A long time ago, when all the grandfathers and grandmothers of today were little boys and little girls or very small babies, or perhaps not even born, Pa and Ma and Mary and Laura and Baby Carrie left their little house in the Big Woods of Wisconsin. They drove away and left it lonely and empty in the clearing among the big trees, and they never saw that little house again.
They were going to the Indian country.
Pa said there were too many people in the Big Woods now. Quite often Laura heard the ringing thud of an ax which was not Pa’s ax, or the echo of a shot that did not come from his gun. The path that went by the little house had become a road. Almost every day Laura and Mary stopped their playing and stared in surprise at a wagon slowly creaking by on that road.
Wild animals would not stay in a country where there were so many people. Pa did not like to stay, either. He liked a country where the wild animals lived without being afraid. He liked to see the little fawns and their mothers looking at him from the shadowy woods, and the fat, lazy bears eating berries in the wild-berry patches.
In the long winter evenings, he talked to Ma about the Western country. In the West, the land was level, and there were no trees. The grass grew thick and high. There the wild animals wandered and fed as though they were in a pasture that stretched much farther than a man could see, and there were no settlers. Only Indians lived there.
One day in the very last of the winter Pa said to Ma, “Seeing you don’t object, I’ve decided to go see the West. I’ve had an offer for this place, and we can sell it now for as much as we’re ever likely to get, enough to give us a start in a new country.”
“Oh, Charles, must we go now?” Ma said. The weather was so cold, and the snug house was so comfortable.
“If we are going this year, we must go now,” said Pa. “We can’t get across the Mississippi after the ice breaks.”
So, Pa sold the little house. He sold the cow and calf. He made hickory bows and fastened them upright to the wagon-box. Ma helped him stretch white canvas over them.
In the thin dark before morning Ma gently shook Mary and Laura till, they got up. In firelight and candlelight, she washed and combed them and dressed them warmly. Over their long red- flannel underwear she put wool petticoats and wool dresses and long wool stockings. She put their coats on them, and their rabbit-skin hoods and their red yarn mittens.
Everything from the little house was in the wagon, except the beds and tables and chairs. They did not need to take these, because Pa could always make new ones.
There was thin snow on the ground. The air was still and cold and dark. The bare trees stood up against the frosty stars. But in the east the sky was pale and through the gray woods came lanterns with wagons and horses, bringing Grandpa and Grandma and aunts and uncles and cousins.
Mary and Laura clung tight to their rag dolls and did not say anything. The cousins stood around and looked at them. Grandma and all the aunts hugged and kissed them and hugged and kissed them again, saying goodbye.
Pa hung his gun to the wagon bows inside the canvas top, where he could reach it quickly from the seat. He hung his bullet-pouch and powder- horn beneath it. He laid the fiddle-box carefully between pillows, where jolting would not hurt the fiddle.
The uncles helped him hitch the horses to the wagon. All the cousins were told to kiss Mary and Laura, so they did. Pa picked up Mary and then Laura and set them on the bed in the back of the wagon. He helped Ma climb up to the wagon- seat, and Grandma reached up and gave her Baby Carrie. Pa swung up and sat beside Ma, and Jack, the brindle bulldog, went under the wagon.
So, they all went away from the little log house. The shutters were over the windows, so the little house could not see them go. It stayed there inside the log fence, behind the two big oak trees that in the summertime had made green roofs for Mary and Laura to play under. And that was the last of the little house.
Pa promised that when they came to the West, Laura should see a papoose.
“What is a papoose?” she asked him, and he said, “A papoose is a little, brown, Indian baby.”
They drove a long way through the snowy woods, till they came to the town of Pepin. Mary and Laura had seen it once before, but it looked different now. The door of the store and the doors of all the houses were shut, the stumps were covered with snow, and no little children were playing outdoors. Big cords of wood stood among the stumps. Only two or three men in boots and fur caps and bright plaid coats were to be seen.
Ma and Laura and Mary ate bread and molasses in the wagon, and the horses ate corn from nosebags, while inside the store Pa traded his furs for things they would need on the journey. They could not stay long in the town, because they must cross the lake that day.
The enormous lake stretched flat and smooth and white all the way to the edge of the gray sky. Wagon tracks went away across it, so far that you could not see where they went; they ended in nothing at all.
Pa drove the wagon out onto the ice, following those wagon tracks. The horses’ hoofs clop- clopped with a dull sound, the wagon wheels went crunching. The town grew smaller and smaller behind, till even the tall store was only a dot. All around the wagon there was nothing but empty and silent space. Laura didn’t like it. But Pa was on the wagon seat and Jack was under the wagon; she knew that nothing could hurt her while Pa and Jack were there.
At last the wagon was pulling up a slope of earth again, and again there were trees. There was a little log house, too, among the trees. So, Laura felt better.
Nobody lived in the little house; it was a place to camp in. It was a tiny house, and strange, with a big fireplace and rough bunks against all the walls. But it was warm when Pa had built a fire in the fireplace. That night Mary and Laura and Baby Carrie slept with Ma in a bed made on the floor before the fire, while Pa slept outside in the wagon, to guard it and the horses.
In the night, a strange noise wakened Laura. It sounded like a shot, but it was sharper and longer than a shot. Again, and again she heard it. Mary and Carrie were asleep, but Laura couldn’t sleep until Ma’s voice came softly through the dark. “Go to sleep, Laura,” Ma said. “It’s only the ice cracking.”
Next morning Pa said, “It’s lucky we crossed yesterday, Caroline. Wouldn’t wonder if the ice broke up today. We made a late crossing, and we’re lucky it didn’t start breaking up while we were out in the middle of it.”
“I thought about that yesterday, Charles,” Ma replied, gently.
Laura hadn’t thought about it before, but now she thought what would have happened if the ice had cracked under the wagon wheels and they had all gone down into the cold water in the middle of that vast lake.
“You’re frightening somebody, Charles,” Ma said, and Pa caught Laura up in his safe, big hug. “We’re across the Mississippi!” he said, hugging her joyously. “How do you like that, little half-pint of sweet cider half-drunk up? Do you
like going out west where Indians live?”
Laura said she liked it, and she asked if they were in the Indian country now. But they were not; they were in Minnesota.
It was a long, long way to Indian Territory. Almost every day the horses traveled as far as they could; almost every night Pa and Ma made camp in a new place. Sometimes they had to stay several days in one camp because a creek was in flood and they couldn’t cross it till the water went down. They crossed too many creeks to count. They saw strange woods and hills, and stranger country with no trees. They drove across rivers on long wooden bridges, and they came to one wide yellow river that had no bridge.
That was the Missouri River. Pa drove onto a raft, and they all sat still in the wagon while the raft went swaying away from the safe land and slowly crossed all that rolling muddy-yellow water.
After more days they came to hills again. In a valley the wagon stuck fast in deep black mud. Rain poured down and thunder crashed, and lightning flared. There was no place to make camp and build a fire. Everything was damp and chill and miserable in the wagon, but they had to stay in it and eat cold bits of food.
Next day Pa found a place on a hillside where they could camp. The rain had stopped, but they had to wait a week before the creek went down and the mud dried so that Pa could dig the wagon wheels out of it and go on.
One day, while they were waiting, a tall, lean man came out of the woods, riding a black pony.
He and Pa talked awhile, then they went off into the woods together, and when they came back, both of them were riding black ponies. Pa had traded the tired brown horses for those ponies.
They were beautiful little horses, and Pa said they were not really ponies; they were western mustangs. “They’re strong as mules and gentle as kittens,” Pa said. They had large, soft, gentle eyes, and long manes and tails, and slender legs and feet much smaller and quicker than the feet of horses in the Big Woods.
When Laura asked what their names were, Pa said that she and Mary could name them. So, Mary named one, Pet, and Laura named the other, Patty. When the creek’s roar was not so loud and the road was drier, Pa dug the wagon out of the mud. He hitched Pet and Patty to it, and they all went on together.
They had come in the covered wagon all the long way from the Big Woods of Wisconsin, across Minnesota and Iowa and Missouri. All that long way, Jack had trotted under the wagon. Now they set out to go across Kansas.
Kansas was an endless flat land covered with tall grass blowing in the wind. Day after day they traveled in Kansas and saw nothing but the rippling grass and enormous sky. In a perfect circle the sky curved down to the level land, and the wagon was in the circle’s exact middle.
All day long Pet and Patty went forward, trot- ting and walking and trotting again, but they couldn’t get out of the middle of that circle. When the sun went down, the circle was still around them and the edge of the sky was pink. Then slowly the land became black. The wind made a lonely sound in the grass. The campfire was small and lost in so much space. But large stars hung from the sky, glittering so near that Laura felt she could almost touch them.
Next day the land was the same, the sky was the same, the circle did not change. Laura and Mary were tired of them all. There was nothing new to do and nothing new to look at. The bed was made in the back of the wagon and neatly covered with a gray blanket; Laura and Mary sat on it. The canvas sides of the wagon-top were rolled up and tied, so the prairie wind blew in. It whipped Laura’s straight brown hair and Mary’s golden curls every-which-way, and the strong light screwed up their eyelids.
Sometimes a big jack rabbit bounded in big bounds away over the blowing grass. Jack paid no attention. Poor Jack was tired, too, and his paws were sore from traveling so far. The wagon kept on jolting; the canvas top snapped in the wind. Two faint wheel tracks kept going away be- hind the wagon, always the same.
Pa’s back was hunched. The reins were loose in his hands, the wind blew his long brown beard. Ma sat straight and quiet, her hands folded in her lap. Baby Carrie slept in a nest among the soft bundles.
“Ah-wow!” Mary yawned, and Laura said: “Ma, can’t we get out and run behind the wagon? My legs are so tired.”
“No, Laura,” Ma said.
“Aren’t we going to camp pretty soon?” Laura asked. It seemed such a long time since noon, when they had eaten their lunch sitting on the clean grass in the shade of the wagon.
Pa answered: “Not yet. It’s too early to camp now.”
“I want to camp, now! I’m so tired,” Laura said.
Then Ma said, “Laura.” That was all, but it meant that Laura must not complain. So, she did not complain any more out loud, but she was still naughty, inside. She sat and thought complaints to herself.
Her legs ached and the wind wouldn’t stop blowing her hair. The grass waved and the wagon jolted and nothing else happened for a long time. “We’re coming to a creek or a river,” Pa said.
“Girls, can you see those trees ahead?”
Laura stood up and held to one of the wagon bows. Far ahead she saw a low dark smudge. “That’s trees,” Pa said. “You can tell by the shape of the shadows. In this country, trees mean water. That’s where we’ll camp tonight.”