The Long Winter (Chaprer 16)
The Long Winter
Laura Ingalls Wilder
Morning was bright and clear but there was no school. There would be no more school until the train came bringing coal.
Outdoors the sun was shining but frost was still on the window and the kitchen seemed stale and dull. Carrie gazed out through the peephole in the frost while she wiped the breakfast dishes, and drearily Laura sloshed the cooling water in the dishpan.
“I want to go somewhere!” Carrie said fretfully. “I’m tired of staying in this old kitchen!”
“We were thankful enough for this warm kitchen yesterday,” Mary gently reminded her. “And now we may be thankful the blizzard’s over.”
“You wouldn’t go to school, anyway,” Laura said crossly. She was ashamed as soon as she heard the words, but when Ma said reproachfully, “Laura,” she felt more cross than before.
“When you girls have finished your work,” Ma went on, covering the well-kneaded bread and setting it before the oven to rise, “you may put on your wraps, and Mary may, too, and all go out in the yard for a breath of fresh air.”
That cheered them. Laura and Carrie worked quickly now, and in a little while they were hurrying into their coats and shawls and hoods, mufflers and mittens. Laura guided Mary through the lean-to, and they all burst out into the glittering cold. The sun glare blinded them and the cold took their breath away.
“Throw back your arms and breathe deep, deep!” Laura cried. She knew that cold is not so cold if you are not afraid of it. They threw back their arms and breathed the cold in, and through their cringing noses it rushed deep into their chests and warmed them all over. Even Mary laughed aloud.
“I can smell the snow!” she said. “So fresh and clean!”
“The sky is bright blue and the whole world is sparkling white,” Laura told her. “Only the houses stick up out of the snow and spoil it. I wish we were where there aren’t any houses.”
“What a dreadful idea,” said Mary. “We’d freeze to death.”
“I’d build us an igloo,” Laura declared, “and we’d live like Eskimos.”
“Ugh, on raw fish,” Mary shuddered. “I wouldn’t.”
The snow crunched and creaked under their feet. It was packed so hard that Laura could not scoop up a handful to make a snowball. She was telling Carrie how soft the snow used to be in the Big Woods of Wisconsin when Mary said, “Who’s that coming? It sounds like our horses.”
Pa came riding up to the stable. He was standing on a queer kind of sled. It was a low platform made of new boards and it was as long as a wagon and twice as wide. It had no tongue, but a long loop of chain was fastened to the wide-apart runners and the whiffle trees were fastened to the chain.
“Where did you get that funny sled, Pa?” Laura asked.
“I made it,” Pa said. “At the lumberyard.” He got his pitchfork from the stable. “It does look funny,” he admitted. “But it would hold a whole haystack if the horses could pull it. I don’t want to lose any time getting some hay here to feed the stock.”
Laura wanted to ask him if he had any news of the train, but the question would remind Carrie that there was no more coal or kerosene and no meat until a train could come. She did not want to worry Carrie. They were all so brisk and cheery in this bright weather, and if sunny weather lasted for a while the train would come and there would be nothing to worry about.
While she was thinking this, Pa stepped onto the low, big sled.
“Tell your Ma they’ve brought a snowplow and a full work train out from the East and put them to work at the Tracy cut, Laura,” he said. “A few days of this fine weather and they’ll have the train running all right.”
“Yes, Pa, I’ll tell her,” Laura said thankfully, and Pa drove away, around the street corner and out along Main Street toward the homestead.
Carrie sighed a long sigh and cried, “Let’s tell her right away!” From the way she said it, Laura knew that Carrie had been wanting to ask Pa about the train too.
“My, what rosy cheeks!” Ma said when they went into the dusky, warm kitchen. The cold, fresh air shook out of their wraps while they took them off. The heat above the stove made their cold fingers tingle pleasantly, and Ma was glad to hear about the work train and the snowplow.
“This good weather will likely last for some time now, we have had so many storms,” Ma said.
The frost was melting on the window and freezing into thin sheets of ice over the cold glass. With little trouble Laura pried it off and wiped the panes dry. She settled herself in the bright daylight and knitted her lace, looking out now and then at the sunshine on the snow. There was not a cloud in the sky and no reason to worry about Pa though he did not come back as soon as should be expected.
At ten o’clock he had not come. At eleven there was still no sign of him. It was only two miles to the homestead and back, and half an hour should load the sled with hay.
“I wonder what’s keeping Pa?” Mary said finally.
“Likely he’s found something to do at the claim,” Ma said. She came to the window then and looked at the northwestern sky. There was no cloud in it.
“There’s no cause to worry,” Ma went on. “It may be the storms have done some damage to the shanty, but that’s soon mended.”
At noon the Saturday baking of bread was out of the oven, three crusty golden hot loaves, and the boiled potatoes were steaming dry and the tea was brewed, and still Pa had not returned.
They were all sure that something had happened to him, though no one said so and no one could think what it might be. The steady old horses would surely not run away. Laura thought of claim jumpers. Pa had no gun if claim jumpers were in the deserted shanty. But claim jumpers could not have come through the blizzards. There were no bears or panthers or wolves or Indians. There was no river to ford.
What could happen to hinder or hurt a man driving gentle horses, in good weather, only a mile in a sled over the snow to the homestead and the same way back again with a load of hay?
Then Pa came driving around the corner of Second Street and by the window. Laura saw him going by, snowy on the mound of snowy hay that hid the sled and seemed to be dragging on the snow. He stopped by the stable, unhitched the horses and put them in their stalls and then came stamping into the lean-to. Laura and Ma had put the dinner on the table.
“By George! that dinner looks good!” said Pa. “I could eat a raw bear without salt!”
Laura poured hot water from the teakettle into the washbasin for him. Ma said gently, “Whatever kept you so long, Charles?”
“Grass,” said Pa. He buried his face in his hands full of soapy water and Laura and Ma looked at each other amazed. What did Pa mean? In a minute he reached for the roller towel and went on, “That confounded grass under the snow.
“You can’t follow the road,” Pa went on, wiping his hands. “There’s nothing to go by, no fences or trees. As soon as you get out of town there’s nothing but snowdrifts in all directions. Even the lake’s covered up. The drifts are packed hard by the wind, and frozen, so the sled slides right along over them and you’d think you could make a beeline to wherever you wanted to go.
“Well, first thing I knew, the team went down to their chins in that hard snow. I’d hit the slough, and the snow looks as hard there as anywhere, but underneath it there’s grass. The slough grass holds up that crust of snow on nothing but grass stems and air. As soon as the horses get onto it, down they go.
“I’ve spent this whole morning rassling with that dumb horse, Sam… “
“Charles,” Ma said.
“Caroline,” Pa answered, “it’s enough to make a saint swear. David was all right, he’s got horse sense, but Sam went plumb crazy. There those two horses are, down to their backs in snow, and every try they make to get out only makes the hole bigger. If they drag the sled down into it, I never will get it out. So I unhitch the sled. Then I try to get the team up onto hard going again, and there’s Sam gone crazywild, plunging and snorting and jumping and wallowing all the time deeper into that confounded snow.”
“It must have been a job,” Ma agreed.
“He was threshing around so, I was afraid he’d hurt David,” said Pa. “So I got down into it and unhitched them from each other. I held on to Sam and I tramped the snow down as well as I could, trying to make a hard enough path for him to walk on, up onto the top of the drifts. But he’d rear and plunge and break it down till I tell you it’d wear out any man’s patience.”
“Whatever did you do, Charles?” Ma asked.
“Oh, I got him out finally,” Pa said. “David followed me as gentle as a lamb, stepping carefully and coming right on up. So I hitched him onto the sled and he dragged it around the hole. But I had to hang on to Sam all the time. There was nothing to tie him to. Then I hitched them both up together again and started on. We went about a hundred feet and down they went again.”
“Mercy!” Ma exclaimed.
“So that’s the way it was,” said Pa. “The whole morning. Took me the whole half a day to go a couple of miles and get back with one load of hay, and I’m tireder than if I’d done a hard day’s work. I’m going to drive David single this afternoon. He can’t haul so big a load but it’ll be easier on both of us.”
He ate dinner in a hurry and hurried out to hitch David to the sled alone. Now they knew what Pa was doing and they were not worried, but they were sorry for David, falling through the deceitful snowdrifts, and for Pa, unhitching and helping the horse out and hitching him to the sled again.
Still, the whole afternoon was sunny, without a cloud in the sky, and before dark Pa had hauled two small loads of hay.
“David follows me like a dog,” Pa told them all at supper. “When he breaks through the snow he stands still until I trample a solid path up. Then he follows me up out of the hole as carefully as if he understood all about it and I bet he does. Tomorrow I’m going to hitch him onto the sled by a long rope, so I won’t have to unhitch him when he falls in. I’ll only have to help him out and then, on the long rope, he can haul the sled around the hole.”
After supper Pa went to Fuller’s Hardware to buy the rope. He came back soon with news. The work train with the snowplow had got halfway through the Tracy cut that day.
“It takes longer this time to get through,” he said, “because every time they cleared the track they threw the snow up on both sides, making the cut that much deeper. But Woodworth at the depot says they’ll likely get a train through by day after tomorrow.”
“That’s good news,” said Ma. “I’ll be thankful to have some meat again.”
“That’s not all,” Pa went on. “We’re going to get the mail, train or no train. They’re sending it through by team, and Gilbert, the mail carrier, is leaving here for Preston in the morning. He’s making a sled now. So if you want to send a letter, you can.”
“There is that letter I’ve been writing to the folks in Wisconsin,” said Ma. “I wasn’t intending to finish it so soon, but perhaps I may as well.”
So she brought the letter to the tablecloth under the lamp, and after she had thawed the ink bottle they all sat around the table thinking of last things to say while Ma wrote them down with her little red pen that had a mother-of-pearl handle shaped like a feather. When her neat, clear writing filled the paper she turned it and filled it again crosswise. On the other side of the paper she did the same thing so that every inch of paper held all the words that it possibly could.
Carrie had been only a baby in Wisconsin. She did not remember the aunts and uncles and the cousins Alice and Ella and Peter, and Grace had never seen them. But Laura and Mary remembered them perfectly.
“Tell them I still have my doll, Charlotte,” said Laura, “and I wish we had one of Black Susan’s great-great-great-grand kittens.”
“‘Descendants’ takes less space,” said Ma. “I’m afraid this letter will be overweight.”
“Tell them there isn’t a cat in this whole country,” said Pa.
“I wish to goodness there was,” said Ma. “We need one for the mice.”
“Tell them we wish they could come spend Christmas with us this year like they did in the Big Woods,” said Mary.
“‘Ay they did,’ Mary,” said Ma.
“My goodness!” Laura exclaimed. “When is Christmas? I’d forgotten all about it. It’s almost here.”
Grace bounced on Mary’s lap and cried, “When is Christmas coming? When is Santa Claus?”
Mary and Carrie had told her all about Santa Claus. Now Mary did net know what to say to her and neither did Laura. But Carrie spoke up.
“Maybe Santa Claus can’t get here this winter, Grace, on account of the storms and the snow,” Carrie said. “You see, even the train can’t.”
“Santa Claus comes on a sled,” Grace said anxiously, looking at them with wide blue eyes. “He can come, can’t he, Pa? Can’t he, Ma?”
“Of course he can, Grace,” said Ma. Then Laura said stoutly, “Santa Claus can come anywhere.”
“Maybe he’ll bring us the train,” said Pa.
In the morning he took the letter to the post office and there he saw Mr. Gilbert put the mailbag into the sled and drive away, well wrapped in buffalo robes. He had twelve miles to go to Preston.
“He’ll meet another team there with mail from the East and bring it back,” Pa explained to Ma. “He ought to get back tonight, if he doesn’t have too much trouble crossing the sloughs.”
“He has good weather for the trip,” Ma said.
“I’d better be taking advantage of it myself,” said Pa.
He went out to harness David to the sled by the long rope. He hauled one load of hay that morning. At noon, while they sat at table, the light darkened and the wind began to howl.
“Here she comes!” Pa said. “I hope Gilbert made it safe to Preston.”