One evening Laura and Pa were sitting on the doorstep. The moon shone over the dark prairie, the winds were still, and softly Pa played his fiddle.
He let a last note quiver far, far away, until it dissolved in the moonlight. Everything was so beautiful that Laura wanted it to stay so forever. But Pa said it was time for little girls to go to bed. Then Laura heard a strange, low, distant sound.
“What’s that!” she said.
Pa listened. “Cattle, by George!” he said. “Must be the cattle herds going north to Fort Dodge.”
After she was undressed, Laura stood in her nightgown at the window. The air was very still, not a grass blade rustled, and far away and faint she could hear that sound. It was almost a rumble and almost a song.
“Is that singing Pa?” she asked.
“Yes,” Pa said. “The cowboys are singing the cattle to sleep. Now hop into bed, you little scalawag!”
Laura thought of cattle lying on the dark ground in the moonlight, and of cowboys softly singing lullabies.
Next morning when she ran out of the house two strange men were sitting on horses by the stable. They were talking to Pa. They were as red brown as Indians, but their eyes were narrow slits between squinting eyelids. They wore flaps of leather over their legs, and spurs, and wide- brimmed hats. Handkerchiefs were knotted around their necks, and pistols were on their hips.
They said, “So long,” to Pa, and “Hi! Yip!” to their horses, and they galloped away.
“Here’s a piece of luck!” Pa said to Ma. Those men were cowboys. They wanted Pa to help them keep the cattle out of the ravines among the bluffs of the creek bottoms. Pa would not charge them any money, but he told them he would take a piece of beef. “How would you like a good piece of beef?” Pa asked.
“Oh, Charles!” said Ma, and her eyes shone.
Pa tied his biggest handkerchief around his neck. He showed Laura how he could pull it up over his mouth and nose to keep the dust out. Then he rode Patty west along the Indian trail, till Laura and Mary couldn’t see him anymore.
All day the hot sun blazed, and the hot winds blew, and the sound of the cattle herds came nearer. It was a faint, mournful sound of cattle lowing. At noon dust was blowing along the horizon. Ma said that so many cattle trampled the grasses flat and stirred up dust from the prairie.
Pa came riding home at sunset, covered with dust. There was dust in his beard and in his hair and on the rims of his eyelids, and dust fell off his clothes. He did not bring any beef, because the cattle were not across the creek yet. The cattle went very slowly, eating grass as they went. They had to eat enough grass to be fat when they came to the cities where people ate them.
Pa did not talk much that night, and he didn’t play the fiddle. He went to bed soon after supper. The herds were so near now that Laura could hear them plainly. The mournful lowing sounded over the prairie till the night was dark. Then the cattle were quieter, and the cowboys began to sing. Their songs were not like lullabies. They were high, lonely, wailing songs, almost like the howling of wolves.
Laura lay awake, listening to the lonely songs wandering in the night. Farther away, real wolves howled. Sometimes the cattle lowed. But the cowboys’ songs went on, rising and falling and wailing away under the moon. When everyone else was asleep, Laura stole softly to the window, and she saw three fires gleaming like red eyes from the dark edge of the land. Overhead the sky was big and still and full of moonlight. The lonely songs seemed to be crying for the moon. They made Laura’s throat ache.
All next day Laura and Mary watched the west. They could hear the far-away bawling of the cattle; they could see dust blowing. Some- times they thinly heard a shrill yell.
Suddenly a dozen long-horned cattle burst out of the prairie, not far from the stable. They had come up out of a draw going down to the creek bottoms. Their tails stood up and their fierce horns tossed, and their feet pounded the ground. A cowboy on a spotted mustang galloped madly to get in front of them. He waved his big hat and yelled sharp, high yells. “Hi! Yi-yi-yi! Hi!” The cattle wheeled, clashing their long horns together. With lifted tails they galloped lumbering away, and behind them the mustang ran and whirled and ran, herding them together. They all went over a rise of ground and down out of sight.
Laura ran back and forth, waving her sunbonnet and yelling, “Hi! Yi-yi-yi!” till Ma told her to stop. It was not ladylike to yell like that. Laura wished she could be a cowboy.
Late that afternoon three riders came out of the west, driving one lone cow. One of the riders was Pa, on Patty. Slowly they came nearer, and Laura saw that with the cow was a little spotted calf.
The cow came lunging and plunging. Two cowboys rode well apart in front of her. Two ropes around her long horns were fastened to the cowboys’ saddles. When the cow lunged with her horns toward either cowboy the other cow- boy’s pony braced its feet and held her. The cow bawled and the little calf bleated thinner bawls.
Ma watched from the window, while Mary and Laura stood against the house and stared.
The cowboys held the cow with their ropes while Pa tied her to the stable. Then they said good-by to him and rode away.
Ma could not believe that Pa had actually brought home a cow. But it really was their own cow. The calf was too small to travel, Pa said, and the cow would be too thin to sell, so the cowboys had given them to Pa. They had given him the beef, too; a big chunk was tied to his saddle horn.
Pa and Ma and Mary and Laura and even Baby Carrie laughed for joy. Pa always laughed out loud and his laugh was like great bells ringing. When Ma was pleased, she smiled a gentle smile that made Laura feel warm all over. But now she was laughing because they had a cow.
“Give me a bucket, Caroline,” said Pa. He was going to milk the cow, right away.
He took the bucket, he pushed back his hat, and he squatted by the cow to milk her. And that cow hunched herself and kicked Pa flat on his back.
Pa jumped up. His face was blazing red and his eyes snapped blue sparks.
“Now, by the Great Horn Spoon, I’ll milk her!” he said.
He got his ax and he sharpened two stout slabs of oak. He pushed the cow against the stable, and he drove those slabs deep into the ground beside her. The cow bawled and the little calf squalled. Pa tied poles firmly to the posts and stuck their ends into the cracks of the stable, to make a fence.
Now the cow could not move forward or backward or sidewise. But the little calf could nudge its way between its mother and the stable. So, the baby calf felt safe and stopped bawling. It stood on that side of the cow and drank its supper, and Pa put his hand through the fence and milked from the other side. He got a tin cup almost full of milk.
“We’ll try again in the morning,” he said. “The poor thing’s as wild as a deer. But we’ll gentle her, we’ll gentle her.”
The dark was coming on. Nighthawks were chasing insects in the dark air. Bullfrogs were croaking in the creek bottoms. A bird called, “Whip! Whip! Whip-poor-Will!” “Who? Whooo?” said an owl. Far away the wolves howled, and Jack was growling.
“The wolves are following the herds,” Pa said. “Tomorrow I’ll build a strong, high yard for the cow, that wolves can’t get into.”
So, they all went into the house with the beef. Pa and Ma and Mary and Laura all agreed to give the milk to Baby Carrie. They watched her drink it. The tin cup hid her face, but Laura could see the gulps of milk going down her throat. Gulp by gulp, she swallowed all that good milk. Then she licked the foam from her lip with her red tongue and laughed.
It seemed a long time before the cornbread and the sizzling beef steaks were done. But nothing had ever tasted so good as that tough, juicy beef. And everyone was happy because now there would be milk to drink, and perhaps even butter for the cornbread. The lowing of the cattle herds was far away again, and the songs of the cowboys were almost too faint to be heard. All those cattle were on the other side of the creek bottoms now, in Kansas. Tomorrow they would slowly go farther on their long way northward to Fort Dodge, where the soldiers were.