipped back- ward under the stone. But when she splashed water at his stone, he ran out, snapping his claws, trying to catch her bare toes. Then Laura and Mary ran screaming and splashing away from his home.
They teased him with a long stick. His big claw snapped that stick right in two. They got a bigger stick, and he clamped his claw and did not let go till Laura lifted him out of the water. His eyes glared and his tail curled under him, and his other claw was snapping. Then he let go and dropped and flipped under his stone again.
He always came out, fighting mad, when they splashed at his stone. And they always ran screaming away from his frightful claws.
They sat for a while on the footbridge in the shade of the big willow. They listened to the water running and watched its sparkles. Then they went wading again, all the way to the plum thick- et.
Mary would not go into the dark water under the plum trees. The creek bottom was muddy there and she did not like to wade in mud. So, she sat on the bank while Laura waded into the thick- et.
The water was still there, with old leaves floating on its edges. The mud squelched between Laura’s toes and came up in clouds till she could not see the bottom. The air smelled old and musty. So, Laura turned around and waded back into the clean water and the sunshine.
There seemed to be some blobs of mud on her legs and feet. She splashed the clear water over them to wash them off. But they did not wash off. Her hand could not scrape them off.
They were the color of mud; they were soft like mud. But they stuck as tight as Laura’s skin. Laura screamed. She stood there screaming,
“Oh, Mary, Mary! Come! Quick!”
Mary came, but she would not touch those horrible things. She said they were worms. Worms made her sick. Laura felt sicker than Mary, but it was more awful to have those things on her than it was to touch them. She took hold of one, she dug her fingernails into it, and pulled.
The thing stretched out long, and longer, and longer, and still it hung on.
“Oh don’t! Oh don’t! Oh, you’ll pull it in two!” Mary said. But Laura pulled it out longer, till it came off. Blood trickled down her leg from the place where it had been.
One by one, Laura pulled those things off. A little trickle of blood ran down where each one let go.
Laura did not feel like playing any more. She washed her hands and her legs in the clean water, and she went to the house with Mary.
It was dinner-time and Pa was there. Laura told him about those mud-brown things without eyes or head or legs, that had fastened to her skin in the creek.
Ma said they were leeches and that doctors put them on sick people. But Pa called them bloodsuckers. He said they lived in the mud, in dark, still places in the water.
“I don’t like them,” Laura said.
“Then stay out of the mud, flutterbudget,” said Pa. “If you don’t want trouble, don’t go looking for it.”
Ma said, “Well, you girls won’t have much time for playing in the creek, anyway. Now we’re nicely settled and only two and a half miles from town, you can go to school.”
Laura could not say a word. Neither could Mary. They looked at each other and thought, “School?”