Everything was flat and dull when Pa was gone. Laura and Mary could not even count the days till he would come back. They could only think of him walking farther and farther away in his patched boots.
Jack was a sober dog now and his nose was turning gray. Often, he looked at the empty road where Pa had gone, and sighed, and lay down to watch it. But he did not really hope that Pa would come.
The dead, eaten prairie was flat under the hot sky. Dust devils rose up and whirled across it. The far-away edge of it seemed to crawl like a snake. Ma said that was caused by the heat waves of the air.
The only shade was in the house. There were no leaves on willows or plum thickets. Plum Creek dried up. There was only a little water in its pools. The well was dry, and the old spring by the dugout was only a drip. Ma set a pail under it, to fill during the night. In the morning she brought it to the house and left another pail to fill during the day.
When the morning work was done, Ma and Mary and Laura and Carrie sat in the house. The scorching winds whizzed by and the hungry cattle never stopped lowing.
Spot was thin. Her hip joints stuck up sharp, all her ribs showed, and there were hollows around her eyes. All day she went mooing with the other cattle, looking for something to eat.
They had eaten all the little bushes along the creek and gnawed the willow branches as high as they could reach. Spot’s milk was bitter, and every day she gave less of it.
Sam and David stood in the stable. They could not have all the hay they wanted, because the haystacks must last till next spring. When Laura led them down the dry creek-bed to the old swimming-hole, they curled their noses at the warm, scummy water. But they had to drink it. Cows and horses had to bear things, too.
Saturday evening, Laura went to the Nelsons’ to see if a letter had come from Pa. She went along the little path beyond the footbridge. It did not go wandering forever through pleasant places. It went to Mr. Nelson’s.
Mr. Nelson’s house was long and low, and its board walls were whitewashed. His long, low sod stable had a thick roof made of hay. They did not look like Pa’s house and Pa’s stable. They cuddled to the ground, under a slope of the prairie, and they looked as if they spoke Norwegian.
The house was shining clean inside. The big bed was plumped high with feathers and the pillows were high and fat. On the wall hung a beautiful picture of a lady dressed in blue. Its frame was thick gold, and bright pink mosquito-netting covered the lady and the frame, to keep the flies off.
There was no letter from Pa. Mrs. Nelson said that Mr. Nelson would ask again at the post-office, next Saturday.
“Thank you, ma’am,” Laura said, and she hurried fast along the path. Then she walked slowly across the footbridge, and more and more slowly up the knoll.
Ma said, “Never mind, girls. There will be a letter next Saturday.”
But next Saturday there was no letter.
They did not go to Sunday school anymore. Carrie could not walk so far, and she was too heavy for Ma to carry. Laura and Mary must save their shoes. They could not go to Sunday school barefooted, and if they wore out their shoes, they would have no shoes next winter.
So, on Sundays they put on their best dresses, but not their shoes or ribbons. Mary and Laura said their Bible verses to Ma, and she read to them from the Bible.
One Sunday she read to them about the plague of locusts, long ago in Bible times. Locusts were grasshoppers. Ma read:
“And the locusts went up over the land of Egypt and rested in all the coasts of Egypt; very grievous were they.
“For they covered the face of the whole earth, so that the land was darkened; and they did eat every herb of the land, and all the fruits of the trees which the hail had left; and there remained not any green thing on the trees, or in the herbs of the field, through all the land of Egypt.”
Laura knew how true that was. When she re- peated those verses she thought, “through all the land of Minnesota.”
Then Ma read the promise that God made to good people, “to bring them out of that land to a good land and a large, unto a land flowing with milk and honey.”
“Oh, where is that, Ma?” Mary asked, and Laura asked, “How could land flow with milk and honey?” She did not want to walk in milky, sticky honey.
Ma rested the big Bible on her knees and thought. Then she said, “Well, your Pa thinks it will be right here in Minnesota.”
“How could it be?” Laura asked.
“Maybe it will be, if we stick it out,” said Ma. “Well, Laura, if good milk cows were eating grass all over this land, they would give a great deal of milk, and then the land would be flowing with milk. Bees would get honey out of all the wildflowers that grow out of the land, and then the land would be flowing with honey.”
“Oh,” Laura said. “I’m glad we wouldn’t have to walk in it.”
Carrie beat the Bible with her little fists and cried: “I’m hot! I’m prickly!” Ma picked her up, but she pushed at Ma and whimpered, “You’re hot!”
Poor little Carrie’s skin was red with heat rash. Laura and Mary were sweltering inside their underwaists and drawers, and petticoat-waists and petticoats, and long-sleeved, high-necked dresses with tight waistbands around their middles. The backs of their necks were smothering under their braids.
Carrie wanted a drink, but she pushed the cup away and made a face and said, “Nasty!”
“You better drink it,” Mary told her. “I want a cold drink, too, but there isn’t any.”
“I wish I had a drink of well water,” said Laura.
“I wish I had an icicle,” said Mary.
Then Laura said, “I wish I was an Indian and didn’t have to wear clothes.”
“Laura!” said Ma. “And on Sunday!”
Laura thought, “Well, I do!” The wood smell of the house was a hot smell. On all the brown streaks in the boards the juice was dripping down sticky and drying in hard yellow beads. The hot wind never stopped whizzing by, and the cattle never stopped mourning, “Moo-oo, moo-oo.” Jack turned on his side and groaned a long sigh.
Ma sighed, too, and said, “Seems to me I’d give almost anything for a breath of air.”
At that very minute a breath of air came into the house. Carrie stopped whimpering. Jack lifted up his head. Ma said, “Girls, did you—” Then an- other cool breath came.
Ma went out through the lean-to, to the shady end of the house. Laura scampered after her, and Mary came leading Carrie. Outdoors was like a baking-oven. The hot air came scorching against Laura’s face.
In the north-west sky there was a cloud. It was small in the enormous, brassy sky. But it was a cloud, and it made a streak of shade on the prairie. The shadow seemed to move, but perhaps that was only the heat waves. No, it really was coming nearer.
“Oh, please, please, please!” Laura kept saying, silently, with all her might. They all stood shading their eyes and looking at that cloud and its shadow.
The cloud kept coming nearer. It grew larger. It was a thick, dark streak in the air above the prairie. Its edge rolled and swelled in big puffs. Now gusts of cool air came, mixed with gusts hotter than ever.
All over the prairie, dust devils rose up wild and wicked, whirling their dust arms. The sun still burned on the house and the stable, and the cracked, pitted earth. The shadow of the cloud was far away.
Suddenly a fire-white streak zigzagged, and a gray curtain fell from the cloud and hung there, hiding the sky beyond it. That was rain. Then a growl of thunder came.
“It’s too far away, girls,” Ma said. “I’m afraid it won’t get to us. But, anyway, the air’s cooler.”
A smell of rain came on streaks of coolness through the hot wind.
“Oh, maybe it will get to us, Ma! Maybe it will!” Laura said. Inside themselves they were all saying, “Please, please, please!”
The wind blew cooler. Slowly, slowly, the cloud shadow grew larger. Now the cloud spread wide in the sky. Suddenly a shadow rushed across the flat land and up the knoll, and fast after it came the marching rain. It came up the knoll like millions of tiny trampling feet, and rain poured down on the house and on Ma and Mary and Laura and Carrie.
“Get in, quick!” Ma exclaimed.
The lean-to was noisy with rain on its roof. Cool air blew through it into the smothery house. Ma opened the front door. She fastened back the curtains and opened every window.
A sick smell steamed up from the ground, but the rain poured down and washed it away. Rain drummed on the roof; rain poured from the eaves. Rain washed the air and made it good to breathe. Sweet air rushed through the house. It lifted the heaviness out of Laura’s head and made her skin feel good.
Streams of muddy water ran swiftly over the hard ground. They poured into its cracks and filled them up. They dimpled and swirled over the pits where the grasshoppers’ eggs were and left smooth mud there. Overhead the lightning flickered sharp and thunder crashed.
Carrie clapped her hands and shouted; Mary and Laura danced and laughed. Jack wiggled and scampered like a puppy; he looked out at the rain from every window, and when the thunder banged and crashed, he growled at it, “Who’s afraid of you!”
“I do believe it is going to last till sunset,” Ma said.
Just before sunset the rain went away. Down across Plum Creek and away across the prairie to the east it went, leaving only a few sparkling drops falling in the sunshine. Then the cloud turned purple and red and curled gold edges against the clear sky. The sun sank and the stars came out. The air was cool, and the earth was damp and grateful.
The only thing that Laura wished was that Pa could be there.
Next day the sun rose burning hot. The sky was brassy, and the winds were scorching. And before night tiny thin spears of grass were pricking up from the ground.
In a few days there was a green streak across the brown prairie. Grass came up where the rain had fallen, and the hungry cattle grazed there.
Every morning Laura put Sam and David on picket lines, so they could eat the good grass, too. The cattle stopped bawling. Spot’s bones did not show any more. She gave more milk, and it was sweet, good milk. The knoll was green again, and the willows and the plums were putting out