The Long Winter (Chaprer 9)
The Long Winter
Laura Ingalls Wilder
Laura did not sleep very well. All night, it seemed, she knew that the town was close around her and that she must go to school in the morning. She was heavy with dread when she woke and heard steps going by in the street below and strange men speaking. The town was waking up too; the storekeepers were opening their stores.
The walls of the house kept strangers outside. But Laura and Carrie were heavyhearted because they must go out of the house and meet strangers. And Mary was sad because she could not go to school.
“Now Laura and Carrie, there’s no cause to worry,” Ma said. “I’m sure you can keep up with your classes.”
They looked at Ma in surprise. She had taught them so well at home that they knew they could keep up with their classes. They were not worried about that. But they only said, “Yes, Ma.”
They hurried to wash the dishes and make their bed and hurriedly Laura swept their bedroom floor. Then they dressed carefully in their woolen winter dresses and nervously combed their hair and braided it. They tied on their Sunday hair-ribbons. With the steel buttonhook they buttoned their shoes.
“Hurry up, girls!” Ma called. “It’s past eight o’clock.”
At that moment, Carrie nervously jerked one of her shoe-buttons off. It fell and rolled and vanished down a crack of the floor.
“Oh, it’s gone!” Carrie gasped. She was desperate. She could not go where strangers would see that gap in the row of black buttons that buttoned up her shoe.
“We must take a button off one of Mary’s shoes,” Laura said.
But Ma had heard the button fall, downstairs. She found it and sewed it on again, and buttoned the shoe for Carrie.
At last they were ready. “You look very nice,” Ma said, smiling. They put on their coats and hoods and took their schoolbooks. They said good-by to Ma and Mary and they went out into Main Street.
The stores were all open. Mr. Fuller and Mr. Bradley had finished sweeping out; they stood holding their brooms and looking at the morning. Carrie took hold of Laura’s hand. It helped Laura, to know that Carrie was even more scared than she was.
Bravely they crossed wide Main Street and walked steadily on along Second Street. The sun was shining brightly. A tangle of dead weeds and grasses made shadows beside the wheel-tracks. Their own long shadows went before them, over many footprints in the paths. It seemed a long, long way to the schoolhouse that stood on the open prairie with no other buildings near.
In front of the schoolhouse strange boys were playing ball, and two strange girls stood on the platform before the entry door.
Laura and Carrie came nearer and nearer. Laura’s throat was so choked that she could hardly breathe. One of the strange girls was tall and dark. Her smooth, black hair was twisted into a heavy knot at the back of her head. Her dress of indigo blue woolen was longer than Laura’s brown one.
Then suddenly Laura saw one of the boys spring into the air and catch the ball. He was tall and quick and he moved as beautifully as a cat. His yellow hair was sun-bleached almost white and his eyes were blue. They saw Laura and opened wide. Then a flashing grin lighted up his whole face and he threw the ball to her.
She saw the ball curving down through the air, coming swiftly. Before she could think, she had made a running leap and caught it.
A great shout went up from the other boys. “Hey, Cap!” they shouted. “Girls don’t play ball!”
“I didn’t think she’d catch it,” Cap answered.
“I don’t want to play,” Laura said. She threw back the ball.
“She’s as good as any of us!” Cap shouted. “Come on and play,” he said to Laura, and then to the other girls, “Come on, Mary Power and Minnie! You play with us, too!”
But Laura picked up the books she had dropped and took Carrie’s hand again. They went on to the other girls at the schoolhouse door. Those girls would not play with boys, of course. She did not know why she had done such a thing and she was ashamed, fearful of what these girls must be thinking of her.
“I’m Mary Power,” the dark girl said, “and this is Minnie Johnson.” Minnie Johnson was thin and fair and pale, with freckles.
“I’m Laura Ingalls,” Laura said, “and this is my little sister, Carrie.”
Mary Power’s eyes smiled. They were dark blue eyes, fringed with long, black lashes. Laura smiled back and she made up her mind that she would twist up her own hair tomorrow and ask Ma to make her next dress as long as Mary’s.
“That was Cap Garland that threw you the ball,” Mary Power said.
There was no time to say anything more, for the teacher came to the door with the hand-bell, and they all went in to school. They hung their coats and hoods on a row of nails in the entry, where the broom stood in a corner by the water-pail on its bench. Then they went into the schoolroom.
It was so new and shining that Laura felt timid again, and Carrie stood close to her. All the desks were patent desks, made of wood varnished as smooth as glass. They had black iron feet and the seats were curved a little, with curving backs that were part of the desks behind them. The desk-tops had grooves to hold pencils and shelves underneath them for slates and books.
There were twelve of these desks in a row up each side of the big room. A large heating stove stood in the middle of the room, with four more desks in front of it and four more behind it. Almost all those seats were empty. On the girls’ side of the room, Mary Power and Minnie Johnson sat together in one of the back seats. Cap Garland and three other big boys sat in back seats on the boys’ side—a few little boys and girls sat in front seats. They had all been coming to school for a week now, and knew where to sit, but Laura and Carrie did not.
The teacher said to them, “You’re new, aren’t you?” She was a smiling young lady, with curled bangs. The bodice of her black dress was buttoned down the front with twinkling jet buttons. Laura told her their names and she said, “And I’m Florence Garland. We live back of your father’s place, on the next street.” So Cap Garland was Teacher’s brother and they lived in the new house out on the prairie beyond the stable.
“Do you know the Fourth Reader?” Teacher asked.
“Oh, yes, ma’am!” Laura said. She did indeed know every word of it.
“Then I think we’ll see what you can do with the Fifth,” Teacher decided. And she told Laura to take the back seat in the middle row, across the aisle from Mary Power. Carrie she put in front, near the little girls, and then she went up to her desk and rapped on it with her ruler.
“The school will come to attention,” she said. She opened her Bible. “This morning I will read the twenty-third Psalm.”
Laura knew the Psalms by heart, of course, but she loved to hear again every word of the twenty-third, from “‘The Lord is my shepherd: I shall not want,’” to, “‘Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.’”
Then Teacher closed the Bible and on all the desks the pupils opened their textbooks. School work had begun.
Every day Laura liked the school more. She had no seat-mate, but at recess and noontimes she was with Mary Power and Minnie Johnson. After school they walked to Main Street together, and by the end of that week they were meeting in the mornings and walking together to school. Twice Cap Garland urged them to play ball with the boys at recess, but they stayed inside the schoolhouse and watched the game through the window.
The brown-eyed, dark-haired boy was Ben Woodworth who lived at the depot. His father was the sick man that Pa had sent out with the last teamster the year before. The “prairie cure” had truly almost cured his consumption of the lungs and he had come west again for more for it. He was the depot agent now.
The other boy was Arthur Johnson. He was thin and fair like his sister Minnie. Cap Garland was strongest and quickest. Inside the window, Laura and Mary and Minnie all watched him throwing the ball and leaping to catch it. He was not as handsome as black-haired Ben, but there was something about him. He was always good-natured and his grin was like a flash of light. It was like the sun coming up at dawn; it changed everything.
Mary Power and Minnie had gone to schools in the east, but Laura found it easy to keep up with them in their lessons. Cap Garland was from the east, too, but even in arithmetic he could not beat Laura.
Every night after supper she put her books and her slate on the red-checkered tablecloth in the lamplight, and she studied next day’s lessons with Mary. She read the arithmetic problems aloud, and Mary did them in her head while she worked them on the slate. She read the history lesson and the geography to Mary until both of them could answer every question. If ever Pa could get money enough to send Mary to the college for the blind, Mary must be ready to go.
“And even if I never can go to college,” Mary said, “I am learning as much as I can.”
Mary and Laura and Carrie were all enjoying school so much that they were sorry when Saturday and Sunday interrupted it. They looked forward to Monday But when Monday came Laura was cross because her red flannel underwear was so hot and scratchy.
It made her back itch, and her neck, and her wrists, and where it was folded around her ankles, under her stockings and shoe-tops, that red flannel almost drove her crazy.
At noon she begged Ma to let her change to cooler underthings. “It’s too hot for my red flannels, Ma!” she protested.
“I know the weather’s turned warm,” Ma answered gently. “But this is the time of year to wear flannels, and you would catch cold if you took them off.”
Laura went crossly back to school and sat squirming because she must not scratch. She held the flat geography open before her, but she wasn’t studying. She was trying to bear the itching flannels and wanting to get home where she could scratch. The sunshine from the western windows had never crawled so slowly.
Suddenly there was no sunshine. It went out, as if someone had blown out the sun like a lamp. The outdoors was gray, the windowpanes were gray, and at the same moment a wind crashed against the schoolhouse, rattling windows and doors and shaking the walls.
Miss Garland started up from her chair. One of the little Beardsley girls screamed and Carrie turned white.
Laura thought, “It happened this way on Plum Creek, the Christmas when Pa was lost.” Her whole heart hoped and prayed that Pa was safe at home now.
Teacher and all the others were staring at the windows, where nothing but grayness could be seen. They all looked frightened. Then Miss Garland said, “It is only a storm, children. Go on with your lessons.”
The blizzard was scouring against the walls, and the winds squealed and moaned in the stovepipe.
All the heads bent over the books as Teacher had told them to do. But Laura was trying to think how to get home. The schoolhouse was a long way from Main Street, and there was nothing to guide them.
All the others had come from the east that summer. They had never seen a prairie blizzard. But Laura and Carrie knew what it was. Carrie’s head was bowed limply above her book, and the back of it, with the white parting between the braids of fine, soft hair, looked small and helpless and frightened.
There was only a little fuel at the schoolhouse. The school board was buying coal, but only one load had been delivered. Laura thought they might outlive the storm in the schoolhouse, but they could not do it without burning all the costly patent desks.
Without lifting her head Laura looked up at Teacher. Miss Garland was thinking and biting her lip. She could not decide to dismiss school because of a storm, but this storm frightened her.
“I ought to tell her what to do,” Laura thought. But she could not think what to do. It was not safe to leave the schoolhouse and it was not safe to stay there. Even the twelve patent desks might not last long enough to keep them warm until the blizzard ended. She thought of her wraps and Carrie’s, in the entry. Whatever happened she must somehow keep Carrie warm. Already the cold was coming in.
There was a loud thumping in the entry. Every pupil started and looked at the door.
It opened and a man stumbled in. He was bundled in overcoat, cap, and muffler, all solid white with snow driven into the woolen cloth. They could not see who he was until he pulled down the stiffened muffler.
“I came out to get you,” he told Teacher.
He was Mr. Foster, the man who owned the ox team and had come in from his claim to stay in town for the winter at Sherwood’s, across the street from Teacher’s house.
Miss Garland thanked him. She rapped her ruler on the desk and said, “Attention! School is dismissed. You may bring your wraps from the entry and put them on by the stove.”
Laura said to Carrie, “You stay here. I’ll bring your wraps.”
The entry was freezing cold; snow was blowing in between the rough boards of the walls. Laura was chilled before she could snatch her coat and hood from their nail. She found Carrie’s and carried the armful into the schoolhouse.
Crowded around the stove, they all put on their wraps and fastened them snugly. Cap Garland did not smile. His blue eyes narrowed and his mouth set straight while Mr. Foster talked.
Laura wrapped the muffler snugly over Carrie’s white face and took firm hold of her mittened hand. She told Carrie, “Don’t worry, we’ll be all right.”
“Now, just follow me,” said Mr. Foster, taking Teacher’s arm. “And keep close together.”
He opened the door, led the way with Miss Garland. Mary Power and Minnie each took one of the little Beardsley girls. Ben and Arthur followed them closely, then Laura went out with Carrie into blinding snow. Cap shut the door behind them.
They could hardly walk in the beating, whirling wind. The schoolhouse had disappeared. They could see nothing but swirling whiteness and snow and then a glimpse of each other, disappearing like shadows. Laura felt that she was smothering. The icy particles of snow whirled scratching into her eyes and smothered her breathing. Her skirts whipped around her, now wrapped so tightly that she could not step, then whirled and lifted to her knees. Suddenly tightening, they made her stumble. She held tightly to Carrie, and Carrie, struggling and staggering, was pulled away by the wind and then flung back against her.
“We can’t go on this way,” Laura thought. But they had to.
She was alone in the confusion of whirling winds and snow except for Carrie’s hand that she must never let go. The winds struck her this way and that. She could not see nor breathe, she stumbled and was falling, then suddenly she seemed to be lifted and Carrie bumped against her. She tried to think. The others must be somewhere ahead. She must walk faster and keep up with them or she and Carrie would be lost. If they were lost on the prairie they would freeze to death.
But perhaps they were all lost. Main Street was only two blocks long. If they were going only a little way to north or south they would miss the block of stores and beyond was empty prairie for miles.
Laura thought they must have gone far enough to reach Main Street, but she could see nothing.
The storm thinned a little. She saw shadowy figures ahead. They were darker gray in the whirling gray-whiteness. She went on as fast as she could, with Carrie, until she touched Miss Garland’s coat.
They had all stopped. Huddled in their wraps, they stood like bundles close together in the swirling mist. Teacher and Mr. Foster were trying to talk, but the winds confused their shouts so that no one could hear what they said. Then Laura began to know how cold she was.
Her mittened hand was so numb that it hardly felt Carrie’s hand. She was shaking all over and deep inside her there was a shaking that she could not stop. Only in her very middle there was a solid knot that ached, and her shaking pulled this knot tighter so that the ache grew worse.
She was frightened about Carrie. The cold hurt too much, Carrie could not stand it. Carrie was so little and thin, she had always been delicate, she could not stand such cold much longer. They must reach shelter soon.
Mr. Foster and Teacher were moving again, going a little to the left. All the others stirred and hurried to follow them. Laura took hold of Carrie with her other hand, that had been in her coat pocket and was not quite so numb, and then suddenly she saw a shadow go by them. She knew it was Cap Garland.
He was not following the others to the left. With hands in his pockets and head bent, he went trudging straight ahead into the storm. A fury of winds thickened the air with snow and he vanished.
Laura did not dare follow him. She must take care of Carrie and Teacher had told them to follow her. She was sure that Cap was going toward Main Street, but perhaps she was mistaken and she could not take Carrie away from the others.
She kept tight hold of Carrie and hurried to follow Mr. Foster and Teacher as fast as she could. Her chest sobbed for air and her eyes strained open in the icy snow-particles that hurt them like sand. Carrie struggled bravely, stumbling and flopping, doing her best to stay on her feet and keep on going. Only for instants when the snow-whirl was thinner could they glimpse the shadows moving ahead of them.
Laura felt that they were going in the wrong direction. She did not know why she felt so. No one could see anything. There was nothing to go by—no sun, no sky, no direction in the winds blowing fiercely from all directions. There was nothing but the dizzy whirling and the cold.
It seemed that the cold and the winds, the noise of the winds and the blinding, smothering, scratching snow, and the effort and the aching, were forever. Pa had lived through three days of a blizzard under the bank of Plum Creek. But there were no creek banks here. Here there was nothing but bare prairie. Pa had told about sheep caught in a blizzard, huddled together under the snow. Some of them had lived. Perhaps people could do that, too. Carrie was too tired to go much farther, but she was too heavy for Laura to carry. They must go on as long as they could, and then…
Then, out of the whirling whiteness, something hit her. The hard blow crashed against her shoulder and all through her. She rocked on her feet and stumbled against something solid. It was high, it was hard, it was the corner of two walls. Her hands felt it, her eyes saw it. She had walked against some building.
With all her might she yelled, “Here! Come here! Here’s a house!”
All around the house the winds were howling so that at first no one heard her. She pulled the icy stiff muffler from her mouth and screamed into the blinding storm. At last she saw a shadow in it, two tan shadows thinner than the shadowy wall she clung to—Mr. Foster and Teacher. Then other shadows pressed close around her.
No one tried to say anything. They crowded together and they were all there—Mary Power and Minnie, each with a little Beardsley girl, and Arthur Johnson and Ben Woodworth with the small Wilmarth boys. Only Cap Garland was missing.
They followed along the side of that building till they came to the front of it, and it was Mead’s Hotel, at the very north end of Main Street.
Beyond it was nothing but the railroad track covered with snow, the lonely depot and the wide, open prairie. If Laura had been only a few steps nearer the others, they would all have been lost on the endless prairie north of town.
For a moment they stood by the hotel’s lamplit windows. Warmth and rest were inside the hotel, but the blizzard was growing worse and they must all reach home.
Main Street would guide all of them except Ben Woodworth. No other buildings stood between the hotel and the depot where he lived. So Ben went into the hotel to stay till the blizzard was over. He could afford to do that because his father had a regular job.
Minnie and Arthur Johnson, taking the little Wilmarth boys, had only to cross Main Street to Wilmarth’s grocery store and their home was beside it. The others went on down Main Street, keeping close to the buildings. They passed the saloon, they passed Royal Wilder’s feed store, and then they passed Barker’s grocery. The Beardsley Hotel was next and there the little Beardsley girls went in.
The journey was almost ended now. They passed Couse’s Hardware store and they crossed Second Street to Fuller’s Hardware. Mary Power had only to pass the drugstore now. Her father’s tailor shop stood next to it.
Laura and Carrie and Teacher and Mr. Foster had to cross Main Street now. It was a wide street. But if they missed Pa’s house, the haystacks and the stable were still between them and the open prairie.
They did not miss the house. One of its lighted windows made a glow that Mr. Foster saw before he ran into it. He went on around the house corner with Teacher to go by the clothesline, the haystacks, and the stable to the Garland house.
Laura and Carrie were safe at their own front door. Laura’s hands fumbled at the doorknob, too stiff to turn it. Pa opened the door and helped them in.
He was wearing overcoat and cap and muffler. He had set down the lighted lantern and dropped a coil of rope. “I was just starting out after you,” he said.
In the still house Laura and Carrie stood taking deep breaths. It was so quiet there where the winds did not push and pull at them. They were still blinded, but the whirling icy snow had stopped hurting their eyes.
Laura felt Ma’s hands breaking away the icy muffler, and she said, “Is Carrie all right?”
“Yes, Carrie’s all right,” said Pa.
Ma took off Laura’s hood and unbuttoned her coat and helped her pull out of its sleeves. “These wraps are driven full of ice,” Ma said. They crackled when she shook them and little drifts of whiteness sifted to the floor.
“Well,” Ma said, “‘All’s well that ends well.’ You’re not frostbitten. You can go to the fire and get warm.”
Laura could hardly move but she stooped and with her fingers dug out the caked snow that the wind had driven in between her woolen stockings and the tops of her shoes. Then she staggered toward the stove. “Take my place,” Mary said, getting up from her rocking chair. “It’s the warmest.”
Laura sat stiffly down. She felt numb and stupid. She rubbed her eyes and saw a pink smear on her hand. Her eyelids were bleeding where the snow had scratched them. The sides of the coal heater glowed red-hot and she could feel the heat on her skin, but she was cold inside. The heat from the fire couldn’t reach that cold.
Pa sat close to the stove holding Carrie on his knee. He had taken off her shoes to make sure that her feet were not frozen and he held her wrapped in a shawl. The shawl shivered with Carrie’s shivering. “I can’t get warm, Pa,” she said.
“You girls are chilled through. I’ll have you a hot drink in a minute,” said Ma, hurrying into the kitchen.
She brought them each a steaming cup of ginger tea.
“My, that smells good!” said Mary, and Grace leaned on Laura’s knee looking longingly at the cup till Laura gave her a sip and Pa said, “I don’t know why there’s not enough of that to go around.”
“Maybe there is,” said Ma, going into the kitchen again.
It was so wonderful to be there, safe at home, sheltered from the winds and the cold. Laura thought that this must be a little bit like Heaven, where the weary are at rest. She could not imagine that Heaven was better than being where she was, slowly growing warm and comfortable, sipping the hot, sweet, ginger tea, seeing Ma, and Grace, and Pa and Carrie, and Mary all enjoying their own cups of it and hearing the storm that could not touch them here.
“I’m glad you didn’t have to come for us, Pa,” Laura said drowsily. “I was hoping you were safe.”
“So was I,” Carrie told Pa, snuggling against him. “I remembered that Christmas, on Plum Creek, when you didn’t get home.”
“I did, too,” Pa said grimly. “When Cap Garland came into Fuller’s and said you were all heading out to the open prairie, you can bet I made tracks for a rope and lantern.”
“I’m glad we got in all right,” Laura woke up to say.
“Yes, we’d have had a posse out looking for you, though we’d have been hunting for a needle in a haystack,” said Pa.
“Best forget about it,” said Ma.
“Well, he did the best he could,” Pa went on. “Cap Garland’s a smart boy.”
“And now, Laura and Carrie, you’re going to bed and get some rest,” said Ma. “A good long sleep is what you need.”