THE HOUSE IN THE GROUND
Early in the morning Pa helped Mr. Hanson move the wagon bows and cover onto Mr. Hanson’s wagon. Then they brought everything out of the dugout house, up the bank, and they packed it in the covered wagon.
Mr. Hanson offered to help move the things from Pa’s wagon into the dugout, but Ma said, “No, Charles. We will move in when you come back.”
So, Pa hitched Pet and Patty to Mr. Hanson’s wagon. He tied Bunny behind it, and he rode away to town with Mr. Hanson.
Laura watched Pet and Patty and Bunny going away. Her eyes smarted and her throat ached. Pet and Patty arched their necks, and their manes and tails rippled in the wind. They went away gaily, not knowing that they were never coming back.
The creek was singing to itself down among the willows, and the soft wind bent the grasses over the top of the bank. The sun was shining and all around the wagon was clean, wide space to be explored.
The first thing was to untie Jack from the wagon wheel. Mr. Hanson’s two dogs had gone away, and Jack could run about as he pleased. He was so glad that he jumped up against Laura to lick her face and made her sit down hard. Then he ran down the path and Laura ran after him.
Ma picked up Carrie and said: “Come, Mary.
Let’s go look at the dugout.”
Jack got to the door first. It was open. He looked in, and then he waited for Laura.
All around that door green vines were growing out of the grassy bank, and they were full of flowers. Red and blue and purple and rosy-pink and white and striped flowers all had their throats wide open as if they were singing glory to the morning. They were morning-glory flowers.
Laura went under those singing flowers into the dugout. It was one room, all white. The earth walls had been smoothed and whitewashed. The earth floor was smooth and hard.
When Ma and Mary stood in the doorway the light went dim. There was a small greased-paper window beside the door. But the wall was so thick that the light from the window stayed near the window.
That front wall was built of sod. Mr. Hanson had dug out his house, and then he had cut long strips of prairie sod and laid them on top of one another, to make the front wall. It was a good, thick wall with not one crack in it. No cold could get through that wall.
Ma was pleased. She said, “It’s small, but it’s clean and pleasant.” Then she looked up at the ceiling and said, “Look, girls!”
The ceiling was made of hay. Willow boughs had been laid across and their branches woven together, but here and there the hay that had been spread on them showed through.
“Well!” Ma said.
They all went up the path and stood on the roof of that house. No one could have guessed it was a roof. Grass grew on it and waved in the wind just like all the grasses along the creek bank.
“Goodness,” said Ma. “Anybody could walk over this house and never know it’s here.”
But Laura spied something. She bent over and parted the grasses with her hands, and then she cried: “I’ve found the stovepipe hole! Look, Mary! Look!”
Ma and Mary stopped to look, and Carrie leaned out from Ma’s arm and looked, and Jack came pushing to look. They could look right down into the whitewashed room under the grass. They looked at it till Ma said, “We’ll brush out the place before Pa comes back. Mary and Laura, you bring the water-pails.”
Mary carried the large pail and Laura the small one, and they went down the path again. Jack ran ahead and took his place by the door.
Ma found a willow-twig broom in a corner, and she brushed the walls carefully. Mary watched Carrie to keep her from falling down into the creek, and Laura took the little pail and went for water.
She hoppity-skipped down the stair-steps to the end of a little bridge across the creek. The bridge was one wide plank. Its other end was un- der a willow tree.
The tall willows fluttered slender leaves up against the sky, and little willows grew around them in clumps. They shaded all the ground, and it was cool and bare. The path went across it to a little spring, where cold, clear water fell into a tiny pool and then ran trickling to the creek.
Laura filled the little pail and went back across the sunny footbridge and up the steps. She went back and forth, fetching water in the little pail and pouring it into the big pail set on a bench inside the doorway.
Then she helped Ma bring down from the wagon everything they could carry. They had moved nearly everything into the dugout when Pa came rattling down the path. He was carrying a little tin stove and two pieces of stovepipe.
“Whew!” he said, setting them down. “I’m glad I had to carry them only three miles. Think of it, Caroline! Town’s only three miles away! Just a nice walk. Well, Hanson’s on his way west and the place is ours. How do you like it, Caroline?”
“I like it,” said Ma. “But I don’t know what to do about the beds. I don’t want to put them on the floor.”
“What’s the matter with that?” Pa asked her. “We’ve been sleeping on the ground.”
“That’s different,” Ma said. “I don’t like to sleep on the floor in a house.”
“Well, that’s soon fixed,” said Pa. “I’ll cut some willow boughs to spread the beds on, for tonight. Tomorrow I’ll find some straight willow poles and make a couple of bedsteads.”
He took his ax and went whistling up the path, over the top of the house and down the slope beyond it to the creek. There lay a tiny valley where willows grew thick all along beside the water.
Laura ran at his heels. “Let me help, Pa!” she panted. “I can carry some.”
“Why, so you can,” said Pa, looking down at her with his eyes twinkling. “There’s nothing like help when a man has a big job to do.”
Pa often said he did not know how he could manage without Laura. She had helped him make the door for the log house in Indian Territory. Now she helped him carry the leafy willow boughs and spread them in the dugout. Then she went with him to the stable.
All four walls of the stable were built of sods, and the roof was willow-boughs and hay, with sods laid over it. The roof was so low that Pa’s head touched it when he stood up straight. There was a manger of willow poles, and two oxen were tied there. One was a huge gray ox with short horns and gentle eyes. The other was smaller, with fierce, long horns and wild eyes. He was bright red brown all over.
“Hello, Bright,” Pa said to him.
“And how are you, Pete, old fellow?” he asked the big ox, slapping him gently.
“Stand back out of the way, Laura,” he said, “till we see how these cattle act. We’ve got to take them to water.”
He put ropes around their horns and led them out of the stable. They followed him slowly down the slope to a level path that went through green rushes to the flat edge of the creek. Laura slowly tagged after them. Their legs were clumsy and their big feet split in the middle. Their noses were broad and slimy.
Laura stayed outside the stable while Pa tied them to the manger. She walked with him toward the dugout.
“Pa,” she asked, in a little voice, “did Pet and Patty truly want to go out west?”
“Yes, Laura,” Pa told her.
“Oh, Pa,” she said, and there was a tremble in her voice. “I don’t think I like cattle—much.”
Pa took her hand and comforted it in his big one. He said, “We must do the best we can, Laura, and not grumble. What must be done is best done cheerfully. And some day we will have horses again.”
“When, Pa?” she asked him, and he said, “When we raise our first crop of wheat.”
Then they went into the dugout. Ma was cheerful, Mary and Carrie were already washed and combed, and everything was neat. The beds were made on the willow boughs and supper was ready.
After supper they all sat on the path before the door. Pa and Ma had boxes to sit on. Carrie cuddled sleepily in Ma’s lap, and Mary and Laura sat on the hard path, their legs hanging over its sharp edge. Jack turned around three times and lay down with his head against Laura’s knee.
They all sat quiet, looking across Plum Creek and the willows, watching the sun sink far away in the west, far away over the prairie lands.
At last Ma drew a long breath. “It is all so tame and peaceful,” she said. “There will be no wolves or Indians howling tonight. I haven’t felt so safe and at rest since I don’t know when.”
Pa’s slow voice answered, “We’re safe enough, all right. Nothing can happen here.”
The peaceful colors went all around the rim of the sky. The willows breathed and the water talked to itself in the dusk. The land was dark gray. The sky was light gray, and stars prickled through it.
“It’s bedtime,” Ma said. “And here is something new, anyway. We’ve never slept in a dugout before.” She was laughing, and Pa laughed softly with her.
Laura lay in bed and listened to the water talking and the willows whispering. She would rather sleep outdoors, even if she heard wolves, than be so safe in this house dug under the ground.