Little House off the Highway

The prairie grasses rippled in the warm spring wind as Laura ran down the trail past the lookout post above her family’s cabin on the banks of the Big Ravine. Puffs of dust rose under her bare feet as she hurried. The sound of wheels in the gravel of the long drive told her that company was coming, and Laura wanted to see who it could be. Laura was a big girl now, almost nine. Pa called her “little half-pint” and said she wasn’t any bigger than an IRS agent’s heart. But she was wiry, and strong for a girl.

Laura loved living here out away from town, and she loved the family’s new cabin. Pa had bartered some surplus equipment for it and he and his friend Mr. Ettinger had moved it here on two hay wagons when the roads firmed up in late fall. Ma had been glad to get out of the school bus into a real house for a change. She had polished the floors and painted the walls until they gleamed. The new cabin had plenty of room for everybody: Pa, Ma, Laura, her three sisters, and Jack, the family’s brindle-faced bulldog. Jack looked very fierce, but never bit unless you had a tie or a uniform on.

Just last week a man who worked for the so-called state of North Dakota had come to the cabin with a paper that he said authorized him to take Jack away. Luckily, some friends were visiting Pa that day, and together they had faced the man down and made him leave empty-handed. Laura hoped that the dust she saw coming up the drive wasn’t him returning. Pa had said he wouldn’t be so polite the next time. Jack ran out from under the porch barking and growling as usual, and then suddenly he stopped barking and his tail began to wag. At the same moment Laura recognized the bright blue eyes, bushy beard, and cheerful grin of Red Bandanna Doe, an old friend of the family’s whose real name only Pa knew for sure. Mr. Doe climbed down from the driver’s seat, slapped the dust from his trousers with his jungle hat, and grabbed Jack and Laura in a big bear hug.

“Why, Mr. Doe, Ideclare!” said Ma, opening the cabin door and wiping her hands on her fatigues. “We didn’t expect to see you again until the new moon!”

“Well, Ma’am,” he replied with a quiet smile, “you know I never follow any set routine, for reasons of my own.”

“Yes, I suppose that’s so,” Ma said, and for an instant a thoughtful look filled her soft blue eyes. “Charles is shredding papers out back,” she continued. “Pull up a chair here on the porch in the sun, and I’ll tell him you’re here.”

Mr. Doe had seceded from “the United States” last New Year’s, but to Laura he still seemed just the same. He still smelled like cinnamon and tobacco and gun solvent, and he…

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