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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 still carried the sweets in his many pockets which Laura and the littler girls liked to clamber on him to find. Laura stood apart shyly as Carrie and Baby Grace, giggling, searched for the candies. She was too old for that now.

Just then Pa came striding around the corner of the cabin, a merry grin lighting up his sparkling blue eyes. “Why, Doe, I’ll be derned!” Pa said, taking him by the hand.

Charles, please, don’t swear,” Ma reminded, following a step behind.

Pa apologized. Then he and Mr. Doe embraced and slapped each other on the back and laughed, and Mr. Doe called Pa “Number 17,” an old custom between them that Laura didn’t completely understand. After a few minutes they went inside the cabin to talk privately, while Ma and Laura and her sisters stayed outside on the porch.

Pa and Mr. Doe had met at an estate auction last summer and liked each other right away. Pa said Mr. Doe had the best head for figures of any man he ever knew. Since spring ice-out Pa and Mr. Doe had been hatching some complicated, secret scheme, Laura was sure. But whenever she asked Pa about it, he just laughed a big laugh that split his black beard and showed his white teeth. Pa had a laugh that boomed and roared and echoed, and it made Laura feel warm all over. When she heard it, she knew that nothing could be wrong in the world.

We’re living in the last days, Doe.” Pa’s voice rose from downstairs with the smell of the morning coffee as Laura snuggled under the quilts in her bedroom below the eaves. Sleepily she wondered if Pa and his friend had gotten up early, or had never gone to bed the night before. “All the signs are there,” she heard Pa continue. “Portents in the heavens, universal daylight savings, the frug…” It was lovely drifting in and out of sleep to the gentle sound of grown-ups’ voices, knowing that she didn’t have to go to school.

What did Laura need with school, anyway? She liked having lots of free time, and going to gun shows with Pa, and reading the many interesting pamphlets he received in the mail. Now he was talking about the sheep being divided from the goats and the graves opening up and releasing their dead.Pa always had a way of putting things that made you see exactly what he meant.

Suddenly Laura’s china-blue eyes popped wide open as she remembered what day this was. She had almost forgotten! Pa had promised that today she could help him and Mr. Doe mix fuel oil with little pellets of fertilizer in fifty-five-gallon drums for a project they were working on. Pa had said it was an important job that required great care. You had to see that the oil coated each pellet just so, not too much and not too little. He wouldn’t trust the job to any of her sisters or even to Ma, he said. Laura glowed with pleasure to think that he had chosen her. In a single bound she leaped from bed, wiggled into her clothes, and clambered down the ladder to her place at the breakfast table.

Well, you’re up early, Laura,” Pa greeted her, grinning a grin even bigger than his usual one. Jack, lying on the floor by Pa’s chair, barked cheerfully and his nearly blue eyes sparkled with excitement, because he knew he was to be taken along on the day’s adventure, too. When all had eaten their fill of Ma’s clabber cakes, buttermilk, and dietary supplements, Laura and Pa and Mr. Doe and Jack got into a loaner wagon Pa had obtained from his company. Then they went down the dusty driveway and along the road to a seldom-used rest area on Highway 9.

So one day followed another in this wild new land, where people like Pa could settle down at last and be free. Laura and her sisters soon made many friends among their distant neighbors after they had been cleared by Pa. They went on picnics and held socials, prayer meetings, and sing-alongs. Sometimes Pa had to take trips to Nevada to look for extra work in the hotels there. Those weeks were hard for the family, all alone in the cabin without his friendly words telling them what to do. But then suddenly he would return, filling the whole doorway in his big buffalo coat, handing out treats for the little ones and brightly colored magazines and lottery tickets for Ma.

People who had lived for years by the Big Ravine said that the winters there had gotten shorter, the springs and summers longer, and the storms more severe. Laura was too young to judge whether or not that was true. She knew, however, that the flocks of Canada geese appeared in the sky overhead every fall, passing in long skeins like giant check marks upon the clouds only to land nearby and not go anywhere, and that the dun-colored mule deer were plentiful in the draws and on the roads, and that a multitude of crows and ravens and starlings beyond numbering gathered on the burnished land year in and year out no matter what the weather was.

Laura did not care what people said. She may have been only eight years old, but somehow she understood that everyone should just do for himself. Her heart filled with joy as she stood on the bluff above the interstate and looked out across the prairie while the rising wind pressed her dress and petticoats against her knees. She breathed deep of the crisp, dusty air and almost shouted with a sudden surge of pride. This was where she belonged, even if the cities were better and had plumbing and so on. She had become a part of this place, and it of her, and here she would remain until she was grown or could get a part-time job in Bismarck or maybe Minneapolis-St. Paul.

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