All the next day Laura remembered. She re- membered the cool, deep water in the shade of the tall willows. She remembered that she must not go near it.
Pa was away. Mary stayed with Ma in the dugout. Laura played all alone in the hot sunshine. The blue flags were withering among the dull rushes. She went past the willow valley and played in the prairie grasses among the black-eyed Susans and goldenrod. The sunshine was very hot, and the wind was scorching.
Then Laura thought of the tableland. She wanted to climb it again. She wondered if she could climb it all by herself. Pa had not said that she could not go to the tableland.
She ran down the steep bank and went across the lowland, through the tall, coarse grasses. The tableland stood up straight and high. It was very hard to climb. The dry earth slid under Laura’s feet, her dress was dirty where her knees dug in while she held on to the grasses and pulled her- self up. Dust itched on her sweaty skin. But at last she got her stomach on the edge; she heaved and rolled and she was on top of the tableland.
She jumped up, and she could see the deep, shady pool under the willows. It was cool and wet, and her whole skin felt thirsty. But she re- membered that she must not go there.
The tableland seemed big and empty and not interesting. It had been exciting when Pa was there, but now it was just flat land, and Laura thought she would go home and get a drink. She was very thirsty.
She slid down the side of the tableland and slowly started back along the way she had come. Down among the tall grasses the air was smothery and very hot. The dugout was far away, and Laura was terribly thirsty.
She remembered with all her might that she must not go near that deep, shady swimming- pool, and suddenly she turned around and hurried toward it. She thought she would only look at it. Just looking at it would make her feel better. Then she thought she might wade in the edge of it, but she would not go into the deep water.
She came into the path that Pa had made, and she trotted faster.
Right in the middle of the path before her stood an animal.
Laura jumped back and stood and stared at it. She had never seen such an animal. It was al- most as long as Jack, but its legs were very short. Long gray fur bristled all over it. It had a flat head and small ears. Its flat head slowly tilted up and it stared at Laura.
She stared back at its funny face. And while they stood still and staring, that animal widened and shortened and spread flat on the ground. It grew flatter and flatter, till it was a gray fur laid there. It was not like a whole animal at all. Only it had eyes staring up.
Slowly and carefully Laura stooped and reached and picked up a willow stick. She felt better then. She stayed bent over, looking at that flat gray fur.
It did not move and neither did Laura. She wondered what would happen if she poked it. It might change to some other shape. She poked it gently with the short stick.
A frightful snarl came out of it. Its eyes sparkled mad, and fierce white teeth snapped almost on Laura’s nose.
Laura ran with all her might. She could run fast. She did not stop running until she was in the dugout.
“Goodness, Laura!” Ma said. “You’ll make yourself sick, tearing around so in this heat.”
All that time, Mary had been sitting like a little lady, spelling out words in the book that Ma was teaching her to read. Mary was a good little girl.
Laura had been bad, and she knew it. She had broken her promise to Pa. But no one had seen her. No one knew that she had started to go to the swimming-hole. If she did not tell, no one would ever know. Only that strange animal knew, and it could not tell on her. But she felt worse and worse inside.
That night she lay awake beside Mary. Pa and Ma sat in the starlight outside the door and Pa was playing his fiddle.
“Go to sleep, Laura,” Ma said, softly, and softly the fiddle sang to her. Pa was a shadow against the sky and his bow danced among the great stars.
Everything was beautiful and good, except Laura. She had broken her promise to Pa. Breaking a promise was as bad as telling a lie. Laura wished she had not done it. But she had done it, and if Pa knew, he would punish her.
Pa went on playing softly in the starlight. His fiddle sang to her sweetly and happily. He thought she was a good little girl. At last Laura could bear it no longer.
She slid out of bed and her bare feet stole across the cool earthen floor. In her nightgown and nightcap, she stood beside Pa. He drew the last notes from the strings with his bow and she could feel him smiling down at her.
“What is it, little half-pint?” he asked her. “You look like a little ghost, all white in the dark.”
“Pa,” Laura said, in a quivery small voice, “I—I—started to go to the swimming-hole.”
“You did!” Pa exclaimed. Then he asked, “Well, what stopped you?”
“I don’t know,” Laura whispered. “It had gray fur and it—it flattened out flat. It snarled.”
“How big was it?” Pa asked.
Laura told him all about that strange animal. Pa said, “It must have been a badger.”
Then for a long time he did not say anything, and Laura waited. Laura could not see his face in the dark, but she leaned against his knee and she could feel how strong and kind he was.
“Well,” he said at last, “I hardly know what to do, Laura. You see, I trusted you. It is hard to know what to do with a person you can’t trust. But do you know what people have to do to any- one they can’t trust?”
“Wh—at?” Laura quavered.
“They have to watch him,” said Pa. “So, I guess you must be watched. Your Ma will have to do it because I must work at Nelson’s. So tomorrow you stay where Ma can watch you. You are not to go out of her sight all day. If you are good all day, then we will let you try again to be a little girl we can trust.
“How about it, Caroline?” he asked Ma. “Very well, Charles,” Ma said out of the dark.
“I will watch her tomorrow. But I am sure she will be good. Now back to bed, Laura, and go to sleep.”
The next day was a dreadful day.
Ma was mending, and Laura had to stay in the dugout. She could not even fetch water from the spring, for that was going out of Ma’s sight. Mary fetched the water; Mary took Carrie to walk on the prairie. Laura had to stay in.
Jack laid his nose on his paws and waggled, he jumped out on the path and looked back at her, smiling with his ears, begging her to come out. He could not understand why she did not.
Laura helped Ma. She washed the dishes and made both beds and swept the floor and set the table. At dinner she sat bowed on her bench and ate what Ma set before her. Then she wiped the dishes. After that she ripped a sheet that was worn in the middle. Ma turned the strips of muslin and pinned them together, and Laura whipped the new seam, over and over with tiny stitches.
She thought that seam and that day would never end.
But at last Ma rolled up her mending and it was time to get supper.
“You have been a good girl, Laura,” Ma said. “We will tell Pa so. And tomorrow morning you and I are going to look for that badger. I am sure he saved you from drowning, for if you had gone to that deep water you would have gone into it. Once you begin being naughty, it is easier to go on and on, and sooner or later something dreadful happens.”
“Yes, Ma,” Laura said. She knew that now.
The whole day was gone. Laura had not seen that sunrise, nor the shadows of clouds on the prairie. The morning-glories were withered, and that day’s blue flags were dead. All day Laura had not seen the water running in the creek, the little fishes in it, and the water-bugs skating over it. She was sure that being good could never be as hard as being watched.
Next day she went with Ma to look for the badger. In the path she showed Ma the place where he had flattened himself on the grass. Ma found the hole where he lived. It was a round hole under a clump of grass on the prairie bank. Laura called to him and she poked a stick into the hole.
If the badger was at home, he would not come out. Laura never saw that old gray badger again.