The Long Winter (Chaprer 11)

The Long Winter

Laura Ingalls Wilder

Chapter 11
Pa Goes To Volga

At noon on Tuesday the blizzard ended. Then the wind died down and in the clear sky the sun shone brightly.

“Well, that’s over,” Pa said cheerfully. “Now maybe we’ll have a spell of good weather.”

Ma sighed comfortably. “It’s good to see the sun again.”

“And to hear the stillness,” Mary added.

They could hear again the small sounds of the town. Now and then a store door slammed. Ben and Arthur went by, talking, and Cap Garland came whistling down Second Street. The only usual sound that they did not hear was the train’s whistle.

At supper Pa said that the train was stopped by the snow-filled big cut near Tracy. “But they’ll shovel through it in a couple of days,” he said. “In weather like this, who cares about trains?”

Early next morning he went across the street to Fuller’s store, hurrying back. He told Ma that some of the men were going to take the handcar from the depot and go meet the train at Volga, clearing the track as they went. Mr. Foster had agreed to do Pa’s chores if Pa went along.

“I have been in one place so long, I would like to travel a little,” Pa said.

“Go along, Charles, you might as well,” Ma agreed.

“But can you clear the track so far in one day?”

“We think so,” said Pa. “The cuts are small from here to Volga and it’s only about fifty miles. The worst stretch is east of Volga and the train crews are working at that. If we clear the rest of the way for them, we ought to come back with the regular train day after tomorrow.”

He was putting on an extra pair of woolen socks while he talked. He wound the wide muffler around his neck, crossed it on his chest, and buttoned his overcoat snugly over it. He fastened his ear muffs, put on his warmest mittens, and then with his shovel on his shoulder he went to the depot.

It was almost schooltime but, instead of hurrying to school, Laura and Carrie stood in Second Street watching Pa set out on his trip.

The handcar was standing on the track by the depot and men were climbing onto it as Pa came up.

“All ready, Ingalls! All aboard!” they called. The north wind blowing over the dazzling snow brought every word to Laura and Carrie.

Pa was on the car in a moment. “Let’s go, boys!” he gave the word as he gripped a handbar.

Mr. Fuller and Mr. Mead and Mr. Hinz took their places in a row, facing Pa and Mr. Wilmarth and Royal Wilder. All their mittened hands were on the two long wooden handlebars that crossed the handcar, with the pump between them.

“All ready, boys! Let ’er go gallagher!” Mr. Fuller sang out and he and Mr. Mead and Mr. Hinz bent low, pushing down their handlebar. Then as their heads and their handlebar came up, Pa and the other two bent down, pushing their handlebar. Down and up, down and up, the rows of men bent and straightened as if they were bowing low to each other in turn, and the handcar’s wheels began slowly to turn and then to roll rapidly along the track toward Volga. And as they pumped, Pa began to sing and all the others joined in.

“We’ll ROLL the O-old CHARiot SLLONG,
We’ll ROLL the O-old CHARiot zLONG,
We’ll ROLL the O-old CHARiot aLONG.
And we WON’T drag ON beHIND!

Up and down, up and down, all the backs moved evenly with the song and smoothly rolled the wheels, faster and faster.

“If the sinner’s in the way,
We will stop and take him in,
And we WON’T drag ON beHIND!

“We’ll ROLL the O-old CHARiot aLONG,
We’ll ROLL the O-old CHAR—”

Bump! and the handcar was stuck fast in a snowbank.

“All off!” Mr. Fuller sang out. “Not this time, we don’t roll it over!”

Picking up their shovels, all the men stepped down from the handcar. Bright snow dust flew in the wind from chunks of snow flung away by their busy shovels.

“We ought to be getting to school,” Laura said to Carrie.

“Oh please, let’s wait just a minute more and see…” Carrie said, gazing with squinting eyes across the glittering snow at Pa hard at work in front of the handcar.

In a moment or two all the men stepped onto it again, laying down their shovels and bending to the handlebars.

“If the Devil’s in the way,
We will roll it over him,
And we WON’T drag ON beHIND!

Smaller and smaller grew the dark handcar and the two rows of men bowing in turn to each other, and fainter and fainter the song came back over the glittering snow fields.

“We’ll roll—the o-old—chariot along,
We’ll roll—the o-old—chariot along,
We’ll roll—the o-old—chariot along,
And we won’t drag on behind…”

Singing and pumping, rolling the car along, shoveling its way through snowbank and cuts, Pa went away to Volga.

All the rest of the day and all the next day there was an emptiness in the house. Morning and evening Mr. Foster did the chores and, after he had left the stable, Ma sent Laura to make sure that he had done them properly. “Surely Pa will be home tomorrow,” Ma said on Thursday night.

At noon the next day the long, clear train whistle sounded over the snow-covered prairie, and from the kitchen window Laura and Carrie saw the black smoke billowing on the sky and the roaring train coming beneath it. It was the work-train, crowded with singing, cheering men.

“Help me get the dinner on, Laura,” Ma said. “Pa will be hungry.”

Laura was taking up the biscuits when the front door opened and Pa called, “Look, Caroline! See who’s come home with me?”

Grace stopped her headlong rush toward Pa and backed, staring, her fingers in her mouth. Ma put her gently aside as she stepped to the doorway with the dish of mashed potatoes in her hand.

“Why, Mr. Edwards!” Ma said.

“I told you we’d see him again, after he saved our homestead for us,” said Pa.

Ma set the potatoes on the table. “I have wanted so much to thank you for helping Mr. Ingalls file on his claim,” she said to Mr. Edwards.

Laura would have known him anywhere. He was the same tall, lean, lounging wildcat from Tennessee. The laughing lines in his leather-brown face were deeper, a knife scar was on his cheek that had not been there before, but his eyes were as laughing and lazy and keen as she remembered them. “Oh, Mr. Edwards!” she cried out.

“You brought our presents from Santa Claus,” Mary remembered.

“You swam the creek,” Laura said. “And you went away down the Verdigris River…”

Mr. Edwards scraped his foot on the floor and bowed low. “Mrs. Ingalls and girls, I surely am glad to see you all again.”

He looked into Mary’s eyes that did not see him and his voice was gentle when he said, “Are these two handsome young ladies your small little girls that I dandled on my knee, Ingalls, down on the Verdigris?”

Mary and Laura said that they were and that Carrie had been the baby then.

“Grace is our baby now,” Ma said, but Grace would not go to meet Mr. Edwards. She would only stare at him and hang on to Ma’s skirts.

“You’re just in time, Mr. Edwards,” Ma said hospitably. “I’ll have dinner on the table in one minute,” and Pa urged, “Sit right up, Edwards, and don’t be bashful! There’s plenty of it, such as it is!”

Mr. Edwards admired the well-built, pleasant house and heartily enjoyed the good dinner. But he said he was going on west with the train when it pulled out. Pa could not persuade him to stay longer.

“I’m aiming to go far west in the spring,” he said. “This here country, it’s too settled-up for me. The politicians are a-swarming in already, and ma’am if’n there’s any worst pest than grasshoppers it surely is politicians. Why, they’ll tax the lining out’n a man’s pockets to keep up these here county-seat towns! I don’t see nary use for a county, nohow. We all got along happy and content without ’em.

“Feller come along and taxed me last summer. Told me I got to put in every last least thing I had. So I put in Tom and Jerry, my horses, at fifty dollars apiece, and my oxen yoke, Buck and Bright, I put in at fifty, and my cow at thirty-five.

“‘Is that all you got?’ he says. Well, I told him I’d put in five children I reckoned was worth a dollar apiece.

“‘Is that all?’ he says. ‘How about your wife?’ he says.

“‘By Mighty!’ I says to him. ‘She says I don’t own her and I don’t aim to pay no taxes on her,’ I says. And I didn’t.”

“Why, Mr. Edwards, it is news to us that you have a family,” said Ma. “Mr. Ingalls said nothing of it.”

“I didn’t know it myself,” Pa explained. “Anyway, Edwards, you don’t have to pay taxes on your wife and children.”

“He wanted a big tax list,” said Mr. Edwards. “Politicians, they take pleasure a-prying into a man’s affairs and I aimed to please ’em. It makes no matter. I don’t aim to pay taxes. I sold the relinquishment on my claim and in the spring when the collector comes around I’ll be gone from there. Got no children and no wife, nohow.”

Before Pa or Ma could speak, the train whistle blew loud and long. “There’s the call,” said Mr. Edwards, and got up from the table.

“Change your mind and stay awhile, Edwards,” Pa urged him. “You always brought us luck.”

But Mr. Edwards shook hands all around and last with Mary who sat beside him.

“Good-by all!” he said, and going quickly out of the door he ran toward the depot.

Grace had looked and listened wide-eyed all the time without trying to say a word. Now that Mr. Edwards had vanished so suddenly, she took a deep breath and asked, “Mary, was that the man who saw Santa Claus?”

“Yes,” Mary said. “That was the man who walked to Independence, forty miles, in the rain and saw Santa Claus there and brought back the Christmas presents for Laura and me when we were little girls.”

“He has a heart of gold,” said Ma.

“He brought us each a tin cup and a stick of candy,” Laura remembered. She got up slowly and began to help Ma and Carrie clear the table. Pa went to his big chair by the stove.

Mary lifted her handkerchief from her lap, as she started to leave the table, and something fluttered to the floor. Ma stooped to pick it up. She stood holding it, speechless, and Laura cried, “Mary! A twenty dollar—You dropped a twenty dollar bill!

“I couldn’t!” Mary exclaimed.

“That Edwards,” said Pa.

“We can’t keep it,” Ma said. But clear and long came the last farewell whistle of the train.

“What will you do with it, then?” Pa asked. “Edwards is gone and we likely won’t see him again for years, if ever. He is going to Oregon in the spring.”

“But, Charles… Oh, why did he do it?” Ma softly cried out in distress.

“He gave it to Mary,” said Pa. “Let Mary keep it. It will help her go to college.”

Ma thought for a moment, then said, “Very well,” and she gave the bill to Mary.

Mary held it carefully, touching it with her fingertips, and her face shone. “Oh, I do thank Mr. Edwards.”

“I hope he never has need of it himself, wherever he goes,” said Ma.

“Trust Edwards to look out for himself,” Pa assured her.

Mary’s face was dreamy with the look it had when she was thinking of the college for the blind. “Ma,” she said, “with the money you made keeping boarders last year, this makes thirty-five dollars and twenty-five cents.”

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