The Long Winter (Chaprer 2)
The Long Winter
Laura Ingalls Wilder
An Errand to Town
One morning in September the grass was white with frost. It was only a light frost that melted as soon as sunshine touched it. It was gone when Laura looked out at the bright morning. But at breakfast Pa said that such an early frost was surprising.
“Will it hurt the hay?” Laura asked him, and he said, “Oh, no. Such a light frost will only make it dry faster when it’s cut. But I’d better get a hustle on, for it won’t be long now till it’s too late to make hay.”
He was hustling so fast that afternoon that he hardly stopped to drink when Laura brought him the water-jug. He was mowing in Big Slough.
“You cover it up, Half-Pint,” he said, handing back the jug. “I’m bound and determined to get this patch mowed before sundown.” He chirruped to Sam and David and they started again, drawing the whirring machine. Then suddenly the machine gave a clattering kind of yelp and Pa said, “Whoa!”
Laura hurried to see what had happened. Pa was looking at the cutter-bar. There was a gap in the row of bright steel points. The cutter-bar had lost one of its teeth. Pa picked up the pieces, but they could not be mended.
“There’s no help for it,” Pa said. “It means buying another section.”
There was nothing to say to that. Pa thought a minute and said, “Laura, I wish you’d go to town and get it. I don’t want to lose the time. I can keep on mowing, after a fashion, while you’re gone. Be as quick as you can. Ma will give you the five cents to pay for it. Buy it at Fuller’s Hardware.”
“Yes, Pa,” Laura said. She dreaded going to town because so many people were there. She was not exactly afraid, but strange eyes looking at her made her uncomfortable.
She had a clean calico dress to wear and she had shoes. While she hurried to the house, she thought that Ma might let her wear her Sunday hair-ribbon and perhaps Mary’s freshly ironed sunbonnet.
“I have to go to town, Ma,” she said, rushing in breathless.
Carrie and Mary listened while she explained and even Grace looked up at her with big, sober blue eyes.
“I will go with you to keep you company,” Carrie volunteered.
“Oh, can she, Ma?” Laura asked.
“If she can be ready as soon as you are,” Ma gave permission.
Quickly they changed to fresh dresses and put on their stockings and shoes. But Ma saw no reason for hair-ribbons on a week day and she said Laura must wear her own sunbonnet.
“It would be fresher,” Ma said, “if you took care to keep it so.” Laura’s bonnet was limp from hanging down her back and the strings were limp too. But that was Laura’s own fault.
Ma gave her five cents from Pa’s pocketbook and with Carrie she hurried away toward town.
They followed the road made by Pa’s wagonwheels, past the well, down the dry, grassy slope into Big Slough, and on between the tall slough-grasses to the slope up on the other side. The whole shimmering prairie seemed strange then. Even the wind blowing the grasses had a wilder sound. Laura liked that and she wished they did not have to go into town where the false fronts of the buildings stood up square-topped to pretend that the stores behind them were bigger than they were.
Neither Laura nor Carrie said a word after they came to Main Street. Some men were on the store porches and two teams with wagons were tied to the hitching posts. Lonely, on the other side of Main Street, stood Pa’s store building. It was rented and two men sat inside it talking.
Laura and Carrie went into the hardware store. Two men were sitting on nail kegs and one on a plow. They stopped talking and looked at Laura and Carrie. The wall behind the counter glittered with tin pans and pails and lamps.
Laura said, “Pa wants a mowing-machine section, please.”
The man on the plow said, “He’s broke one, has he?” and Laura said, “Yes, sir.”
She watched him wrap in paper the sharp and shining three-cornered tooth. He must be Mr. Fuller. She gave him the five cents and, taking the package in her hand, she said, “Thank you,” and walked out with Carrie.
That was over. But they did not speak until they had walked out of town. Then Carrie said, “You did that beautifully, Laura.”
“Oh, it was just buying something,” Laura replied.
“I know, but I feel funny when people look at me. I feel… not scared, exactly… “Carrie said.
“There’s nothing to be scared of,” Laura said. “We mustn’t ever be scared.” Suddenly she told Carrie, “I feel the same way.”
“Do you, really? I didn’t know that. You don’t act like it. I always feel so safe when you’re there,” Carrie said.
“You are safe when I’m there,” Laura answered. “I’d take care of you. Anyway, I’d try my best.”
“I know you would,” Carrie said.
It was nice, walking together. To take care of their shoes, they did not walk in the dusty wheel-tracks. They walked on the harder strip in the middle where only horses’ hoofs had discouraged the grass. They were not walking hand in hand, but they felt as if they were.
Ever since Laura could remember, Carrie had been her little sister. First she had been a tiny baby, then she had been Baby Carrie, then she had been a clutcher and tagger, always asking “Why?” Now she was ten years old, old enough to be really a sister. And they were out together, away from even Pa and Ma. Their errand was done and off their minds, and the sun was shining, the wind was blowing, the prairie spread far all around them. They felt free and independent and comfortable together.
“It’s a long way around to where Pa is,” Carrie said. “Why don’t we go this way?” and she pointed toward the part of the slough where they could see Pa and the horses.
Laura answered, “That way’s through the slough.”
“It isn’t wet now, is it?” Carrie asked.
“All right, let’s,” Laura answered. “Pa didn’t say to go by the road, and he did say to hurry.”
So they did not follow the road that turned to cross the slough. They went straight on into the tall slough grass.
At first it was fun. It was rather like going into the jungle-picture in Pa’s big green book. Laura pushed ahead between the thick clumps of grass-stems that gave way rustling and closed again behind Carrie. The millions of coarse grass-stems and their slender long leaves were greeny-gold and golden-green in their own shade. The earth was crackled with dryness underfoot, but a faint smell of damp lay under the hot smell of the grass. Just above Laura’s head the grasstops swished in the wind, but down at their roots was a stillness, broken only where Laura and Carrie went wading through it.
“Where’s Pa?” Carrie asked suddenly.
Laura looked around at her. Carrie’s peaked little face was pale in the shade of the grass. Her eyes were almost frightened.
“Well, we can’t see him from here,” Laura said. They could see only the leaves of the thick grass waving, and the hot sky overhead. “He’s right ahead of us. We’ll come to him in a minute.”
She said it confidently but how could she know where Pa was? She could not even be sure where she was going, where she was taking Carrie. The smothering heat made sweat trickle down her throat and her backbone, but she felt cold inside. She remembered the children near Brookings, lost in the prairie grass. The slough was worse than the prairie. Ma had always been afraid that Grace would be lost in this slough.
She listened for the whirr of the mowing machine, but the sound of the grasses filled her ears. There was nothing in the flickering shadows of their thin leaves blowing and tossing higher than her eyes, to tell her where the sun was. The grasses’ bending and swaying did not even tell the direction of the wind. Those clumps of grass would hold up no weight at all. There was nothing, nothing anywhere that she could climb to lookout above them, to see beyond them and know where she was.
“Come along, Carrie,” she said cheerfully. She must not frighten Carrie.
Carrie followed trustfully but Laura did not know where she was going. She could not even be sure that she was walking straight. Always a clump of grass was in her way; she must go to right or left. Even if she went to the right of one clump of grass and to the left of the next clump, that did not mean that she was not going in a circle. Lost people go in circles and many of them never find their way home.
The slough went on for a mile or more of bending, swaying grasses, too tall to see beyond, too yielding to climb. It was wide. Unless Laura walked straight ahead they might never get out of it.
“We’ve gone so far, Laura,” Carrie panted. “Why don’t we come to Pa?”
“He ought to be right around here somewhere,” Laura answered. She could not follow their own trail back to the safe road. Their shoes left almost no tracks on the heat-baked mud, and the grasses, the endless swaying grasses with their low leaves hanging dried and broken, were all alike.
Carrie’s mouth opened a little. Her big eyes looked up at Laura and they said, “I know. We’re lost.” Her mouth shut without a word. If they were lost, they were lost. There was nothing to say about it.
“We’d better go on,” Laura said.
“I guess so. As long as we can,” Carrie agreed.
They went on. They must surely have passed the place where Pa was mowing. But Laura could not be sure of anything. Perhaps if they thought they turned back, they would really be going farther away. They could only go on. Now and then they stopped and wiped their sweating faces. They were terribly thirsty but there was no water. They were very tired from pushing through the grasses. Not one single push seemed hard, but going on was harder than trampling hay. Carrie’s thin little face was gray-white, she was so tired.
Then Laura thought that the grasses ahead were thinner. The shade seemed lighter there and the tops of the grasses against the sky seemed fewer. And suddenly she saw sunshine, yellow beyond the dark grass stems. Perhaps there was a pond there. Oh! perhaps, perhaps there was Pa’s stubble field and the mowing machine and Pa.
She saw the hay stubble in the sunshine, and she saw haycocks dotting it. But she heard a strange voice.
It was a man’s voice, loud and hearty. It said, “Get a move on, Manzo. Let’s get this load in. It’s coming night after a while.”
Another voice drawled lazily, “Aw-aw, Roy!”
Close together, Laura and Carrie looked out from the edge of the standing grass. The hayfield was not Pa’s hayfield. A strange wagon stood there and on its rack was an enormous load of hay. On the high top of that load, up against the blinding sky, a boy was lying. He lay on his stomach, his chin on his hands and his feet in the air.
The strange man lifted up a huge forkful of hay and pitched it onto the boy. It buried him and he scrambled up out of it, laughing and shaking hay off his head and his shoulders. He had black hair and blue eyes and his face and his arms were sunburned brown.
He stood up on the high load of hay against the sky and saw Laura. He said, “Hello there!” They both stood watching Laura and Carrie come out of the tall standing grass—like rabbits, Laura thought. She wanted to turn and run back into hiding.
“I thought Pa was here,” she said, while Carrie stood small and still behind her.
The man said, “We haven’t seen anybody around here. Who is your Pa?” The boy told him, “Mr. Ingalls. Isn’t he?” he asked Laura. He was still looking at her.
“Yes,” she said, and she looked at the horses hitched to the wagon. She had seen those beautiful brown horses before, their haunches gleaming in the sun and the black manes glossy on their glossy necks. They were the Wilder boys’ horses. The man and the boy must be the Wilder brothers.
“I can see him from here. He’s just over there,” the boy said. Laura looked up and saw him pointing. His blue eyes twinkled down at her as if he had known her a long time.
“Thank you,” Laura said primly and she and Carrie walked away, along the road that the Morgan team and the wagon had broken through the slough grass.
“Whoa!” Pa said when he saw them. “Whew!” he said, taking off his hat and wiping the sweat from his forehead.
Laura gave him the mowing-machine section, and she and Carrie watched while he opened the tool-box, took the cutter-bar from the machine, and knocked out the broken section. He set the new one in its place and hammered down the rivets to hold it. “There!” he said. “Tell your Ma I’ll be late for supper. I’m going to finish cutting this piece.”
The mowing machine was humming steadily when Laura and Carrie went on toward the shanty.
“Were you much scared, Laura?” Carrie asked.
“Well, some, but all’s well that ends well,” Laura said.
“It was my fault. I wanted to go that way,” said Carrie.
“It was my fault because I’m older,” Laura said. “But we’ve learned a lesson. I guess we’ll stay on the road after this.”
“Are you going to tell Ma and Pa?” Carrie timidly asked.
“We have to if they ask us,” said Laura