The Long Winter (Chapter 10)
The Long Winter
Laura Ingalls Wilde
Three Days’ Blizzard
When Laura’s eyes opened in the morning she saw that every clinched nail in the roof overhead was furry-white with frost. Thick frost covered every windowpane to its very top. The daylight was still and dim inside the stout walls that kept out the howling blizzard.
Carrie was awake too. She peeked anxiously at Laura from under the quilts on the bed by the stovepipe where she and Grace slept. She blew out a breath to see how cold it was. Even close to the stovepipe her breath froze white in the air. But that house was so well-built that not one bit of snow had been driven through the walls or the roof.
Laura was stiff and sore and so was Carrie. But morning had come and they must get up. Sliding out of bed into the cold that took her breath away, Laura snatched up her dress and shoes and hurried to the top of the stairs. “Ma, can we dress down there?” she called, thankful for the warm, long, red flannels under her flannel nightgown.
“Yes, Pa’s at the stable,” Ma answered.
The cookstove was warming the kitchen and the lamplight made it seem even warmer. Laura put on her petticoats and dress and shoes. Then she brought down her sisters’ clothes and warmed them and carried Grace downstairs wrapped in quilts. They were all dressed and washed when Pa came in with the milk half frozen in the pail.
After he had got his breath and melted the frost and snow from his mustaches, he said, “Well, the hard winter’s begun.”
“Why, Charles,” Ma said. “It isn’t like you to worry about winter weather.”
“I’m not worrying,” Pa replied. “But it’s going to be a hard winter.”
“Well, if it is,” said Ma, “here we are in town where we can get what we need from the stores even in a storm.”
There would be no more school till the blizzard was over. So, after the housework was done, Laura and Carrie and Mary studied their lessons and then settled down to sew while Ma read to them.
Once she looked up and listened and said, “It sounds like a regular three days’ blizzard.”
“Then there won’t be any more school this week,” said Laura. She wondered what Mary and Minnie were doing. The front room was so warm that the frost on the windows had melted a little and turned to ice. When she breathed on it to clear a peephole she could see against the glass the blank white swirling snow. She could not even see Fuller’s Hardware store, across the street, where Pa had gone to sit by the stove and talk with the other men.
Up the street, past Couse’s Hardware store and the Beardsley Hotel and Barker’s grocery, Royal Wilder’s feed store was dark and cold. No one would come to buy feed in that storm, so Royal did not keep up the fire in the heater. But the back room, where he and Almanzo were baching, was warm and cosy and Almanzo was frying pancakes.
Royal had to agree that not even Mother could beat Almanzo at making pancakes. Back in New York state when they were boys and later on Father’s big farm in Minnesota they had never thought of cooking; that was woman’s work. But since they had come west to take up homestead claims they had to cook or starve; and Almanzo had to do the cooking because he was handy at almost anything and also because he was younger than Royal who still thought that he was the boss.
When he came west, Almanzo was nineteen years old. But that was a secret because he had taken a homestead claim, and according to law a man must be twenty-one years old to do that. Almanzo did not consider that he was breaking the law and he knew he was not cheating the government. Still, anyone who knew that he was nineteen years old could take his claim away from him.
Almanzo looked at it this way: the Government wanted this land settled; Uncle Sam would give a farm to any man who had the nerve and muscle to come out here and break the sod and stick to the job till it was done. But the politicians far away in Washington could not know the settlers so they must make rules to regulate them and one rule was that a homesteader must be twenty-one years old.
None of the rules worked as they were intended to. Almanzo knew that men were making good wages by filing claims that fitted all the legal rules and then handing over the land to the rich men who paid their wages. Everywhere, men were stealing the land and doing it according to all the rules. But of all the homestead laws Almanzo thought that the most foolish was the law about a settler’s age.
Anybody knew that no two men were alike. You could measure cloth with a yardstick, or distance by miles, but you could not lump men together and measure them by any rule. Brains and character did not depend on anything but the man himself. Some men did not have the sense at sixty that some had at sixteen. And Almanzo considered that he was as good, any day, as any man twenty-one years old.
Almanzo’s father thought so too. A man had the right to keep his sons at work for him until they were twenty-one years old. But Almanzo’s father had put his boys to work early and trained them well. Almanzo had learned to save money before he was ten and he had been doing a man’s work on the farm since he was nine. When he was seventeen, his father had judged that he was a man and had given him his own free time. Almanzo had worked for fifty cents a day and saved money to buy seed and tools. He had raised wheat on shares in western Minnesota and made a good crop.
He considered that he was as good a settler as the government could want and that his age had nothing to do with it. So he had said to the land agent, “You can put me down as twenty-one,” and the agent had winked at him and done it. Almanzo had his own homestead claim now and the seed wheat for next year that he had brought from Minnesota, and if he could stick it out on these prairies and raise crops for four years more he would have his own farm.
He was making pancakes, not because Royal could boss him any more but because Royal could not make good pancakes and Almanzo loved light, fluffy, buckwheat pancakes with plenty of molasses.
“Whew! listen to that!” Royal said. They had never heard anything like that blizzard
“That old Indian knew what he was talking about,” said Almanzo. “If we’re in for seven months of this…” The three pancakes on the griddle were holding their bubbles in tiny holes near their crisping edges. He flipped them over neatly and watched their brown-patterned sides rise in the middle.
The good smell of them mixed with the good smells of fried salt pork and boiling coffee. The room was warm and the lamp with its tin reflector, hung on a nail, lighted it strongly. Saddles and bits of harness hung on the rough board walls. The bed was in one corner, and the table was drawn up to the stove hearth so that Almanzo could put the pancakes on the white ironstone plates without moving one step.
“This can’t last seven months. That’s ridiculous,” said Royal. “We’re bound to have some spells of good weather.”
Almanzo replied airily, “Anything can happen and most usually does.” He slid his knife under the edges of the pancakes. They were done and he flipped them onto Royal’s plate and greased the griddle again with the pork rind.
Royal poured molasses over the cakes. “One thing can’t happen,” he said. “We can’t stick it out here till spring unless they keep the trains running.”
Almanzo poured three more rounds of batter from the batter pitcher onto the sizzling griddle. He lounged against the warm partition, by the stovepipe, waiting for the cakes to rise.
“We figured on hauling in more hay,” he said. “We’ve got plenty of dry feed for the team.”
“Oh, they’ll get the trains through,” Royal said, eating. “But if they didn’t we’d be up against it. How about coal and kerosene and flour and sugar? For that matter, how long would my stock of feed last, if the whole town came piling in here to buy it?”
Almanzo straightened up. “Say!” he exclaimed. “Nobody’s going to get my seed wheat! No matter what happens.”
“Nothing’s going to happen,” Royal said. “Whoever heard of storms lasting seven months? They’ll get the trains running again.”
“They better,” said Almanzo, turning the pancakes. He thought of the old Indian, and he looked at his sacks of seed wheat. They were stacked along the end of the room and some were under the bed. The seed wheat did not belong to Royal; it belonged to him. He had raised it in Minnesota. He had plowed and harrowed the ground and sowed the grain. He had cut it and bound it, threshed and sacked it, and hauled it a hundred miles in his wagon.
If storms like this storm delayed the trains so that no more seed came from the East until after sowing time, his crop for next year, his homestead would depend on his having that seed wheat to sow. He would not sell it for any money. It was seed that made crops. You could not sow silver dollars.
“I’m not going to sell so much as a peck of my seed wheat,” he said.
“All right, all right, nobody’s bothering your wheat,” Royal answered. “How about some pancakes?”
“This makes twenty-one,” Almanzo said, putting them on Royal’s plate.
“How many did you eat while I was doing the chores?” Royal asked him.
“I didn’t count ’em,” Almanzo grinned. “But gosh, I’m working up an appetite, feeding you.”
“So long as we keep on eating, we don’t have to wash the dishes,” said Royal.