Rose was sitting at the table in the littlelog house on Rocky Ridge Farm, fin-ishing a letter to Grandma Ingalls,when she heard snarling outside in the dark, snowy woods. Fido, the little white terrierwith black and tan spots, raised his head from the hearth and growled deep in his chest. His ears lay flat against his head."What was that?"Rose asked. Mama closed her book and looked at Papa."That's a new one on me," he said. "Might be it's just a bobcat, but I'd best check the horses."He set down the leather horse collar
he was oiling and wiped his hands on a rag.
Papa lit the lantern and pulled on his heavy buffalo coat. Fido followed him to the door. Papa took his gun down from its rack."Stay here, boy," he told Fido. "I can handle this."
Mama laid more wood on the fire and hugged herself against the chill air that blew in when Papa opened the door.
Rose read the letter to herself by the light of the lamp:
"Dear Grandma," she had written. "Thank you very much for the good, warm socks, and for sending us the De Smet News every week. I am reading the story about poor General Custer.
"It is not so cold here as South Dakota, but my feet get cold sometimes. It snowed today. But Papa said spring will come soon, even if it is just Febuary! I like Missouri, but I miss everyone so very much. Your loving granddaughter, Rose."
"Mama, how do you spell this month?"
"Feb-ru-ary," said Mama. "How does it sound?" Rose saw her mistake and squeezed a small "r" in between the "b" and the "u."
They both looked up when they heard Papa open the outside door to the lean-to and kick the snow off his boots.
"Everything seems to be in order," he said. "The horses are quiet and I don't see any strange tracks in the snow."
Papa went back to oiling the collar.
"I was thinking, Bess," Papa said to Mama. "It's getting on toward spring and I'll be needing some help around the place. Reynolds at the general store told me this morning that here in the Ozarks folks plant their peas in February and their potatoes in March."
"I can scarcely believe it, Manly," Mama said. "We never planted anything before April in South Dakota. Are you sure he wasn't pulling the wool over your eyes?"
"I wouldn't have believed it myself," Papa said. "But Reynolds has his onion sets and seed potatoes in stock already, and he just put his plows and hoes out as well. Some fellows were in today signing their crop liens."
"What is the interest?" asked Mama.
"Fifteen percent," Papa replied.
"Why, that's as bold as thievery!" Mama complained. "How can we ever get ahead when we must wait four more years for the apple trees to bear fruit?"
"We've been through all that," Papa said calmly. "We have acres of good timber to hack into railroad ties and fence rails that we can always sell. But I can't do it alone and still raise our own corn and grain."
"I'm just not accustomed to waiting so long for a crop to come in," said Mama. "In South Dakota, we had the wheat crop to count on every summer."
Suddenly Fido barked. They all heard a burst of cackling.
"The henhouse!" Mama cried out. Rose's heart fluttered in her chest.
Papa and Mama jumped up at the same time. They threw on their coats and shoes. Papa grabbed his gun again. Mama lit the lantern and they both rushed out the door with Fido leading the way.
Rose shivered in the doorway and watched the lantern light throw trembling shadows among the trees as Mama and Papa ran. Then the light disappeared into the henhouse. She could hear their voices, but she could not tell what they had found.
Finally they came walking back. Someone else was with them! When they drew close, she was shocked to see it was a boy. Papa gripped him by the arm. The boy jerked his shoulder, trying to pull away. His hat fell to the ground and Mama picked it up. Rose backed into the house and they all came in.
"All right, son," Papa said in his most sober voice. "Now just you calm down a spell. Have a seat over there, by the table."
The boy sat down with a huff. He tucked his hands under his elbows and scowled. His thin, pale face poked out of clothing that looked like a pile of old rags. His coat was a man's thread bare suit jacket that hung to his knees. His pants were too big also, man's pants that had been cut off and patched. They were so big the pockets hung on the inside of
his legs. His patched shirt was made of flour sacks, sewn with twine. The soles of his shoes flapped loose. A white feather clung to one of the pant legs. He glared at Rose and stuck his chin out defiantly.
Rose didn't know what to think. She had never seen such a stern look on Papa's face. Mama's face was grave and furrowed.
"Now, son," Papa said. "Let's have your name."
The boy stared at the floor in silence. Papa watched him, waiting and stroking his chin.
"We're going to straighten this out, one way or another," he said."Stealing is serious business. We can go into town and talk to the sheriff if you like. Now why don't you tell us, who are your folks?"
"Ain't got none," the boy muttered in a raspy voice. He shivered and hugged himself.
"Come sit by the fire," Mama said. "You must be cold."The boy got up and moved ... (Continues...)