Becky was Milly's best friend. They were always together, because Milly's older sister Annie was best friends with Becky's older sister, and Milly's older brother was best friends with Becky's older brother.
Milly admired Becky a great deal. She was daring, feisty, pragmatic, and shrewd where Milly was shy, timid, dreamy, and naïve. Becky disbelieved completely in all the faerie world, and yet was certain that Santa Clause and the Tooth Fairy were real, whereas Milly knew Santa Clause and the Tooth Fairy to be wholly false because Mama had told her so, and yet sometimes pretended there were fairies who lived in the brook and had tea time on the rocks (using her very own plastic tea set). Becky was slender and petite, with flaxen curls and big brown eyes, whereas Milly was tall and stocky, with cropped brown hair and thick bangs and big round tortoise-shell glasses, that she passively and sweetly refused to wear.
Becky lived way back in the woods of Lebanon, Tennessee, at the end of a winding gravel road that had a great mud hole right in the middle of it. Milly loved driving to Becky's house. It was scarcely three miles from Raccoon Trail, where Milly lived, to Old Lebanon Dirt Road, where Becky lived, and she liked the rugged dirt road that passed a crumbling graveyard, a long wall of tall green trees, and then turned right with a delicious crunch of tires on gravel into the Huskin family's residence.
The Huskin's house was a big, beautiful brick house with a big, beautiful back yard that was surrounded by a big, beautiful brown wood. Inside the house was a very clean kitchen, a polished wooden floor, a parlor that Milly and Becky and Milly's little sister were not allowed in, an upstairs with a thick dove-grey carpet, and Becky's own bedroom, with pink and white striped wallpaper.
Becky's mother was a very dynamic, cheery person, who was an amazing baker of cookies and brownies, and yet was rigid in the rule that Milly had to eat her salad before she could leave the supper table––even if Milly firmly refused to do it for a good half hour after everyone else left. She was practical and feisty. Milly, on noticing that Laura Ingalls Wilder in her books always called adults Mr. and Mrs., decided that she ought to call Becky's mother 'Mrs. Huskins'. But, on addressing her thus one afternoon, 'Mrs. Huskins' very jollily declared that that made her feel like an old woman, and that she much preferred to be called 'Shirley'. But Milly still felt conscientiously grey about this, and so she would refrain from calling Becky's mother anything by prefacing every request with a timid, 'Um?' Shirley called Milly 'Milly-Rose' and Gretchen (Milly's little sister) 'Gretchie-Pooh', which Milly thought very endearing.
When Milly-Rose and Gretchie-Pooh came over to Becky-Lynn's house, they played all day long. There were limitless treasures of activity pent up in the Huskin's abode, complete with goats and pastures and the closets necessary to make the game 'Hiding from Gretchen' very fun indeed.
But, above all, Milly thought that the very funnest thing to do in the Huskin's house was to transport all necessary domestic instruments outside and construct a new house. Becky, the primary leader in finding entertainment, possessed an assortment of gowns that her mother, a very good needle-woman, had sewn her. She also owned a great many toys, fake kitchen sets, quilts, and other such things that made such a game complete.
So, on a fine, sunny afternoon, Becky, Milly, and Gretchen would dress up in pioneer and Victorian-esque dresses, gather up all the bitty babies, quilts, and various domestic needs, and troop outside. The two picnic tables and a sheet draped over the clothes line provided the very perfect play house.
Domesticity thrilled Milly. The act of setting up the house, cooking a supper of grass blades and tree leaves and honeysuckle blossoms, putting the bitty babies to sleep, and then going to sleep themselves, was blissful to all the girls, even though Gretchen and Becky never did want to go through all the motions and duties that Milly felt was proper for really playing Pretend. Soon they grew bored of the acts of cleaning house, cooking meals, and caring for the bitty baby.
"Let's quit playing House and go play Tag or something!" Becky said.
Gretchen chimed in agreement.
Milly hated playing Tag. She couldn't run as fast as Becky and Gretchen no matter how hard she tried, and it was much more fun calmly playing Pretend than getting hot and sweaty and tired. But she didn't quite say so, for she felt a little ashamed of her dislike of playing athletic games.
"Well," she finally said, "ya'll go on and play, and I'll come later."
"Hey, what if we played in the sprinkler!" Becky said.
Gretchen almost jumped with delight. The sprinkler was an immensely fun game. Once it rained when they were playing in the sprinkler, and they had all experienced the terrific terror of almost getting lightning struck. Indeed, the whole world had flashed bright red, and the grey sky had split right down the middle in a white, jagged line of electricity.
"Well, okay," Milly said, determined not to be a party spoiler, even though she was loath to quit House before she had even gotten to wake herself and her bitty babies up with her rooster's 'Cockle-doodle-do!' "But we'll have to clean up before we do, because we can't get all this stuff wet."
Becky and Gretchen groaned. It was true, but somehow the thought of putting back what they had so joyously and haphazardly taken out was not very tempting.
Becky had another idea. "What about swinging on the tire swing! Let's do the Victoria Twist!"
Now this was exciting. Milly loved the tire swing, tied up to one of the strongest tree-boughs, and Becky and Milly had thought up and named the 'Victoria Twist' themselves. They both thought the name 'Victoria' utterly exquisite.
They all ran over to the tire swing, and, gathering in a circle with one foot each in the Bowl, Becky performed the traditional counting rhyme that Milly could never quite get right.
Eeny meeny miny moe,
Catch a tiger by the toe.
If he hollers let him pay,
Fifty dollars every day.
My mama told me to pick the very best one,
And you are not It!
At long last, Milly was dubbed It. She excitedly mounted the flat tire, stood firmly upon it with her feet wedged inside, her hands holding tightly to the chains, and Becky and Gretchen began the Victoria. Round and round they turned her, till the chain was twisted all the way up to the bough. Then, with all the tense excitement of suspense, they let go. The tire spun fast, fast, faster, spinning close and also weaving as a whole in a continually bigger circle until Milly was frightened lest she should hit the fence. She held on for dear life to the chains, her head flung back in the dizzying wind, her brain reeling, the world blurring around her. Finally, when she could not resist the force of gravity in the spin any longer, she yelled, 'Stop! Stop!' and the two other girls grabbed the chain in flight and dragged it into stillness, while Milly climbed out and lay on the grass in delightfully dizzy delirium.
A noise was heard in the bright stillness of the summer day. Crack! crack! resounded through the woods. Milly sat up.
"What's that?" Gretchen said.
Becky listened, her bright brown eyes widening. "It's the Old Man in the Woods."
"What? Who?" Milly asked.
"He's an old man who lives up the hill, deep in the woods. He lives through that gate and up that road." She pointed past a little grove of mossy trees––that Milly liked to imagine as a fairy dell––and up a shadowy, winding lane. "He has a very long white beard."
For Milly, only two beings possessed long white beards. Firstly, God, whose white beard trailed from his blue-white face and floated in the wind as he looked down on the earth (or so said her imagination). And secondly, kidnappers. Mama and Daddy had warned her many times about watching out for kidnappers, and in Milly's six-year-old imagination, kidnappers all had blood-shot eyes and long white beards.
"Have you met him before?" Milly asked.
"No. Renee told me about him. He's very mean. Some people say he's not right in his head."
There was silence as the little girls listened to the crack! crack! of the axe in the woods.
"Um, ya'll," Gretchen said, shakily, "let's go inside now."
"But we have to get all the House stuff first."
"Ya'll…I think the noise is getting closer."
The little girls bolted. They grabbed the quilts and the plastic kitchen-ware, they flung the Bitty Babies over their shoulders, they tore the sheet from the clothesline and wadded up the Victorian dresses, and then they dashed as fast as they could toward the house, the Old Man in the Woods getting closer, and closer, and closer all the time, his axe brandished high.
The door shut. The assortment of their play-house furnishings lay in a mountain on the floor. They panted. They smiled. Their hearts thumped.
They were safe and sound and deliciously scared.