The prairie had changed. Now it was a dark yellow, almost brown, and red streaks of sumac lay across it. The wind wailed in the tan grass, and it whispered sadly across the curly, short buffalo grass. At night the wind sounded like someone crying.
Pa said again that this was a great country. In the Big Woods he had had to cut hay and cure it and stack it and put it in the barn for winter. Here on the High Prairie, the sun had cured the wild grass where it stood, and all winter the mustangs and the cow could mow their own hay. He needed only a small stack, for stormy days.
Now the weather was cooler, and he would go to town. He had not gone while the summer was hot, because the heat would be too hard on Pet and Patty. They must pull the wagon twenty miles a day, to get to town in two days. And he did not want to be away from home any longer than he had to.
He stacked the small stack of hay by the barn. He cut the winter’s wood and corded it in a long cord against the house. Now he had only to get meat enough to last while he was gone, so he took his gun and went hunting.
Laura and Mary played in the wind outdoors. When they heard a shot echo in the woods along the creek, they knew that Pa had got some meat.
The wind was cooler now, and all along the creek bottoms flocks of wild ducks were rising, flying, settling again. Up from the creek came long lines of wild geese, forming in V’s for their flight farther south. The leader in front called to those behind him. “Honk?” he called. All down the lines the wild geese answered, one after an- other. “Honk.” “Honk.” “Honk.” Then he cried, “Honk!” And, “Honk-honk! Honk-honk!” the others answered him. Straight away south he flew on his strong wings, and the long lines evenly followed him.
The tree-tops along the creek were colored now. Oaks were reds and yellows and browns and greens. Cottonwoods and sycamores and walnuts were sunshiny yellow. The sky was not so brightly blue, and the wind was rough.
That afternoon the wind blew fiercely, and it was cold. Ma called Mary and Laura into the house. She built up the fire and drew her rocker near it, and she sat rocking Baby Carrie and singing softly to her, “By lo, baby bunting. Papa’s gone a-hunting, To get a rabbit skin To wrap the baby bunting in.”
Laura heard a little crackling in the chimney. Ma stopped singing. She bent forward and looked up the chimney. Then she got up quietly, put Carrie in Mary’s arms, pushed Mary down into the rocking-chair, and hurried outdoors. Laura ran after her.
The whole top of the chimney was on fire. The sticks that made it were burning up. The fire was roaring in the wind and licking toward the helpless roof. Ma seized a long pole and struck and struck at the roaring fire, and burning sticks fell all around her.
Laura didn’t know what to do. She grabbed a pole, too, but Ma told her to stay away. The roaring fire was terrible. It could burn the whole house and Laura couldn’t do anything.
She ran into the house. Burning sticks and coals were falling down the chimney and rolling out on the hearth. The house was full of smoke. One big, blazing stick rolled on the floor, under Mary’s skirts. Mary couldn’t move, she was so scared.
Laura was too scared to think. She grabbed the back of the heavy rocking-chair and pulled with all her might. The chair with Mary and Carrie in it came sliding back across the floor. Laura grabbed up the burning stick and flung it into the fireplace just as Ma came in.
“That’s a good girl, Laura, to remember I told you never to leave fire on the floor,” Ma said. She took the water-pail and quickly and quietly poured water on the fire in the fireplace. Clouds of steam came out.
Then Ma said, “Did you burn your hands?” She looked at Laura’s hands, but they were not burned, because she had thrown the burning stick so quickly.
Laura was not really crying. She was too big to cry. Only one tear ran out of each eye and her throat choked up, but that was not crying. She hid her face against Ma and hung on to her tight. She was so glad the fire had not hurt Ma.
“Don’t cry, Laura,” Ma said, stroking her hair. “Were you afraid?”
“Yes,” Laura said. “I was afraid Mary and Carrie would burn up. I was afraid the house would burn up and we wouldn’t have any house. I’m—I’m scared now!”
Mary could talk now. She told Ma how Laura had pulled the chair away from the fire. Laura was so little, and the chair was so big and so heavy with Mary and Carrie in it, that Ma was surprised. She said she didn’t know how Laura had done it.
“You were a brave girl, Laura,” she said. But Laura had really been terribly scared.
“And no harm’s done,” Ma said. “The house didn’t burn up, and Mary’s skirts didn’t catch fire and burn her and Carrie. So, everything is all right.”
When Pa came home, he found the fire out. The wind was roaring over the low stone top of the chimney and the house was cold. But Pa said he would build up the chimney with green sticks and fresh clay and plaster it so well that it wouldn’t catch fire again.
He had brought four fat ducks, and he said he could have killed hundreds. But four were all they needed. He said to Ma, “You save the feathers from the ducks and geese we eat, and I’ll shoot you a feather bed.”
He could, of course, have got a deer, but the weather was not yet cold enough to freeze the meat and keep it from spoiling before they could eat it. And he had found the place where a flock of wild turkeys roosted. “Our Thanksgiving and Christmas turkeys,” he said. “Great, big, fat fellows. I’ll get them when the time comes.”
Pa went whistling to mix mud and cut green sticks and build the chimney up again, while Ma cleaned the ducks. Then the fire merrily crackled, a fat duck roasted, and the cornbread baked. Everything was snug and cozy again.
After supper Pa said he supposed he’d better start to town early next morning. “Might as well go and get it over with,” he said.
“Yes, Charles, you’d better go,” Ma said. “We could get along all right, if I didn’t,” said
Pa. “There’s no need of running to town all the time, for every little thing. I have smoked better tobacco than that stuff Scott raised back in Indi- ana, but it will do. I’ll raise some next summer and pay him back. I wish I hadn’t borrowed those nails from Edwards.”
“You did borrow them, Charles,” Ma replied. “And as for the tobacco, you don’t like borrowing any more than I do. We need more quinine. I’ve been sparring with the cornmeal, but it’s almost gone and so is the sugar. You could find a beetree, but there’s no cornmeal tree to be found, so far as I know, and we’ll raise no corn till next year. A little salt pork would taste good, too, after all this wild game. And, Charles, I’d like to write to the folks in Wisconsin. If you mail a letter now, they can write this winter, and then we can hear from them next spring.”
“You’re right, Caroline. You always are,” Pa said. Then he turned to Mary and Laura and said it was bedtime. If he was going to start early in the morning, he’d better start sleeping early to- night.
He pulled off his boots while Mary and Laura got into their nightgowns. But when they were in bed, he took down his fiddle. Softly he played and softly sang, “So green grows the laurel, And so does the rue, So woeful, my love, At the parting with you.”
Ma turned toward him and smiled. “Take care of yourself on the trip, Charles, and don’t worry about us,” she told him. “We will be all right.”