The Long Winter (Chapter 3)

The Long Winter

Laura Ingalls Wilder

Chapter 3
Fall of the Year

Pa and Laura stacked the last load of slough hay on a hot September afternoon. Pa intended to mow another patch next day, but in the morning rain was falling. For three days and nights the rain fell steadily, slow, weepy rain, running down the windowpanes and pattering on the roof.

“Well, we must expect it,” Ma said. “It’s the equinoctial storm.”

“Yes,” Pa agreed, but uneasily. “There’s a weather change, all right. A fellow can feel it in his bones.”

Next morning the shanty was cold, the windowpanes were almost covered with frost, and all outdoors was white.

“My goodness,” Ma said shivering, while she laid kindling in the stove. “And this is only the first day of October.”

Laura put on her shoes and a shawl when she went to the well for water.

The air bit her cheeks and scorched the inside of her nose with cold. The sky was coldly blue and the whole world was white. Every blade of grass was furry with frost, the path was frosted, the boards of the well were streaked with thick frost, and frost had crept up the walls of the shanty, along the narrow battens that held the black tar-paper on.

Then the sun peeped over the edge of the prairie and the whole world glittered. Every tiniest thing glittered rosy toward the sun and pale blue toward the sky, and all along every blade of grass ran rainbow sparkles.

Laura loved the beautiful world. She knew that the bitter frost had killed the hay and the garden. The tangled tomato vines with their red and green tomatoes, and the pumpkin vines holding their broad leaves over the green young pumpkins, were all glittering bright in frost over the broken, frosty sod. The sod corn’s stalks and long leaves were white. The frost had killed them. It would leave every living green thing dead. But the frost was beautiful.

At breakfast Pa said, “There’ll be no more haying, so we’ll get in our harvest. We can’t get much from a first year on sod-ground, but the sods will rot this winter. We’ll do better next year.”

The plowed ground was tumbled slabs of earth still held together by the grass-roots. From underneath these sods, Pa dug small potatoes and Laura and Carrie put them into tin pails. Laura hated the dry, dusty feeling of earth on her fingers. It sent shivers up her backbone but that couldn’t be helped. Someone must pick up the potatoes. She and Carrie trudged back and forth with their pails, till they had filled five sacks full of potatoes. That was all the potatoes there were.

“A lot of digging for a few potatoes,” said Pa. “But five bushels are better than none, and we can piece out with the beans.”

He pulled the dead bean-vines and stacked them to dry. The sun was high now, all the frost was gone, and the wind was blowing cool over the brownish and purple and fawn-colored prairie.

Ma and Laura picked the tomatoes. The vines were wilted down, soft and blackening, so they picked even the smallest green tomatoes. There were enough ripe tomatoes to make almost a gallon of preserves.

“What are you going to do with the green ones?” Laura asked, and Ma answered, “Wait and see.”

She washed them carefully without peeling them. She sliced them and cooked them with salt, pepper, vinegar, and spices.

“That’s almost two quarts of green tomato pickle. Even if it’s only our first garden on the sod and nothing could grow well, these pickles will be a treat with baked beans this winter,” Ma gloated.

“And almost a gallon of sweet preserves!” Mary added.

“Five bushels of potatoes,” said Laura, rubbing her hands on her apron because they remembered the horrid dusty feeling.

“And turnips, lots of turnips!” Carrie cried. Carrie loved to eat a raw turnip.

Pa laughed. “When I get those beans threshed and winnowed and sacked there’ll be pretty near a bushel of beans. When I get those few hills of corn cut, husked, and stored down cellar in a teacup, we’ll have quite a harvest.”

Laura knew that it was a very small harvest. But the hay and corn would winter the horses and the cow through till spring, and with five bushels of potatoes and nearly a bushel of beans and Pa’s hunting they could all live.

“I must cut that corn tomorrow,” Pa said.

“I see no special rush, Charles,” Ma remarked. “The rain is over and I never saw nicer fall weather.”

“Well, that’s so,” Pa admitted. The nights were cool now and the early mornings were crisp, but the days were sunny-warm.

“We could do with some fresh meat for a change,” Ma suggested.

“Soon as I get the corn in I’ll go hunting,” said Pa.

Next day he cut and shocked the sod corn. The ten shocks stood like a row of little Indian tepees by the haystacks. When he had finished them, Pa brought six yellow-gold pumpkins from the field.

“The vines couldn’t do much on tough sod,” he made excuse, “and the frost caught the green ones, but we’ll get a lot of seed out of these for next year.”

“Why such a hurry to get the pumpkins in?” Ma asked.

“I feel in a hurry. As if there was need to hurry,” Pa tried to explain.

“You need a good night’s sleep,” said Ma.

A misty-fine rain was falling next morning. After Pa had done the chores and eaten breakfast, he put on his coat and the wide-brimmed hat that sheltered the back of his neck.

“I’ll get us a brace of geese,” he said. “I heard them flying over in the night. There’ll be some in the slough.”

He took down his shotgun and sheltering it under his coat he went out into the weather.

After he had gone Ma said, “Girls, I’ve thought of a surprise for Pa.”

Laura and Carrie turned round from the dishpan and Mary straightened up from the bed she was making. “What?” they all asked her.

“Hurry and get the work done,” said Ma. “And then, Laura, you go to the corn-patch and bring me a green pumpkin. I’m going to make a pie!”

“A pie! But how…” Mary said, and Laura said, “A green pumpkin pie? I never heard of such a thing, Ma.”

“Neither did I,” said Ma. “But we wouldn’t do much if we didn’t do things that nobody ever heard of before.”

Laura and Carrie did the dishes properly but in a hurry. Then Laura ran through the cool, misty rain to the corn-patch and lugged back the biggest green pumpkin.

“Stand by the oven door and dry yourself,” said Ma. “You’re not very big, Laura, but you’re old enough to put on a shawl without being told.”

“I went so fast I dodged between the raindrops,” Laura said. “I’m not much wet, Ma, honestly. Now what do I do?”

“You may cut the pumpkin in slices and peel them while I make the piecrust,” said Ma. “Then we’ll see what we’ll see.”

Ma put the crust in the pie pan and covered the bottom with brown sugar and spices. Then she filled the crust with thin slices of the green pumpkin. She poured half a cup of vinegar over them, put a small piece of butter on top, and laid the top crust over all.

“There,” she said, when she had finished crimping the edges.

“I didn’t know you could,” Carrie breathed, looking wide-eyed at the pie.

“Well, I don’t know yet,” said Ma. She slipped the pie into the oven and shut the door on it. “But the only way to find out is to try. By dinnertime we’ll know.” They all sat waiting in the tidy shanty. Mary was busily knitting to finish warm stockings for Carrie before cold weather. Laura was sewing two long breadths of muslin together to make a sheet. She pinned the edges together carefully and fastened them with a pin to her dress at the knee. Carefully holding the edges even, she whipped them together with even, tiny stitches.

The stitches must be close and small and firm and they must be deep enough but not too deep, for the sheet must lie smooth, with not the tiniest ridge down its middle. And all the stitches must be so exactly alike that you could not tell them apart, because that was the way to sew.

Mary had liked such work, but now she was blind and could not do it. Sewing made Laura feel like flying to pieces. She wanted to scream. The back of her neck ached and the thread twisted and knotted. She had to pick out almost as many stitches as she put in.

“Blankets are wide enough to cover a bed,” she said fretfully. “Why can’t sheets be made wide enough?”

“Because sheets are muslin,” said Mary. “And muslin isn’t wide enough for a sheet.”

The eye of Laura’s needle slipped through a tiny hole in her thimble and ran into her finger. She shut her mouth hard and did not say a word.

But the pie was baking beautifully. When Ma laid down the shirt that she was making for Pa and opened the oven, the rich smell of baking pie came out. Carrie and Grace stopped to look in while Ma turned the pie so that it would brown evenly.

“It’s doing nicely,” Ma said.

“Oh, won’t Pa be surprised!” Carrie cried.

Just before dinnertime Ma took the pie from the oven. It was a beautiful pie.

They kept dinner waiting until almost one o’clock, but Pa did not come. When he was hunting, he paid no attention to mealtimes. So at last they ate dinner. The pie must wait till suppertime when Pa would come with fat geese to roast for tomorrow.

All afternoon the slow rain fell steadily. When Laura went to the well for water, the sky was low and gray. Far over the prairie the brown grasses were sodden with rain and the tall slough grass stood dripping, bent a little under the steady pressure of the falling rain.

Laura hurried back from the well. She did not like to look at the outdoors when all the grass was weeping.

Pa did not come home until suppertime. He came empty-handed except for his gun. He did not speak or smile and his eyes were wide-open and still.

“What is wrong, Charles?” Ma asked quickly.

He took off his wet coat and his dripping hat and hung them up before he answered. “That is what I’d like to know. Something’s queer. Not a goose nor a duck on the lake. None in the slough. Not one in sight. They are flying high above the clouds, flying fast. I could hear them calling. Caroline, every kind of bird is going south as fast and as high as it can fly. All of them, going south. And no other kind of game is out. Every living thing that runs or swims is hidden away somewhere. I never saw country so empty and still.”

“Never mind,” Ma said cheerfully. “Supper’s ready. You sit close by the fire, Charles, and dry yourself. I’ll move the table up. Seems to me it’s growing chilly.”

It was growing chilly. The cold crept under the table, crawling up from Laura’s bare feet to her bare knees under her skirts. But supper was warm and good and in the lamplight all the faces were shining with the secret of the surprise for Pa.

Pa did not notice them. He ate hungrily but he did not notice what he ate. He said again, “It’s queer, not a duck nor a goose coming down to rest.”

“Likely the poor things want to get to sunshine,” Ma said. “I’m glad we’re snug, out of the rain, under this good roof.”

Pa pushed back his empty plate and Ma gave Laura a look that said, “Now!” Smiles spread over all their faces but Pa’s. Carrie wriggled in her chair and Grace bounced on Ma’s lap, while Laura set down the pie.

For an instant Pa did not see it. Then he said, “Pie!”

His surprise was even greater than they had expected. Grace and Carrie and even Laura laughed out loud.

“Caroline, however did you manage to make a pie?” Pa exclaimed. “What kind of pie is it?”

“Taste it and see!” said Ma. She cut a piece and put it on his plate.

Pa cut off the point with his fork and put it in his mouth. “Apple pie! Where in the world did you get apples?”

Carrie could keep still no longer. She almost shouted, “It’s pumpkin! Ma made it of green pumpkin!”

Pa took another small bite and tasted it carefully. “I’d never have guessed it,” he said. “Ma always could beat the nation cooking.”

Ma said nothing, but a little flush came up in her cheeks and her eyes kept on smiling while they all ate that delicious pie. They ate slowly, taking small bites of the sweet spiciness to make it last as long as they could.

That was such a happy supper that Laura wanted it never to end. When she was in bed with Mary and Carrie, she stayed awake to keep on being happy. She was so sleepily comfortable and cosy. The rain on the roof was a pleasant sound.

A splash of water on her face dimly surprised her. She was sure it could not be rain, for the roof was overhead. She snuggled closer to Mary and everything slid away into dark, warm sleep.

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