The Long Winter (Chapter 15)

The Long Winter

Laura Ingalls Wilder

Chapter 15
No Trains

It was not worth while to get up in the morning. The daylight was dim, the windows were white and so were the nails in the roof. Another blizzard was roaring, screaming, and swishing around the house. There would be no school.

Laura lay sluggish and half awake. She would rather sleep than wake up to such a day. But Ma called, “Good morning, girls! Time to get up!”

Quickly, because of the cold, Laura put on her dress and her shoes and went downstairs.

“Why, what is the trouble, Laura?” Ma asked, looking up from the stove.

Laura almost wailed, “Oh Ma! How can I ever teach school and help send Mary to college? How can I ever amount to anything when I can get only one day of school at a time?”

“Now Laura,” Ma said kindly. “You must not be so easily discouraged. A few blizzards more or less can make no great difference. We will hurry and get the work done, then you can study. There is enough figuring in your arithmetic to keep you busy for a good many days, and you can do as much of it as you want to. Nothing keeps you from learning.”

Laura asked, “Why is the table here in the kitchen?” The table left hardly room to move about.

“Pa didn’t build the fire in the heater this morning,” Ma answered.

They heard Pa stamping in the lean-to and Laura opened the door for him. He looked sober. The little milk in the pail was frozen solid.

“This is the worst yet, I do believe,” Pa said while he held his stiff hands over the stove. “I didn’t start a fire in the heater, Caroline. Our coal is running low, and this storm will likely block the trains for some time.”

“I thought as much when I saw you hadn’t built the fire,” Ma answered. “So I moved the table in here. We’ll keep the middle door shut and the cookstove warms this room nicely.”

“I’ll go over to Fuller’s right after breakfast,” said Pa. He ate quickly and while he was putting on his wraps again Ma went upstairs. She brought down her little red Morocco pocketbook, with the shining, smooth mother-of-pearl sides and the steel clasps, in which she kept Mary’s college money.

Pa slowly put out his hand and took it. Then he cleared his throat and said, “Mary, it may be the town’s running short of supplies. If the lumberyard  and the stores are putting up prices too high… “

He did not go on and Mary said, “Ma has my college money put away. You could spend that.”

“If I do have to, Mary, you can depend on me paying it back,” Pa promised.

After he had gone, Laura brought Mary’s rocking chair from the cold front room and set it to warm before the open oven. As soon as Mary sat in it Grace climbed into her lap.

“I’ll be warm, too,” Grace said.

“You’re a big girl now and too heavy,” Ma objected, but Mary said quickly, “Oh no, Grace! I like to hold you, even if you are a big three-year-old girl.”

The room was so crowded that Laura could hardly wash the dishes without bumping into some sharp edge. While Ma was making the beds in the upstairs cold, Laura polished the stove and cleaned the lamp chimney. Then she unscrewed the brass chimney holder and filled the lamp carefully with kerosene. The last clear drop poured out from the spout of the kerosene can.

“Oh! we didn’t tell Pa to get kerosene!” Laura exclaimed before she thought.

“Don’t we have kerosene?” Carrie gasped, turning around quickly from the cupboard where she was putting away the dishes. Her eyes were frightened.

“My goodness, yes, I’ve filled the lamp brimful,” Laura answered. “Now I’ll sweep the floor and you dust.”

All the work was done when Ma came downstairs. “The wind is fairly rocking the house up there,” she told them, shivering by the stove. “How nicely you have done everything, Laura and Carrie,” she smiled.

Pa had not come back, but surely he could not be lost, in town.

Laura brought her books and slate to the table, close to Mary in her rocking chair. The light was poor but Ma did not light a lamp. Laura read the arithmetic problems one by one to Mary, and did them on the slate while Mary solved them in her head. They worked each problem backward to make sure that they had the correct answer. Slowly they worked lesson after lesson and as Ma had said, there were many more to come.

At last they heard Pa coming through the front room. His overcoat and cap were frozen white with snow and he carried a snowy package. He thawed by the stove and when he could speak, he said, “I didn’t use your college money, Mary.

“There’s no coal at the lumberyard,” he went on. “People burned so much in this cold weather and Ely didn’t have much on hand. He’s selling lumber to burn now, but we can’t afford to burn lumber at fifty dollars a thousand.”

“People are foolish to pay it,” Ma said gently. “Trains are bound to get through before long.”

“There is no more kerosene in town,” Pa said. “And no meat. The stores are sold out of pretty nearly everything. I got two pounds of tea, Caroline, before they ran out of that. So we’ll have our bit of tea till the trains come through.”

“There’s nothing like a good cup of tea in cold weather,” said Ma. “And the lamp is full. That’s enough kerosene to last quite a while if we go to bed early to save coal. I am so glad you thought to get the tea. We would miss that!”

Slowly Pa grew warm and without saying anything more he sat down by the window to read the Chicago Inter-Ocean that had come in the last mail.

“By the way,” he said, looking up, “school is closed until coal comes.”

“We can study by ourselves,” Laura said stoutly. She and Mary murmured to each other over the arithmetic problems, Carrie studied the speller, while Ma worked at her mending and Pa silently read the paper. The blizzard grew worse. It was by far the most violent blizzard that they had ever heard.

The room grew colder. There was no heat from the front room to help the cookstove. The cold had crept into the front room and was sneaking in under the door. Beneath the lean-to door it was crawling in too. Ma brought the braided rugs from the front room and laid them, folded, tightly against the bottoms of the doors.

At noon Pa went to the stable. The stock did not need feeding at noon, but he went to see that the horses and the cow and the big calf were still safely sheltered.

He went out again in mid-afternoon. “Animals need a lot of feed to keep them warm in such cold,” he explained to Ma. “The blizzard is worse than it was, and I had a hard tussle this morning to get hay into the stable in these winds. I couldn’t do it if the haystack wasn’t right at the door. Another good thing, the snowdrifts are gone. They’ve been scoured away, down to the bare ground.”

The storm howled even louder when he went out into it, and a blast of cold came through the lean-to though Ma had pushed the folded rug against the inner door as soon as Pa shut it.

Mary was braiding a new rug. She had cut worn-out woolen clothes in strips, and Ma had put each color in a separate box. Mary kept the boxes in order and remembered where each color was. She was braiding the rag-strips together in a long braid that coiled down in a pile beside her chair. When she came to the end of a strip, she chose the color she wanted and sewed it on. Now and then she felt of the growing pile.

“I do believe I have nearly enough done,” she said. “I’ll be ready for you to sew the rug tomorrow, Laura.”

“I wanted to finish this lace first,” Laura objected. “And these storms keep making it so dark I can hardly see to count the stitches.”

“The dark doesn’t bother me,” Mary answered cheerfully. “I can see with my fingers.”

Laura was ashamed of being impatient. “I’ll sew your rug whenever you’re ready,” she said willingly.

Pa was gone a long time. Ma set the supper back to keep warm. She did not light the lamp, and they all sat thinking that the clothesline would guide Pa through the blinding blizzard.

“Come, come, girls!” Ma said, rousing herself. “Mary, you start a song. We’ll sing away the time until Pa comes.” So they sang together in the dark until Pa came.

There was lamplight at supper, but Ma told Laura to leave the dishes unwashed. They must all go to bed quickly, to save the kerosene and the coal.

Only Pa and Ma got up next morning at chore time. “You girls stay in bed and keep warm as long as you like,” Ma said, and Laura did not get up until nine o’clock. The cold was pressing on the house and seeping in, rising higher and higher, and the ceaseless noise and the dusk seemed to hold time still.

Laura and Mary and Carrie studied their lessons. Laura sewed the rag braid into a round rug and laid it heavy over Mary’s lap so that Mary could see it with her fingers. The rug made this day different from the day before, but Laura felt that it was the same day over again when they sang again in the dark until Pa came and ate the same supper of potatoes and bread with dried-apple sauce and tea and left the dishes unwashed and went to bed at once to save kerosene and coal.

Another day was the same. The blizzard winds did not stop roaring and shrieking, the swishing snow did not stop swishing, the noise and the dark and the cold would never end.

Suddenly they ended. The blizzard winds stopped. It was late in the third afternoon. Laura blew and scraped at the frost on a windowpane till through the peephole she could see snow scudding down Main Street low to the ground before a straight wind. A reddish light shone on the blowing snow from the setting sun. The sky was clear and cold. Then the rosy light faded, the snow was blowing gray-white, and the steady wind blew harder. Pa came in from doing the chores.

“Tomorrow I must haul some hay,” he said. “But now I’m going across to Fuller’s to find out if anybody but us is alive in this blame town. Here for three whole days we haven’t been able to see a light, nor smoke, nor any sign of a living soul. What’s the good of a town if a fellow can’t get any good of it?”

“Supper’s almost ready, Charles,” Ma said.

“I’ll be back in a jiffy!” Pa told her.

He came back in a few minutes asking, “Supper ready?” Ma was dishing it up and Laura setting the chairs to the table.

“Everything’s all right in town,” Pa said, “and word from the depot is that they’ll start work tomorrow morning on that big cut this side of Tracy.”

“How long will it take to get a train through?” Laura asked.

“Can’t tell,” Pa replied. “That one clear day we had, they cleaned it out, ready to come through next day. But they shoveled the snow up, both sides of the cut, and now it’s packed full, clear to the top of the banks. Something like thirty feet deep of snow, frozen solid, they’ve got to dig out now.”

“That won’t take very long in pleasant weather,” Ma said. “Surely we’re bound to have that. We’ve already had more, and worse, storms than we had all last winter.”

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