The Long Winter (Chapter 5)
The Long Winter
Laura Ingalls Wilder
After the Storm
On the fourth morning, there was a queer feeling in Laura’s ears. She peeped from the quilts and saw snow drifted over the bed. She heard the little crash of the stove lid and then the first crackling of the fire. Then she knew why her ears felt empty. The noise of the blizzard had stopped!
“Wake up, Mary!” she sang out, poking Mary with her elbow. “The blizzard’s over!”
She jumped out of the warm bed, into air colder than ice. The hot stove seemed to give out no heat at all. The pail of snow-water was almost solidly frozen. But the frosted windows were glowing with sunshine.
“It’s as cold as ever outside,” Pa said when he came in. He bent over the stove to thaw the icicles from his mustache. They sizzled on the stove-top and went up in steam.
Pa wiped his mustache and went on. “The winds tore a big piece of tar-paper off the roof, tight as it was nailed on. No wonder the roof leaked rain and snow.”
“Anyway, it’s over,” Laura said. It was pleasant to be eating breakfast and to see the yellow-glowing windowpanes.
“We’ll have Indian summer yet,” Ma was sure. “This storm was so early, it can’t be the beginning of winter.”
“I never knew a winter to set in so early,” Pa admitted. “But I don’t like the feel of things.”
“What things, Charles?” Ma wanted to know.
Pa couldn’t say exactly He said, “There’s some stray cattle by the haystacks.”
“Are they tearing down the hay?” Ma asked quickly.
“No,” said Pa.
“Then what of it, if they aren’t doing any harm?” Ma said.
“I guess they’re tired out by the storm,” said Pa. “They took shelter there by the haystacks. I thought I’d let them rest and eat a little before I drove them off. I can’t afford to let them tear down the stacks, but they could eat a little without doing any harm. But they aren’t eating.”
“What’s wrong then?” Ma asked.
“Nothing,” Pa said. “They’re just standing there.”
“That’s nothing to upset a body,” said Ma.
“No,” Pa said. He drank his tea. “Well, I might as well go drive them off.”
He put on his coat and cap and mittens again and went out.
After a moment Ma said, “You might as well go with him, Laura. He may need some help to drive them away from the hay.”
Quickly Laura put Ma’s big shawl over her head and pinned it snugly under her chin with the shawl-pin. The woolen folds covered her from
head to foot. Even her hands were under the shawl. Only her face was out.
Outdoors the sun-glitter hurt her eyes. She breathed a deep breath of the tingling cold and squinted her eyes to look around her. The sky was hugely blue and all the land was blowing white. The straight, strong wind did not lift the snow, but drove it scudding across the prairie.
The cold stung Laura’s cheeks. It burned in her nose and tingled in her chest and came out in steam on the air. She held a fold of the shawl across her mouth and her breath made frost on it.
When she passed the corner of the stable, she saw Pa going ahead of her and she saw the cattle. She stood and stared.
The cattle were standing in sunshine and shadow by the haystacks—red and brown and spotted cattle and one thin black one. They stood perfectly still, every head bowed down to the ground. The hairy red necks and brown necks all stretched down from bony-gaunt shoulders to monstrous, swollen white heads.
“Pa!” Laura screamed. Pa motioned to her to stay where she was. He went on trudging, through the low-flying snow, toward those creatures.
They did not seem like real cattle. They stood so terribly still. In the whole herd there was not the least movement. Only their breathing sucked their hairy sides in between the rib bones and pushed them out again. Their hip bones and their shoulder bones stood up sharply. Their legs were braced out, stiff and still. And where their heads should be, swollen white lumps seemed fast to the ground under the blowing snow.
On Laura’s head the hair prickled up and a horror went down her backbone. Tears from the sun and the wind swelled out her staring eyes and ran cold on her cheeks. Pa went on slowly against the wind. He walked up to the herd. Not one of the cattle moved.
For a moment Pa stood looking. Then he stooped and quickly did something. Laura heard a bellow and a red steer’s back humped and jumped. The red steer ran staggering and bawling. It had an ordinary head with eyes and nose and open mouth bawling out steam on the wind.
Another one bellowed and ran a short, staggering run. Then another. Pa was doing the same thing to them all, one by one. Their bawling rose up to the cold sky.
At last they all drifted away together. They went silently now in the knee-deep spray of blowing snow. Pa waved to Laura to go back to the shanty, while he inspected the haystacks.
“Whatever kept you so long, Laura?” Ma asked. “Did the cattle get into the haystacks?”
“No, Ma,” she answered. “Their heads were… I guess their heads were frozen to the ground.”
“That can’t be!” Ma exclaimed.
“It must be one of Laura’s queer notions,” Mary said, busily knitting in her chair by the stove.
“How could cattle’s heads freeze to the ground, Laura? It’s really worrying, the way you talk sometimes.”.
“Well, ask Pa then!” Laura said shortly. She was not able to tell Ma and Mary what she felt. She felt that somehow, in the wild night and storm, the stillness that was underneath all sounds on the prairie had seized the cattle.
When Pa came in Ma asked him, “What was wrong with the cattle, Charles?”
“Their heads were frozen over with ice and snow,” Pa said. “Their breath froze over their eyes and their noses till they couldn’t see nor breathe.”
Laura stopped sweeping. “Pa! Their own breath! Smothering them,” she said in horror.
Pa understood how she felt. He said, “They’re all right now, Laura. I broke the ice off their heads. They’re breathing now and I guess they’ll make it to shelter somewhere.”
Carrie and Mary were wide-eyed and even Ma looked horrified. She said briskly, “Get your sweeping done, Laura. And Charles, for pity’s sake, why don’t you take off your wraps and warm yourself?”
“I got something to show you,” Pa said. He took his hand carefully out of his pocket. “Look here, girls, look at what I found hidden in a haystack.”
Slowly he opened his hand. In the hollow of his mitten sat a little bird. He put it gently in Mary’s hands.
“Why, it’s standing straight up!” Mary exclaimed, touching it lightly with her finger-tips.
They had never seen a bird like it. It was small, but it looked exactly like the picture of the great auk in Pa’s big green book, The Wonders of the Animal World.
It had the same white breast and black back and wings, the same short legs placed far back, and the same large, webbed feet. It stood straight up on its short legs, like a tiny man with black coat and trousers and white shirt front, and its little black wings were like arms.
“What is it, Pa? Oh, what is it?” Carrie cried in delight and she held Grace’s eager hands. “Mustn’t touch, Grace.”
“I never saw anything like it,” said Pa. “It must have tired out in the storm winds and dropped down and struck against the haystack. It had crawled into the hay for shelter.”
“It’s a great auk,” Laura declared. “Only it’s a little one.”
“It’s full-grown, it isn’t a nestling,” said Ma. “Look at its feathers.”
“Yes, it’s full-grown, whatever it is,” Pa agreed.
The little bird stood up straight on Mary’s soft palm and looked at them all with its bright black eyes.
“It’s never seen humans before,” said Pa.
“How do you know, Pa?” Mary asked.
“Because it isn’t afraid of us,” Pa said.
“Oh, can we keep it, Pa? Can’t we, Ma?” Carrie begged.
“Well, that depends,” Pa said.
Mary’s finger-tips touched the little bird all over, while Laura told her how white its smooth breast was and how very black its back and tail and little wings. Then they let Grace carefully touch it. The little auk sat still and looked at them.
They set it on the floor and it walked a little way. Then it pushed its webbed feet tiptoe against the boards and flapped its little wings.
“It can’t get going,” said Pa. “It’s a water-bird. It must start from the water where it can use those webbed feet to get up speed.”
Finally they put it in a box in the corner. It stood there looking up at them, with its round, bright black eyes and they wondered what it ate.
“That was a queer storm all around,” said Pa. “I don’t like it.”
“Why, Charles, it was only a blizzard,” Ma said. “We’ll likely have nice warm weather now. It’s beginning to warm up a little already.”
Mary took up her knitting again and Laura went on sweeping. Pa stood by the window and after a while Carrie led Grace away from the little auk and they looked out too.
“Oh, look! Jackrabbits!” Carrie exclaimed. All around the stable, dozens of jackrabbits were hopping.
“The rascals have been living on our hay, all through the storm,” Pa said. “I ought to take my gun and get us a rabbit stew.”
But he had been standing at the window looking at them without making a move toward his gun.
“Please let them go, Pa, this one time,” Laura pleaded. “When they came because they had to, they had to find shelter.”
Pa looked at Ma, and Ma smiled. “We aren’t hungry, Charles, and I’m thankful we all got through that storm.”
“Well, I guess I can spare the jackrabbits a little hay!” said Pa. He took the water pail and went to the well.
The air that came in when he opened the door was very cold, but the sun was already beginning to melt the snow on the south side of the shanty.