Now blackberries were ripe, and in the hot afternoons Laura went with Ma to pick them. The big, black, juicy berries hung thick in brier-patches in the creek bottoms. Some were in the shade of trees and some were in the sun, but the sun was so hot that Laura and Ma stayed in the shade. There were plenty of berries.
Deer lay in the shady groves and watched Ma and Laura. Blue jays flew at their sunbonnets and scolded because they were taking the berries. Snakes hurriedly crawled away from them, and in the trees the squirrels woke up and chattered at them. Wherever they went among the scratchy briers, mosquitoes rose up in buzzing swarms.
Mosquitoes were thick on the big, ripe berries, sucking the sweet juice. But they liked to bite Laura and Ma as much as they liked to eat blackberries.
Laura’s fingers and her mouth were purple- black with berry juice. Her face and her hands and her bare feet were covered with brier scratches and mosquito bites. And they were spattered with purple stains, too, where she had slapped at the mosquitoes. But every day they brought home pails full of berries, and Ma spread them in the sun to dry.
Every day they ate all the blackberries they wanted, and the next winter they would have dried blackberries to stew.
Mary hardly ever went to pick blackberries. She stayed in the house to mind Baby Carrie, because she was older. In the daytime there were only one or two mosquitoes in the house. But at night, if the wind wasn’t blowing hard, mosquitoes came in thick swarms. On still nights Pa kept piles of damp grass burning all around the house and stable. The damp grass made a smudge of smoke, to keep the mosquitoes away. But a good many mosquitoes came, anyway.
Pa could not play his fiddle in the evenings because so many mosquitoes bit him. Mr. Ed- wards did not come visiting after supper any more, because the mosquitoes were so thick in the bottoms. All night Pet and Patty and the colt and the calf and the cow were stamping and swishing their tails in the stable. And in the morning Laura’s forehead was speckled with mosquito bites.
“This won’t last long,” Pa said. “Fall’s not far away, and the first cold wind will settle ’em!”
Laura did not feel very well. One day she felt cold even in the hot sunshine, and she could not get warm by the fire.
Ma asked why she and Mary did not go out to play, and Laura said she didn’t feel like playing. She was tired and she ached. Ma stopped her work and asked, “Where do you ache?”
Laura didn’t exactly know. She just said: “I just ache. My legs ache.”
“I ache, too,” Mary said.
Ma looked at them and said they looked healthy enough. But she said something must be wrong or they wouldn’t be so quiet. She pulled up Laura’s skirt and petticoats to see where her legs ached, and suddenly Laura shivered all over. She shivered so that her teeth rattled in her mouth.
Ma put her hand against Laura’s cheek. “You can’t be cold,” she said. “Your face is hot as fire.” Laura felt like crying, but of course she didn’t. Only little babies cried. “I’m hot now,” she said. “And my back aches.”
Ma called Pa, and he came in. “Charles, do look at the girls,” she said. “I do believe they are sick.”
“Well, I don’t feel any too well myself,” said Pa. “First I’m hot and then I’m cold, and I ache all over. Is that the way you feel, girls? Do your very bones ache?”
Mary and Laura said that was the way they felt. Then Ma and Pa looked a long time at each other and Ma said, “The place for you girls is bed.”
It was so queer to be put to bed in the day- time, and Laura was so hot that everything seemed wavering. She held on to Ma’s neck while Ma was undressing her, and she begged Ma to tell her what was wrong with her.
“You will be all right. Don’t worry,” Ma said, cheerfully. Laura crawled into bed and Ma tucked her in. It felt good to be in bed. Ma smoothed her forehead with her cool, soft hand and said, “There, now. Go to sleep.”
Laura did not exactly go to sleep, but she didn’t really wake up again for a long, long time. Strange things seemed to keep happening in a haze. She would see Pa crouching by the fire in the middle of the night, then suddenly sunshine hurt her eyes and Ma fed her broth from a spoon. Something dwindled slowly, smaller and smaller, till it was tinier than the tiniest thing. Then slowly it swelled till it was larger than anything could be. Two voices jabbered faster and faster, then a slow voice drawled more slowly than Laura could bear. There were no words, only voices.
Mary was hot in the bed beside her. Mary threw off the covers, and Laura cried because she was so cold. Then she was burning up, and Pa’s hand shook the cup of water. Water spilled down her neck. The tin cup rattled against her teeth till she could hardly drink. Then Ma tucked in the covers and Ma’s hand burned against Laura’s cheek.
She heard Pa say, “Go to bed, Caroline.” Ma said, “You’re sicker than I am, Charles.”
Laura opened her eyes and saw bright sunshine. Mary was sobbing, “I want a drink of water! I want a drink of water! I want a drink of water!” Jack went back and forth between the big bed and the little bed. Laura saw Pa lying on the floor by the big bed.
Jack pawed at Pa and whined. He took hold of Pa’s sleeve with his teeth and shook it. Pa’s head lifted up a little, and he said, “I must get up, I must. Caroline and the girls.” Then his head fell back and he lay still. Jack lifted up his nose and howled.
Laura tried to get up, but she was too tired. Then she saw Ma’s red face looking over the edge of the bed. Mary was all the time crying for water. Ma looked at Mary and then she looked at Laura, and she whispered, “Laura, can you?”
“Yes, Ma,” Laura said. This time she got out of bed. But when she tried to stand up, the floor rocked and she fell down. Jack’s tongue lapped and lapped at her face, and he quivered and whined. But he stood still and firm when she took hold of him and sat up against him.
She knew she must get water to stop Mary’s crying, and she did. She crawled all the way across the floor to the water-bucket. There was only a little water in it. She shook so with cold that she could hardly get hold of the dipper. But she did get hold of it. She dipped up some water, and she set out to cross that enormous floor again. Jack stayed beside her all the way.
Mary’s eyes didn’t open. Her hands held on to the dipper and her mouth swallowed all the water out of it. Then she stopped crying. The dipper fell on the floor, and Laura crawled under the covers. It was a long time before she began to get warm again.
Sometimes she heard Jack sobbing. Some- times he howled, and she thought he was a wolf, but she was not afraid. She lay burning up and hearing him howl. She heard voices jabbering again, and the slow voice drawling, and she opened her eyes and saw a big, black face close above her face.
It was coal-black and shiny. Its eyes were black and soft. Its teeth shone white in a thick, big mouth. This face smiled, and a deep voice said, softly, “Drink this, little girl.”
An arm lifted under her shoulders, and a black handheld a cup to her mouth. Laura swallowed a bitter swallow and tried to turn her head away, but the cup followed her mouth. The mellow, deep voice said again, “Drink it. It will make you well.” So, Laura swallowed the whole bitter dose.
When she woke up, a fat woman was stirring the fire. Laura looked at her carefully and she was not black. She was tanned, like Ma.
“I want a drink of water, please,” Laura said. The fat woman brought it at once. The good, cold water made Laura feel better. She looked at Mary asleep beside her; she looked at Pa and Ma asleep in the big bed. Jack lay half asleep on the floor. Laura looked again at the fat woman and asked, “Who are you?”
“I’m Mrs. Scott,” the woman said, smiling. “There now, you feel better, don’t you?”
“Yes, thank you,” Laura said, politely. The fat woman brought her a cup of hot prairie-chicken broth.
“Drink it all up, like a good child,” she said. Laura drank every drop of the good broth. “Now go to sleep,” said Mrs. Scott. “I’m here to take care of everything till you’re all well.”
Next morning Laura felt so much better that she wanted to get up, but Mrs. Scott said she must stay in bed until the doctor came. She lay and watched Mrs. Scott tidy the house and give medicine to Pa and Ma and Mary. Then it was Laura’s turn. She opened her mouth, and Mrs. Scott poured a dreadful bitterness out of a small folded paper onto Laura’s tongue. Laura drank water and swallowed and swallowed and drank again. She could swallow the powder, but she couldn’t swallow the bitterness.
Then the doctor came. And he was the black man. Laura had never seen a black man before and she could not take her eyes off Dr. Tan. He was so very black. She would have been afraid of him if she had not liked him so much. He smiled at her with all his white teeth. He talked with Pa and Ma, and laughed a rolling, jolly laugh. They all wanted him to stay longer, but he had to hurry away.
Mrs. Scott said that all the settlers, up and down the creek, had fever ’n’ ague. There were not enough well people to take care of the sick, and she had been going from house to house, working night and day.
“It’s a wonder you ever lived through,” she said. “All of you down at once.” What might have happened if Dr. Tan hadn’t found them, she didn’t know.
Dr. Tan was a doctor with the Indians. He was on his way north to Independence when he came to Pa’s house. It was a strange thing that Jack, who hated strangers and never let one come near the house until Pa or Ma told him to, had gone to meet Dr. Tan and begged him to come in.
“And here you all were, more dead than alive,” Mrs. Scott said. Dr. Tan had stayed with them a day and a night before Mrs. Scott came. Now he was doctoring all the sick settlers.
Mrs. Scott said that all this sickness came from eating watermelons. She said, “I’ve said a hundred times, if I have once, that watermelons—”
“What’s that?” Pa exclaimed. “Who’s got watermelons?”
Mrs. Scott said that one of the settlers had planted watermelons in the creek bottoms. And every soul who had eaten one of those melons was down sick that very minute. She said she had warned them. “But, no,” she said. “There was no arguing with them. They would eat those melons, and now they’re paying for it.”
“I haven’t tasted a good slice of watermelon since Hector was a pup,” said Pa.
Next day he was out of bed. The next day, Laura was up. Then Ma got up, and then Mary. They were all thin and shaky, but they could take care of themselves. So, Mrs. Scott went home.
Ma said she didn’t know how they could ever thank her, and Mrs. Scott said, “Pshaw! What are neighbors for but to help each other out?”
Pa’s cheeks were hollows and he walked slowly. Ma often sat down to rest. Laura and Mary didn’t feel like playing. Every morning they all took those bitter powders. But Ma still smiled her lovely smile, and Pa whistled cheerfully.
“It’s an ill wind that doesn’t blow some good,” he said. He wasn’t able to work, so he could make a rocking-chair for Ma.
He brought some slender willows from the creek bottoms, and he made the chair in the house. He could stop any time to put wood on the fire or lift a kettle for Ma.
First, he made four stout legs and braced them firmly with crosspieces. Then he cut thin strips of the tough willow-skin, just under the bark. He wove these strips back and forth, under and over, till they made a seat for the chair.
He split a long, straight sapling down the middle. He pegged one end of half of it to the side of the seat, and curved it up and over and down, and pegged the other end to the other side of the seat. That made a high, curved back to the chair. He braced it firmly, and then he wove the thin willow-strips across and up and down, under and over each other, till they filled in the chairback.
With the other half of the split sapling Pa made arms for the chair. He curved them from the front of the seat to the chair-back, and he filled them in with woven strips.
Last of all, he split a larger willow which had grown in a curve. He turned the chair upside down, and he pegged the curved pieces to its legs, to make the rockers. And the chair was done.
Then they made a celebration. Ma took off her apron and smoothed her smooth brown hair. She pinned her gold pin in the front of her collar. Mary tied the string of beads around Carrie’s neck. Pa and Laura put Mary’s pillow on the chair-seat and set Laura’s pillow against its back. Over the pillows Pa spread the quilt from the little bed. Then he took Ma’s hand and led her to the chair, and he put Baby Carrie in her arms.
Ma leaned back into the softness. Her thin cheeks flushed, and her eyes sparkled with tears, but her smile was beautiful. The chair rocked her gently and she said, “Oh, Charles, I haven’t been so comfortable since I don’t know when.”
Then Pa took his fiddle, and he played and sang to Ma in the firelight. Ma rocked and Baby Carrie went to sleep, and Mary and Laura sat on their bench and were happy.
The very next day, without saying where he was going, Pa rode away on Patty. Ma wondered and wondered where he had gone. And when Pa came back, he was balancing a watermelon in front of him on the saddle.
He could hardly carry it into the house. He let it fall on the floor and dropped down beside it.
“I thought I’d never get it here,” he said. “It must weigh forty pounds, and I’m as weak as water. Hand me the butcher knife.”
“But, Charles!” Ma said. “You mustn’t. Mrs. Scott said—”
Pa laughed his big, pealing laugh again. “But that’s not reasonable,” he said. “This is a good melon. Why should it have fever ’n’ ague? Everybody knows that fever ’n’ ague comes from breathing the night air.”
“This watermelon grew in the night air,” said Ma.
“Nonsense!” Pa said. “Give me the butcher knife. I’d eat this melon if I knew it would give me chills and fever.”
“I do believe you would,’’ said Ma, handing him the knife.
It went into the melon with a luscious sound. The green rind split open, and there was the bright red inside, flecked with black seeds. The red heart actually looked frosty. Nothing had ever been so tempting as that watermelon, on that hot day.
Ma would not taste it. She would not let Laura and Mary eat one bite. But Pa ate slice after slice after slice, until at last he sighed and said the cow could have the rest of it.
Next day he had a little chill and a little fever. Ma blamed the watermelon. But next day she had a chill and a little fever. So, they did not know what could have caused their fever ’n’ ague. No one knew, in those days, that fever ’n’ ague was malaria, and that some mosquitoes give it to people when they bite them.