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مجموعه: مجموعه خانه ی کوچک / کتاب: خانه ای کوچک در چمن زار / فصل 7

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THE WOLF-PACK

All in one day Pa and Mr. Edwards built the stable for Pet and Patty. They even put the roof on, working so late that Ma had to keep supper waiting for them.

There was no stable door, but in the moonlight Pa drove two stout posts well into the ground, one on either side of the doorway. He put Pet and Patty inside the stable, and then he laid small split logs one above another, across the door space. The posts held them, and they made a solid wall.

“Now!” said Pa. “Let those wolves howl! I’ll sleep, tonight.”

In the morning, when he lifted the split logs from behind the posts, Laura was amazed. Beside Pet stood a long-legged, long-eared, wobbly little colt.

When Laura ran toward it, gentle Pet laid back her ears and snapped her teeth at Laura.

“Keep back, Laura!” Pa said, sharply. He said to Pet, “Now, Pet, you know we won’t hurt your little colt.” Pet answered him with a soft whinny. She would let Pa stroke her colt, but she would not let Laura or Mary come near it. When they even peeked at it through the cracks in the stable wall, Pet rolled the whites of her eyes at them and showed them her teeth. They had never seen a colt with ears so long. Pa said it was a little mule, but Laura said it looked like a jack rabbit. So they named the little colt Bunny.

When Pet was on the picket-line, with Bunny frisking around her and wondering at the big world, Laura must watch Baby Carrie carefully. If anyone but Pa came near Bunny, Pet squealed with rage and dashed to bite that little girl.

Early that Sunday afternoon Pa rode Patty away across the prairie to see what he should see. There was plenty of meat in the house, so he did not take his gun.

He rode away through the tall grass, along the rim of the creek bluffs. Birds flew up before him and circled and sank into the grasses.

Pa was looking down into the creek bottoms as he rode; perhaps he was watching deer browsing there. Then Patty broke into a gallop, and swiftly she and Pa grew smaller. Soon there was only waving grass where they had been.

Late that afternoon Pa had not come home.

Ma stirred the coals of the fire and laid chips on them, and began to get supper. Mary was in the house, minding the baby, and Laura asked Ma, “What’s the matter with Jack?”

Jack was walking up and down, looking worried. He wrinkled his nose at the wind, and the hair rose up on his neck and lay down, and then rose up again. Pet’s hoofs suddenly thud-ded. She ran around the circle of her picket-rope and stood still, whickering a low whicker.

Bunny came close to her.

“What’s the matter, Jack?” Ma asked. He looked up at her, but he couldn’t say anything.

Ma gazed around the whole circle of earth and sky. She could not see anything unusual.

“Likely it isn’t anything, Laura,” she said.

She raked coals around the coffee-pot and the spider and onto the top of the bake oven. The prairie hen sizzled in the spider and the corncakes began to smell good. But all the time Ma kept glancing at the prairie all around.

Jack walked about restlessly, and Pet did not graze. She faced the northwest, where Pa had gone, and kept her colt close beside her.

All at once Patty came running across the prairie. She was stretched out, running with all her might, and Pa was leaning almost flat on her neck.

She ran right past the stable before Pa could stop her. He stopped her so hard that she almost sat down. She was trembling all over and her black coat was streaked with sweat and foam. Pa swung off her. He was breathing hard, too.

“What is the matter, Charles?” Ma asked him.

Pa was looking toward the creek, so Ma and Laura looked at it, too. But they could see only the space above the bottom lands, with a few tree-tops in it, and the distant tops of the earthen bluffs under the High Prairie’s grasses.

“What is it?” Ma asked again. “Why did you ride Patty like that?”

Pa breathed a long breath. “I was afraid the wolves would beat me here. But I see everything’s all right.”

“Wolves!” she cried. “What wolves?”

“Everything’s all right, Caroline,” said Pa.

“Let a fellow get his breath.”

When he had got some breath, he said, “I didn’t ride Patty like that. It was all I could do to hold her at all. Fifty wolves, Caroline, the biggest wolves I ever saw. I wouldn’t go through such a thing again, not for a mint of money.”

A shadow came over the prairie just then because the sun had gone down, and Pa said,

“I’ll tell you about it later.”

“We’ll eat supper in the house,” said Ma.

“No need of that,” he told her. “Jack will give us warning in plenty of time.”

He brought Pet and her colt from the picket-line. He didn’t take them and Patty to drink from the creek, as he usually did. He gave them the water in Ma’s washtub, which was standing full, ready for the washing next morning. He rubbed down Patty’s sweaty sides and legs and put her in the barn with Pet and Bunny.

Supper was ready. The camp fire made a circle of light in the dark. Laura and Mary stayed close to the fire, and kept Baby Carrie with them. They could feel the dark all around them, and they kept looking behind them at the place where the dark mixed with the edge of the firelight.

Shadows moved there, as if they were alive. Jack sat on his haunches beside Laura.

The edges of his ears were lifted, listening to the dark. Now and then he walked a little way into it. He walked all around the camp fire, and came back to sit beside Laura. The hair lay flat on his thick neck and he did not growl.

His teeth showed a little, but that was because he was a bulldog.

Laura and Mary ate their corncakes and the prairie hen’s drumsticks, and they listened to Pa while he told Ma about the wolves.

He had found some more neighbors. Settlers were coming in and settling along both sides of the creek. Less than three miles away, in a hollow on the High Prairie, a man and his wife were building a house. Their name was Scott, and Pa said they were nice folks. Six miles beyond them, two bachelors were living in one house. They had taken two farms, and built the house on the line between them. One man’s bunk was against one wall of the house, and the other man’s bunk was against the other wall. So each man slept on his own farm, although they were in the same house and the house was only eight feet wide. They cooked arid ate together in the middle of the house.

Pa had not said anything about the wolves yet. Laura wished he would. But she knew that she must not interrupt when Pa was talking.

He said that these bachelors did not know that anyone else was in the country. They had seen nobody but Indians. So they were glad to see Pa, and he stayed there longer than he had meant to.

Then he rode on, and from a little rise in the prairie he saw a white speck down in the creek bottoms. He thought it was a covered wagon, and it was. When he came to it, he found a man and his wife and five children.

They had come from Iowa, and they had camped in the bottoms because one of their horses was sick. The horse was better now, but the bad night air so near the creek had given them fever ‘n’ ague. The man and his wife and the three oldest children were too sick to stand up. The little boy and girl,no big-88

ger than Mary and Laura, were taking care of them.

So Pa did what he could for them, and then he rode back to tell the bachelors about them.

One of them rode right away to fetch that family up on the High Prairie, where they would soon get well in the good air.

One thing had led to another, until Pa was starting home later than he had meant. He took a short cut across the prairie, and as he was loping along on Patty, suddenly out of a little draw came a pack of wolves. They were all around Pa in a moment.

“It was a big pack,” Pa said. “All of fifty wolves, and the biggest wolves I ever saw in my life. Must be what they call buffalo wolves. Their leader’s a big gray brute that stands three feet at the shoulder, if an inch. I tell you my hair stood straight on end.”

“And you didn’t have your gun,” said Ma.

“I thought of that. But my gun would have been no use if I’d had it. You can’t fight fifty wolves with one gun. And Patty couldn’t out-run them.”

“What did you do?” Ma asked.

“Nothing,” said Pa. “Patty tried to run. I never wanted anything worse than I wanted to get away from there. But I knew if Patty even started, those wolves would be on us in a minute, pulling us down. So I held Patty to a walk.”

“Goodness, Charles!” Ma said under her breath.

“Yes. I wouldn’t go through such a thing again for any money. Caroline, I never saw such wolves. One big fellow trotted along, right by my stirrup. I could have kicked him in the ribs. They didn’t pay any attention to me at all. They must have just made a kill and eaten all they could.

“I tell you, Caroline, those wolves just closed in around Patty and me and trotted along with us. In broad daylight. For all the world like a pack of dogs going along with a horse. They were all around us, trotting along, and jumping and playing and snapping at each other, just like dogs.”

“Goodness, Charles!” Ma said again. Laura’s heart was thumping fast, and her mouth and her eyes were wide open, staring at Pa.

“Patty was shaking all over, and fighting the bit,” said Pa. “Sweat ran off her, she was so scared. I was sweating, too. But I held her down to a walk, and we went walking along among those wolves. They came right along with us, a quarter of a mile or more. That big fellow trotted by my stirrup as if he were there to stay.

“Then we came to the head of a draw, running down into the creek bottoms. The big gray leader went down it, and all the rest of the pack trotted down into it, behind him. As soon as the last one was in the draw, I let Patty go.

“She headed straight for home, across the prairie. And she couldn’t have run faster if I’d been cutting into her with a rawhide whip. I was scared the whole way. I thought the wolves might be coming this way and they might be making better time than I was. I was glad you had the gun, Caroline. And glad the house is built. I knew you could keep the wolves out of the house, with the gun. But Pet and the colt were outside.”

“You need not have worried, Charles,” Ma said. “I guess I would manage to save our horses.”

“I was not fully reasonable, at the time,”

said Pa. “I know you would save the horses, Caroline. Those wolves wouldn’t bother you, anyway. If they had been hungry, I wouldn’t be here to—”

“Little pitchers have big ears,” Ma said. She meant that he must not frighten Mary and Laura.

“Well, all’s well that ends well,” Pa replied.

“And those wolves are miles from here by now.”

“What made them act like that?” Laura asked him.

“I don’t know, Laura,” he said. “I guess they had just eaten all they could hold, and they were on their way to the creek to get a drink.

Or perhaps they were out playing on the prairie, and not paying any attention to anything but their play, like little girls do sometimes. Perhaps they saw that I didn’t have my gun and couldn’t do them any harm. Or perhaps they had never seen a man before and didn’t know that men can do them any harm.

So they didn’t think about me at all.”

Pet and Patty were restlessly walking around and around, inside the barn. Jack walked around the camp fire. When he stood still to smell the air and listen, the hair lifted on his neck.

“Bedtime for little girls!” Ma said, cheerfully. Not even Baby Carrie was sleepy yet, but Ma took them all into the house. She told Mary and Laura to go to bed, and she put Baby Carrie’s little nightgown on and laid her in the big bed. Then she went outdoors to do the dishes. Laura wanted Pa and Ma in the house. They seemed so far away outside.

Mary and Laura were good and lay still, but Carrie sat up and played by herself in the dark. In the dark Pa’s arm came from behind the quilt in the doorway and quietly took away his gun. Out by the camp fire the tin plates rattled. Then a knife scraped the spider. Ma and Pa were talking together and Laura smelled tobacco smoke.

The house was safe, but it did not feel safe because Pa’s gun was not over the door and there was no door; there was only the quilt.

After a long time Ma lifted the quilt. Baby Carrie was asleep then. Ma and Pa came in very quietly and very quietly went to bed.

Jack lay across the doorway, but his chin was not on his paws. His head was up, listening.

Ma breathed softly, Pa breathed heavily, and Mary was asleep, too. But Laura strained her eyes in the dark to watch Jack. She could not 94

tell whether the hair was standing up on his neck.

Suddenly she was sitting straight up in bed.

She had been asleep. The dark was gone.

Moonlight streamed through the window hole and streaks of moonlight came through every crack in that wall. Pa stood black in the moonlight at the window. He had his gun.

Right in Laura’s ear a wolf howled.

She scringed away from the wall. The wolf was on the other side of it. Laura was too scared to make a sound. The cold was not in her backbone only, it was all through her.

Mary pulled the quilt over her head. Jack growled and showed his teeth at the quilt in the doorway.

“Be still, Jack,” Pa said.

Terrible howls curled all around inside the house, and Laura rose out of bed. She wanted to go to Pa, but she knew better than to bother him now. He turned his head and saw her standing in her nightgown.

“Want to see them, Laura?” he asked, softly.

Laura couldn’t say anything, but she nodded, and padded across the ground to him. He stood his gun against the wall and lifted her up to the window hole.

There in the moonlight sat half a circle of wolves. They sat on their haunches and looked at Laura in the window, and she looked at them. She had never seen such big wolves.

The biggest one was taller than Laura. He was taller even than Mary. He sat in the middle, exactly opposite Laura. Everything about him was big—his pointed ears, and his pointed mouth with the tongue hanging out, and his strong shoulders and legs, and his two paws side by side, and his tail curled around the squatting haunch. His coat was shaggy gray and his eyes were glittering green.

Laura clutched her toes into a crack of the wall and she folded her arms on the window slab, and she looked and looked at that wolf.

But she did not put her head through the empty window space into the outdoors where all those wolves sat so near her, shifting their paws and licking their chops. Pa stood firm against her back and kept his arm tight around her middle.

“He’s awful big,” Laura whispered.

“Yes, and see how his coat shines,” Pa whispered into her hair. The moonlight made little glitters in the edges of the shaggy fur, all around the big wolf.

“They are in a ring clear around the house,”

Pa whispered. Laura pattered beside him to the other window. He leaned his gun against that wall and lifted her up again. There, sure enough, was the other half of the circle of wolves. All their eyes glittered green in the shadow of the house. Laura could hear their breathing. When they saw Pa and Laura looking out, the middle of the circle moved back a little way.

Pet and Patty were squealing and running inside the barn. Their hoofs pounded the ground and crashed against the walls.

After a moment Pa went back to the other window, and Laura went, too. They were just in time to see the big wolf lift his nose till it pointed straight at the sky. His mouth opened, and a long howl rose toward the moon.

Then all around the house the circle of wolves pointed their noses toward the sky and answered him. Their howls shuddered through the house and filled the moonlight and quavered away across the vast silence of the prairie.

“Now go back to bed, little half-pint,” Pa said. “Go to sleep. Jack and I will take care of you all.”

So Laura went back to bed. But for a long time she did not sleep. She lay and listened to the breathing of the wolves on the other side of the log wall. She heard the scratch of their claws on the ground, and the snuffling of a nose at a crack. She heard the big gray leader howl again, and all the others answering him.

But Pa was walking quietly from one window hole to the other, and Jack did not stop pacing up and down before the quilt that hung in the doorway. The wolves might howl, but they could not get in while Pa and Jack were there. So at last Laura fell asleep.

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