Pa went early to do the chores that evening, and Jack went with him, staying close to his heels. Jack did not intend to lose sight of Pa again.
They came in, cold and snowy. Pa stamped the snow from his feet and hung his old coat with his cap on the nail by the lean-to door. “The wind is rising again,” he said. “We will have another blizzard before morning.”
“Just so you are here, Charles, I don’t care how much it storms,” said Ma.
Jack lay down contentedly and Pa sat warming his hands by the stove.
“Laura,” he said, “if you’ll bring me the fiddle-box I’ll play you a tune.”
Laura brought the fiddle-box to him. Pa tuned the fiddle and rosined the bow, and then while Ma cooked supper he filled the house with music.
“Oh, Charley he’s a fine young man, Oh, Charley he’s a dandy!
Charley likes to kiss the girls And he can do it handy!
“I don’t want none of your weevily wheat, I don’t want none of your barley,
I want fine flour in half an hour, To bake a cake for Charley!”
Pa’s voice rollicked with the rollicking tune, and Carrie laughed and clapped her hands, and Laura’s feet were dancing.
Then the fiddle changed the tune and Pa began to sing about sweet Lily Dale.
“’Twas a calm, still night,
And the moon’s pale light
Shone soft o’er hill and vale.”
Pa glanced at Ma, busy at the stove, while Mary and Laura sat listening, and the fiddle slipped into frolicking up and down with his voice.
“Mary put the dishes on,
The dishes on, the dishes on, Mary put the dishes on, We’ll all take tea!”
“And what shall I do, Pa?” Laura cried, while Mary ran to get the plates and cups from the cup- board. The fiddle and Pa kept singing, down all the steps they had just gone up.
“Laura take them off again, Off again, off again, Laura clear the table when We’ve all gone away!”
So, Laura knew that Mary was to set the table for supper and she was to clear away afterward.
The wind was screaming fiercer and louder outside. Snow whirled swish-swishing against the windows. But Pa’s fiddle sang in the warm, lamp-lighted house. The dishes made small clinking sounds as Mary set the table. Carrie rocked herself in the rocking-chair and Ma went gently between the table and the stove. In the middle of the table she set a milk-pan full of beautiful brown baked beans, and now from the oven she took the square baking-pan full of golden corn- bread. The rich brown smell and the sweet golden smell curled deliciously together in the air.
Pa’s fiddle laughed and sang,
“I’m Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines, I feed my horse on corn and beans Although ’tis far beyond my means, for I’m Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines! I’m Captain of the army!”
Laura patted Jack’s furry smooth forehead and scratched his ears for him, and then with both hands she gave his head a quick, happy squeeze. Everything was so good. Grasshoppers were gone, and next year Pa could harvest the wheat. Tomorrow was Christmas, with oyster stew for dinner. There would be no presents and no candy, but Laura could not think of anything she wanted, and she was so glad that the Christ- mas candy had helped to bring Pa safe home again.
“Supper is ready,” Ma said in her gentle voice.
Pa laid the fiddle in its box. He stood up and looked around at them all. His blue eyes shone at them.
“Look, Caroline,” he said, “how Laura’s eyes are shining.”
EXCERPT FROM BY THE
SHORES OF SILVER LAKE
Laura was washing the dishes one morning when old Jack, lying in the sunshine on the doorstep, growled to tell her that someone was coming. She looked out, and saw a buggy crossing the gravelly ford of Plum Creek.
“Ma,” she said, “it’s a strange woman com- ing.”
Ma sighed. She was ashamed of the untidy house, and so was Laura. But Ma was too weak and Laura was too tired and they were too sad to care very much.
Mary and Carrie and baby Grace and Ma had all had scarlet fever. The Nelsons across the creek had had it too, so there had been no one to help Pa and Laura. The doctor had come every day; Pa did not know how he could pay the bill. Far worst of all, the fever had settled in Mary’s eyes, and Mary was blind.
She was able to sit up now, wrapped in quilts in Ma’s old hickory rocking chair. All that long time, week after week, when she could still see a little, but less every day, she had never cried. Now she could not see even the brightest light any more. She was still patient and brave.
Her beautiful golden hair was gone. Pa had shaved it close because of the fever, and her poor shorn head looked like a boy’s. Her blue eyes were still beautiful, but they did not know what
was before them, and Mary herself could never look through them again to tell Laura what she was thinking without saying a word.
“Who can it be at this hour in the morning?” Mary wondered, turning her ear toward the sound of the buggy.
“It’s a strange woman alone in a buggy. She’s wearing a brown sunbonnet and driving a bay horse,” Laura answered. Pa had said that she must be eyes for Mary.
“Can you think of anything for dinner?” Ma asked. She meant for a company dinner, if the woman stayed till dinnertime.
There was bread and molasses, and potatoes. That was all. This was springtime, too early for garden vegetables; the cow was dry and the hens had not yet begun to lay their summer’s eggs. Only a few small fish were left in Plum Creek. Even the little cottontail rabbits had been hunted until they were scarce.
Pa did not like a country so old and worn out that the hunting was poor. He wanted to go west. For two years he had wanted to go west and
take a homestead, but Ma did not want to leave the settled country. And there was no money. Pa had made only two poor wheat crops since the grasshoppers came; he had barely been able to keep out of debt, and now there was the doctor’s bill.
Laura answered Ma stoutly, “What’s good enough for us is good enough for anybody!”
The buggy stopped and the strange woman sat in it, looking at Laura and Ma in the doorway. She was a pretty woman, in her neat brown print dress and sunbonnet. Laura felt ashamed of her own bare feet and limp dress and uncombed braids. Then Ma said slowly, “Why, Docia!”
“I wondered if you’d know me,” the woman said. “A good deal of water’s gone under the bridge since you folks left Wisconsin.”
She was the pretty Aunt Docia who had worn the dress with buttons that looked like black- berries, long ago at the sugaring-off dance at Grandpa’s house in the Big Woods of Wisconsin. She was married now. She had married a wid- ower with two children. Her husband was a con-
tractor, working on the new railroad in the west. Aunt Docia was driving alone in the buggy, all the way from Wisconsin to the railroad camps in Dakota Territory.
She had come by to see if Pa would go with her. Her husband, Uncle Hi, wanted a good man to be storekeeper, bookkeeper, and timekeeper, and Pa could have the job.
“It pays fifty dollars a month, Charles,” she said.
A kind of tightness smoothed out of Pa’s thin cheeks and his blue eyes lighted up. He said slowly, “Seems like I can draw good pay while I’m looking for that homestead, Caroline.”
Ma still did not want to go west. She looked around the kitchen, at Carrie and at Laura stand- ing there with Grace in her arms.
“Charles, I don’t know,” she said. “It does seem providential, fifty dollars a month. But we’re settled here. We’ve got the farm.”
“Listen to reason, Caroline,” Pa pleaded. “We can get a hundred and sixty acres out west, just by living on it, and the land’s as good as this is,
or better. If Uncle Sam’s willing to give us a farm in place of the one he drove us off of, in Indian Territory, I say let’s take it. The hunting’s good in the west, a man can get all the meat he wants.”
Laura wanted so much to go that she could hardly keep from speaking.
“How could we go now?” Ma asked. “With Mary not strong enough to travel.”
“That’s so,” said Pa. “That’s a fact.” Then he asked Aunt Docia, “The job wouldn’t wait?”
“No,” Aunt Docia said. “No, Charles. Hi is in need of a man, right now. You have to take it or leave it.”
“It’s fifty dollars a month, Caroline,” said Pa. “And a homestead.”
It seemed a long time before Ma said gently, “Well, Charles, you must do as you think best.”
“I’ll take it, Docia!” Pa got up and clapped on his hat. “Where there’s a will, there’s a way. I’ll go see Nelson.”
Laura was so excited that she could hardly do the housework properly. Aunt Docia helped, and
while they worked she told the news from Wis- consin.
Her sister, Aunt Ruby, was married and had two boys and a beautiful little baby girl named Dolly Varden. Uncle George was a lumberjack, logging on the Mississippi. Uncle Henry’s folks were all well, and Charley was turning out better than had been expected, considering how Uncle Henry had spared the rod and spoiled that child. Grandpa and Grandma were still living in the old place, their big log house. They could afford a frame house now, but Grandpa declared that good sound oak logs made better walls than thin sawed boards.
Even Black Susan, the cat that Laura and Mary had left behind when they rode away from their little log house in the woods, was still living there. The little log house had changed hands sev- eral times, and now it was a corncrib, but noth- ing would persuade that cat to live anywhere else. She went right on living in the corncrib, sleek and plump from rats she caught, and there was hardly a family in all that country that didn’t have one
of her kittens. They were all good mousers, big- eared and long-tailed like Black Susan.
Dinner was ready in the swept, neat house when Pa came back. He had sold the farm. Nel- son was paying two hundred dollars cash for it, and Pa was jubilant. “That’ll square up all we owe, and leave a little something over,” he said. “How’s that, Caroline!”
“I hope it’s for the best, Charles,” Ma replied. “But how—”
“Wait till I tell you! I’ve got it all figured out,” Pa told her. “I’ll go on with Docia tomorrow morning. You and the girls stay here till Mary gets well and strong, say a couple of months. Nel- son’s agreed to haul our stuff to the depot, and you’ll all come out on the train.”
Laura stared at him. So did Carrie and Ma.
Mary said, “On the train?”
They had never thought of traveling on the train. Laura knew, of course, that people did travel on trains. The trains were often wrecked and the people killed. She was not exactly afraid,
but she was excited. Carrie’s eyes were big and scared in her peaked little face.
They had seen the train rushing across the prairie, with long, rolling puffs of black smoke streaming back from the engine. They heard its roar and its wild, clear whistle. Horses ran away, if their driver could not hold them when they saw a train coming.
Ma said in her quiet way, “I am sure we will manage nicely with Laura and Carrie to help me.”
There was a great deal of work to be done, for Pa must leave early next morning. He set the old wagon bows on the wagon and pulled the canvas cover over them; it was almost worn out but it would do for the short trip. Aunt Docia and Carrie helped him pack the wagon, while Laura washed and ironed, and baked hardtack for the journey.
In the midst of it all, Jack stood looking on. Everyone was too busy to notice the old bulldog,
till suddenly Laura saw him standing between the house and the wagon. He did not frisk about, cocking his head and laughing, as he used to do. He stood braced on his stiff legs because he was troubled with rheumatism now. His forehead was wrinkled sadly and his stub-tail was limp.
“Good old Jack,” Laura told him, but he did not wag. He looked at her sorrowfully.
“Look, Pa. Look at Jack,” Laura said. She bent and stroked his smooth head. The fine hairs were gray now. First his nose had been gray and then his jaws, and now even his ears were no longer brown. He leaned his head against her and sighed.
All in one instant, she knew that the old dog was too tired to walk all the way to Dakota Ter- ritory under the wagon. He was troubled because he saw the wagon ready to go traveling again, and he was so old and tired.
“Pa!” she cried out. “Jack can’t walk so far!
Oh, Pa, we can’t leave Jack!”
“He wouldn’t hold out to walk it for a fact,” Pa said. “I’d forgot. I’ll move the feedsack and
make a place for him to ride here in the wagon. How’ll you like to go riding in the wagon, huh, old fellow?”
Jack wagged one polite wag and turned his head aside. He did not want to go, even in the wagon.
Laura knelt down and hugged him as she used to do when she was a little girl. “Jack! Jack! We’re going west! Don’t you want to go west again, Jack?”
Always before he had been eager and joyful when he saw Pa putting the cover on the wagon. He had taken his place under it when they started, and all the long way from Wisconsin to Indian Territory, and back again to Minnesota, he had trotted there in the wagon shade, behind the horses’ feet. He had waded through creeks and swum rivers, and every night while Laura slept in the wagon he had guarded it. Every morning, even when his feet were sore from walking, he had been glad with her to see the sun rise and the horses hitched up; he had always been ready for the new day of traveling.
Now he only leaned against Laura and nudged his nose under her hand to ask her to pet him gently. She stroked his gray head and smoothed his ears, and she could feel how very tired he was.
Ever since Mary and Carrie, and then Ma, had been sick with scarlet fever, Laura had been neg- lecting Jack. He had always helped her in every trouble before, but he could not help when there was sickness in the house. Perhaps all that time he had been feeling lonely and forgotten.
“I didn’t mean it, Jack,” Laura told him. He understood; they had always understood each other. He had taken care of her when she was little, and he had helped her take care of Carrie when Carrie was the baby. Whenever Pa had gone away, Jack had always stayed with Laura to take care of her and the family. He was especially Laura’s own dog.
She did not know how to explain to him that he must go now with Pa in the wagon and leave her behind. Perhaps he would not understand that she was coming later on the train.
She could not stay with him long now be- cause there was so much work to be done. But all that afternoon she said to him, “Good dog, Jack,” whenever she could. She gave him a good supper, and after the dishes were washed and the table set for an early breakfast, she made his bed.
His bed was an old horse blanket, in a corner of the lean-to at the back door. He had slept there ever since they moved into this house, where Laura slept in the attic and he could not climb the attic ladder. For five years he had slept there, and Laura had kept his bed aired and clean and com- fortable. But lately she had forgotten it. He had tried to scratch it up and arrange it himself, but the blanket was packed down in hard ridges.
He watched her while she shook it out and made it comfortable. He smiled and wagged, pleased that she was making his bed for him. She made a round nest in it and patted it to show him that it was ready.
He stepped in and turned himself around once. He stopped to rest his stiff legs and slowly turned again. Jack always turned around three
times before he lay down to sleep at night. He had done it when he was a young dog in the Big Woods, and he had done it in the grass under the wagon every night. It is a proper thing for dogs to do.
So wearily he turned himself around the third time and curled down with a bump and a sigh. But he held his head up to look at Laura.
She stroked his head where the fine gray hairs were, and she thought of how good he had always been. She had always been safe from wolves or Indians because Jack was there. And how many times he had helped her bring in the cows at night. How happy they had been playing along Plum Creek and in the pool where the fierce old crab had lived, and when she had to go to school he had always been waiting at the ford for her when she came home.
“Good Jack, good dog,” she told him. He turned his head to touch her hand with the tip of his tongue. Then he let his nose sink onto his paws and he sighed and closed his eyes. He wanted to sleep now.
In the morning when Laura came down the ladder into the lamplight, Pa was going out to do the chores. He spoke to Jack, but Jack did not stir.
Only Jack’s body, stiff and cold, lay curled there on the blanket.
They buried it on the low slope above the wheat-field, by the path he used to run down so gaily when he was going with Laura to bring in the cows. Pa spaded the earth over the box and made the mound smooth. Grass would grow there after they had all gone away to the west. Jack would never again sniff the morning air and go springing over the short grass with his ears up and his mouth laughing. He would never nudge his nose under Laura’s hand again to say he wanted her to pet him. There had been so many times that she might have petted him without being asked, and hadn’t.
“Don’t cry, Laura,” Pa said. “He has gone to the Happy Hunting Grounds.”
“Truly, Pa?” Laura managed to ask.
“Good dogs have their reward, Laura,” Pa told her.
Perhaps, in the Happy Hunting Grounds, Jack was running gaily in the wind over some high prairie, as he used to run on the beautiful wild prairies of Indian Territory. Perhaps at last he was catching a jack rabbit. He had tried so often to catch one of those long-eared, long-legged rab- bits and never could.
That morning Pa drove away in the rattling old wagon behind Aunt Docia’s buggy. Jack was not standing beside Laura to watch Pa go. There was only emptiness to turn to instead of Jack’s eyes looking up to say that he was there to take care of her.
Laura knew then that she was not a little girl any more. Now she was alone; she must take care of herself. When you must do that, then you do it and you are grown up. Laura was not very big, but she was almost thirteen years old, and no one was there to depend on. Pa and Jack had gone, and Ma needed help to take care of Mary and the little girls, and somehow to get them all safely to the west on a train.