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 Territory 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 neglecting 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 Car- rie 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 because 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 comfortable. 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 be- fore 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 lad- der 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 rabbits 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 anymore. 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.[/sociallocker]