The Long Winter (Chapter 4)
The Long Winter
Laura Ingalls Wilder
Laura woke up suddenly. She heard singing and a queer slapping sound.
“Oh, I am as happy as a big sunflower (Slap! Slap)
That nods and bends in the breezes, Oh! (Slap! Slap!)
And my heart (Slap!)
is as light (Slap!)
as the wind that blows (Slap! Slap!)
The leaves from off the treeses, Oh! (Slap! SLAP!)”
Pa was singing his trouble song and slapping his arms on his chest.
Laura’s nose was cold. Only her nose was outside the quilts that she was huddled under. She put out her whole head and then she knew why Pa was slapping himself. He was trying to warm his hands.
He had kindled the fire. It was roaring in the stove, but the air was freezing cold. Ice crackled on the quilt where leaking rain had fallen. Winds howled around the shanty and from the roof and all the walls came a sound of scouring.
Carrie sleepily asked, “What is it?”
“It’s a blizzard,” Laura told her. “You and Mary stay under the covers.”
Careful not to let the cold get under the quilts, she crawled out of the warm bed. Her teeth chattered while she pulled on her clothes. Ma was dressing, too, beyond the curtain, but they were both too cold to say anything.
They met at the stove where the fire was blazing furiously without warming the air at all. The window was a white blur of madly swirling snow. Snow had blown under the door and across the floor and every nail in the walls was white with frost.
Pa had gone to the stable. Laura was glad that they had so many haystacks in a row between the stable and the shanty. Going from haystack to haystack, Pa would not get lost.
“A b-b-b-b-blizzard!” Ma chattered. “In Oc-October. I n-n-never heard of…”
She put more wood in the stove and broke the ice in the water pail to fill the teakettle.
The water pail was less than half-full. They must be sparing of water for nobody could get to the well in that storm. But the snow on the floor was clean. Laura scooped it into the washbasin and set it on the stove to melt, for washing in.
The air by the stove was not so cold now, so she rolled Grace in quilts and brought her to the stove to dress her. Mary and Carrie shiveringly dressed themselves, close to the open oven. They all put on their stockings and shoes.
Breakfast was waiting when Pa came back. He blew in with a howl of wind and swirling snow.
“Well, those muskrats knew what was coming, didn’t they, Laura?” he said as soon as he was warm enough to speak. “And the geese too.”
“No wonder they wouldn’t stop at the lake,” said Ma.
“The lake’s frozen by now,” Pa said. “Temperature’s down near zero and going lower.”
He glanced at the wood box as he spoke. Laura had filled it last night, but already the wood was low. So as soon as he had eaten breakfast, Pa wrapped himself well and brought big armfuls from the woodpile.
The shanty was growing colder. The stove could not warm the air inside the thin walls. There was nothing to do but sit huddled in coats and shawls, close to the stove.
“I’m glad I put beans to soak last night,” said Ma. She lifted the lid of the bubbling kettle and quickly popped in a spoonful of soda. The boiling beans roared, foaming up, but did not quite run over.
“There’s a little bit of salt pork to put in them too,” Ma said.
Now and then she spooned up a few beans and blew on them. When their skins split and curled, she drained the soda-water from the kettle and filled it again with hot water. She put in the bit of fat pork.
“There’s nothing like good hot bean soup on a cold day,” said Pa. He looked down at Grace, pulling at his hand. “Well, Blue-Eyes, what do you want?”
“A tory,” Grace said.
“Tell us the one about Grandpa and the pig on the sled,” Carrie begged. So, taking Grace and Carrie on his knees, Pa began again the stories that he used to tell Mary and Laura in the Big Woods when they were little girls. Ma and Mary knitted busily, in quilt-covered rockers drawn close to the oven, and Laura stood wrapped in her shawl, between the stove and the wall.
The cold crept in from the corners of the shanty, closer and closer to the stove. Icy-cold breezes sucked and fluttered the curtains around the beds. The little shanty quivered in the storm. But the steamy smell of boiling beans was good and it seemed to make the air warmer.
At noon Ma sliced bread and filled bowls with the hot bean broth and they all ate where they were, close to the stove. They all drank cups of strong, hot tea. Ma even gave Grace a cup of cambric tea. Cambric tea was hot water and milk, with only a taste of tea in it, but little girls felt grown-up when their mothers let them drink cambric tea.
The hot soup and hot tea warmed them all. They ate the broth from the beans. Then Ma emptied the beans into a milk-pan, set the bit of fat pork in the middle, and laced the top with dribbles of molasses. She set the pan in the oven and shut the oven door. They would have baked beans for supper.
Then Pa had to bring in more wood. They were thankful that the woodpile was close to the back door. Pa staggered in breathless with the first armful. When he could speak he said, “This wind takes your breath away. If I’d thought of such a storm as this, I’d have filled this shanty with wood yesterday. Now I’m bringing in as much snow as wood.”
That was almost true. Every time Laura opened the door for him, snow swirled in. Snow fell off him and the wood was covered with snow. It was snow as hard as ice and as fine as sand, and opening the door made the shanty so cold that the snow did not melt.
“That’s enough for now,” Pa said. If he let in any more cold, the wood he brought would not make enough heat to drive the cold out.
“When you get that snow swept up, Laura, bring me the fiddle,” he said. “Soon as I can thaw out my fingers, we’ll have a tune to drown the yowl of that wind.”
In a little while he was able to tune the strings and rosin the bow. Then he set the fiddle to his shoulder and sang with it.
“Oh, If I were young again,
I’d lead a different life,
Lay up some money and buy some land
And take Dinah for my wife.
But now I’m getting old and gray
I cannot work any more.
Oh carry me back
Oh, carry me back
To the old Virginia shore.
So carry me ’long and carry me ’long.
And carry me till I die…”
“For pity’s sakes!” Ma broke in. “I’d as soon listen to the wind.” She was trying to keep Grace warm and Grace was struggling and whimpering. Ma set her down. “There, run if you’re bound to! You’ll be glad enough to come back to the stove.”
“I’ll tell you what!” Pa exclaimed. “Laura and Carrie, you get out there with Grace and let’s see you quick-step march! It’ll warm up your blood.”
It was hard to leave the shelter of their huddled shawls, but they did as Pa said. Then his strong voice rang out with the singing fiddle:
“March! March! Ettrick and Teviotdale!
Why, my lads, dinna ye march forward in order?
March! March! Eskdale and Liddesdale!
All the blue bonnets are over the border!
Many a banner spread flutters above your head,
Many a crest that is famous in story.”
Round and round they marched, Laura and Carrie and Grace, singing with all their might, thumping loud thumps of their shoes on the floor.
“Mount, and make ready, then,
Sons of the mountain glen,
Fight! for your homes and the old Scottish glory!”
They felt that banners were blowing above them and that they were marching to victory. They did not even hear the storm. They were warm to the tips of their toes.
Then the music ended and Pa laid the fiddle in its box. “Well, girls, it’s up to me to march out against this storm and make the stock comfortable for the night. Blamed if that old tune don’t give me the spunk to like fighting even a blizzard!”
Ma warmed his coat and muffler by the oven while he put away the fiddle-box. They all heard the wind howling furiously.
“We’ll have hot baked beans and hot tea waiting when you get back, Charles,” Ma promised him. “And then we’ll all go to bed and keep warm, and likely the storm’ll be over by morning.”
But in the morning Pa sang again his sunflower song. The window was the same white blur, the winds still drove the scouring snow against the shivering little shanty.
The blizzard lasted two more long days and two more nights.