The Long Winter (Chapter 18)
The Long Winter
Laura Ingalls Wilder
The blizzard stopped at last. After three days of its ceaseless noise, the stillness rang in Laura’s ears.
Pa hurried away to get a load of hay and when he came back he put David in the stable. The sun was still glittering on the snow, there was no cloud in the northwest, and Laura wondered why he stopped hauling hay.
“What’s wrong, Charles?” Ma asked quietly when Pa came in.
Pa answered, “Gilbert made it to Preston and back. He’s brought the mail!”
It was as if Christmas had happened unexpectedly. Ma hoped for the church paper. Laura and Mary and Carrie hoped that Reverend Alden had sent them something to read; sometimes he did. Grace was excited because they were excited. It was hard to wait for Pa to come back from the post office.
He was gone a long time. As Ma said, it did no good to be impatient. Every man in town was at the post office and Pa must wait his turn.
When at last he came, his hands were full. Ma reached eagerly for the church papers and Laura and Carrie both tried to take the bundle of Youths Companions. There were newspapers too.
“Here! Here!” Pa laughed. “Don’t mob a fellow! And that’s not the whole of it. Guess what I got!”
“A letter? Oh Pa, did you get a letter?” Laura cried.
“Who is it from?” Ma asked.
“You’ve got the Advances, Caroline,” Pa replied.
“And Laura and Carrie’ve got the Youths Companions. I’ve got the Inter-Ocean and the Pioneer Press. Mary gets the letter.”
Mary’s face shone. She felt the letter’s size and thickness. “A big, fat letter! Please read it, Ma.”
So Ma opened the letter and read it aloud.
The letter was from Reverend Alden. He was sorry that he had not been able to come back and help organize a church last spring, but he had been sent farther north. He hoped to be with them when spring came again. The children of the Sunday School in Minnesota were sending a bundle of Youths Companions to the girls, and would send another bundle next year. His church had shipped them a Christmas barrel and he hoped the clothing would fit. As his own Christmas gift and some slight return for their hospitality to him and to Reverend Stuart last winter at Silver Lake, he had put in a Christmas turkey. He wished them all a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.
There was a little silence when Ma had finished reading. Then she said, “We have this good letter, anyway.”
“Gilbert brought word that they’re putting on a double work crew and two snowplows at the Tracy cut,” Pa told them. “We may get the barrel by Christmas.”
“It’s only a few days,” Ma said.
“A lot can be done in a few days,” said Pa. “If this spell of clear weather holds out, no reason they can’t get the train through.”
“Oh, I hope the Christmas barrel comes,” Carrie said.
“The hotels have shut down,” Pa told Ma the news. “They’ve been burning lumber and now Banker Ruth has bought out the lumberyard, down to the last shingle.”
“We couldn’t afford to burn lumber anyway,” said Ma. “But Charles, we are almost out of coal.”
“We’ll burn hay,” Pa answered cheerfully.
“Hay?” Ma said, and Laura asked, “How can we burn hay, Pa?”
She thought of how quickly the prairie fires swept through dry grass. Flame licks through the light, thin stems and is gone before the frail ashes can fall. How could a room be kept warm by a fire so quickly burning out, when even the steady glow of hard coal could not keep out the cold?
“We will have to contrive,” Pa told her. “We’ll manage it! Needs must, when the devil drives.”
“Likely the train will get through in time,” Ma said.
Pa put on his cap again and asked Ma to make dinner a little late. He had time to haul another load of hay if he hustled. He went out and Ma said, “Come, girls, put the bundle of Youths Companions away. We must get out the washing while the weather’s clear so we can.”
All that day Laura and Carrie and Mary looked forward to the Youths Companions and often they spoke of them. But the bright day was short. They stirred and punched the clothes boiling on the stove; they lifted them on the broom handle into the tub where Ma soaped and rubbed them. Laura rinsed them, Carrie stirred the blueing bag in the second rinsewater until it was blue enough. Laura made the boiled starch. And when for the last time Ma went out into the cold to hang the freezing wash on the line, Pa had come for dinner.
Then they washed the dishes, they scrubbed the floor and blacked the stove, and washed the inside of the windowpanes. Ma brought in the frozen-dry clothes and they sorted them and sprinkled them and rolled them tightly, ready for ironing.
Twilight had come. It was too late to read that day and after supper there was no lamplight because they must save the last of the kerosene.
“Work comes before pleasure,” Ma always said. She smiled her gentle smile for Laura and Carrie and said now, “My girls have helped me do a good day’s work,” and they were rewarded.
“Tomorrow we’ll read a story,” Carrie said happily.
“Tomorrow we have to do the ironing,” Laura reminded her.
“Yes, and we should air the bedding and give the upstairs a thorough cleaning, in this good weather,” said Ma.
Pa came in and heard them. “Tomorrow I’m going to work on the railroad,” he said.
Mr. Wood worth had word to put at work on the tracks all the men he could get. The superintendent at the Tracy cut was driving the work there and shovel gangs were shoveling eastward from Huron.
“If muscle and will-power can do it, we’ll have a train through by Christmas!” Pa declared.
That night he came back from work with a broad smile on his sun-red face. “Good news!” he called out. “The work train will come through sometime tomorrow! The regular train’ll come next, day after tomorrow probably.”
“Oh, good! Good! Goody!” Laura and Carrie exclaimed together, and Ma said, “That is good news, indeed. What is wrong with your eyes, Charles?”
His eyes were red and puffed. He answered cheerfully, “Shoveling snow in the sunshine is hard on eyes. Some of the men are snow-blind. Fix me up a little weak salt-water, will you, Caroline? And I’ll bathe them after I do the chores.”
When he had gone to the stable, Ma dropped into a chair near Mary. “I’m afraid, girls, this will be a poor Christmas,” she said. “What with these awful storms and trying to keep warm, we’ve had no time to plan for it.”
“Maybe the Christmas barrel…” Carrie began.
“We mustn’t count on it,” said Mary.
“We could wait for Christmas till it comes,” Laura suggested. “All but…” and she picked up Grace who was listening wide-eyed.
“Can’t Santa Claus come?” Grace asked, and her lower lip began to tremble.
Laura hugged her and looked over her golden head at Ma.
Ma said firmly, “Santa Claus always comes to good little girls, Grace. But girls,” she went on, “I have an idea. What do you think of saving my church papers and your bundle of Youths Companions to open on Christmas day?”
After a moment Mary said, “I think it is a good idea. It will help us to learn self-denial.”
“I don’t want to,” Laura said.
“Nobody does,” said Mary. “But it’s good for us.”
Sometimes Laura did not even want to be good. But after another silent moment she said, “Well, if you and Mary want to, Ma, I will. It will give us something to look forward to for Christmas.”
“What do you say about it, Carrie?” Ma asked, and in a small voice Carrie said, “I will, too, Ma.”
“That’s my good girls,” Ma approved them. She went on. “We can find a little something in the stores for…” and she glanced at Grace. “But you older girls know, Pa hasn’t been able to get any work for wages this year. We can’t spare money for presents, but we can have a happy Christmas just the same. I’ll try to contrive something extra for dinner and then we’ll all open our papers and read them, and when it’s too dark to read, Pa will play the fiddle.”
“We haven’t much flour left, Ma,” Laura said.
“The storekeepers are asking twenty-five cents a pound for flour so Pa’s waiting for the train,” Ma replied. “There’s nothing to make a pie, anyway, and no butter or eggs for a cake and no more sugar in town. But we’ll think of something for Christmas dinner.”
Laura sat thinking. She was making a little picture frame of cross-stitch in wools on thin, silver-colored cardboard. Up the sides and across the top she had made a pattern of small blue flowers and green leaves. Now she was outlining the picture-opening in blue. While she put the tiny needle through the perforations in the cardboard and drew the fine, colored wool carefully after it, she was thinking how wistfully Carrie had looked at the beautiful thing. She decided to give it to Carrie for Christmas. Someday, perhaps, she could make another for herself.
How fortunate it was that she had finished knitting the lace for her petticoat. She would give that to Mary. And to Ma she would give the cardboard hair receiver that she had already embroidered to match the picture frame. Ma could hang it on the corner of her looking glass, and when she combed her hair she would put the combings in it to use later in the hairswitch she was making.
“But what can we do for Pa?” she asked.
“I declare I don’t know,” Ma worried. “I can’t think of a thing.”
“I’ve got some pennies,” Carrie said.
“There’s my college money,” Mary began, but Ma said, “No, Mary, we won’t touch that.”
“I have ten cents,” Laura said thoughtfully. “How many pennies have you, Carrie?”
“I have five,” Carrie told her.
“We’d need twenty-five to get Pa a pair of suspenders,” Laura said. “He needs a new pair.”
“I have a dime,” said Ma. “So that is settled. Laura, you and Carrie had better go and buy them as soon as Pa has gone to work tomorrow morning.”
Next day, when their morning work was done, Laura and Carrie crossed the snowy street to Mr. Harthorn’s store. Mr. Harthorn was there alone and the shelves were bare. On both long walls there were only a few pairs of men’s boots and women’s shoes and some bolts of calico.
The bean barrel was empty. The cracker barrel was empty. The little brine in the bottom of the pork barrel had no pork in it. The long, flat codfish box held only a little salt scattered on its bottom. The dried-apple box and the dried-blackberry box were empty.
“I’m sold out of groceries till the train gets here,” Mr. Harthorn said. “I was expecting a bill of groceries when the train stopped.”
Some pretty handkerchiefs, combs, and hairpins, and two pairs of suspenders were in the showcase. Laura and Carrie looked at the suspenders. They were plain, dull gray.
“Shall I do them up for you?” Mr. Harthorn asked.
Laura did not like to say no, but she looked at Carrie and saw that Carrie hoped she would.
“No, thank you, Mr. Harthorn,” Laura said. “We will not take them now.”
Out in the glittering cold again, she said to Carrie, “Let’s go to Loftus’ store and see if we can’t find prettier ones.”
They bent their heads against the strong, cold wind and struggled along the icy path on the store porches till they reached the other Dry Goods and Groceries.
That store was bare and echoing, too. Every barrel and box was empty, and where the canned goods had been there were only two flat cans of oysters.
“I’m expecting a stock of groceries when the train comes tomorrow,” Mr. Loftus told them. “It won’t get here any too soon either.”
In his showcase was a pair of blue suspenders, with small red flowers beautifully machine-woven along them, and bright brass buckles. Laura had never seen such pretty suspenders. They were just right for Pa.
“How much are they?” she asked, almost sure that they would cost too much. But the price was twenty-five cents. Laura gave Mr. Loftus her own two five-cent pieces, Carrie’s five pennies, and Ma’s thin silver ten-cent piece. She took the slim package and the wind blew her and Carrie breathlessly home.
At bedtime that night no one spoke of hanging up stockings. Grace was too young to know about hanging stockings on Christmas eve and no one else expected a present. But they had never been so eager for Christmas day, because the tracks were clear now and the train would come tomorrow.
Laura’s first thought in the morning was, “The train is coming today!” The window was not frosted, the sky was clear, the snowy prairie was turning rosy in early sunshine. The train would surely come and joyfully Laura thought about her Christmas surprises.
She slid out of bed without waking Mary and quickly pulled on her dress in the cold. She opened the box where she kept her own things.
She took out the roll of knitted lace, already wrapped carefully in tissue paper. Then she found the prettiest card she had ever been given in Sunday school and she took the little embroidered picture frame and the cardboard hair receiver. With these in her hands, she hurried tiptoe downstairs.
Ma looked up in surprise. The table was set and Ma was putting on each plate a little package wrapped in red-and-white striped paper.
“Merry Christmas, Ma!” Laura whispered. “Oh, what are they?”
“Christmas presents,” Ma whispered. “Whatever have you got there?”
Laura only smiled. She put her packages at Ma’s plate and Mary’s. Then she slipped the Sunday school card into the embroidered frame. “For Carrie,” she whispered. She and Ma looked at it; it was beautiful. Then Ma found a piece of tissue paper to wrap it in.
Carrie and Grace and Mary were already clambering down the stairs, calling, “Merry Christmas! Merry Christmas!”
“Oo-oo!” Carrie squealed. “I thought we were waiting for Christmas till the Christmas barrel came on the train! Oo-oo, look! look!”
“What is it?” Mary asked.
“There are presents at every plate on the table!” Carrie told her.
“No, no, Grace, mustn’t touch,” Ma said. “We will all wait for Pa.” So Grace ran around the table, looking but not touching.
Pa came with the milk and Ma strained it. Then Pa stepped into the lean-to and came back grinning broadly. He handed Ma the two cans of oysters from Loftus’ store.
“Charles!” Ma said.
“Make us an oyster soup for Christmas dinner, Caroline!” Pa told her. “I got some milk from Ellen, not much, and it’s the last; she’s as good as dry. But maybe you can make it do.”
“I’ll thin it out with water,” said Ma. “We’ll have oyster soup for Christmas dinner!”
Then Pa saw the table. Laura and Carrie laughed aloud, shouting, “Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas, Pa!” and Laura told Mary, “Pa’s surprised!”
“Hurrah for Santa Claus!” Pa sang out. “The old fellow made it in, if the train didn’t!”
They all sat down at their places, and Ma gently held back Grace’s hands. “Pa opens his first, Grace,” she said.
Pa picked up his package. “Now what can this be, and who gave it to me?” He untied the string, unfolded the paper, and held up the new red-flowered suspenders.
“Whew!” he exclaimed. “Now how am I ever going to wear my coat? These are too fine to cover up.” He looked around at all the faces. “All of you did this,” he said. “Well, I’ll be proud to wear them!”
“Not yet, Grace,” Ma said. “Mary is next.”
Mary unwrapped the yards of fine knitted lace. She fingered it lovingly and her face was shining with delight. “I’ll save it to wear when I go to college,” she said. “It’s another thing to help me to go. It will be so pretty on a white petticoat.”
Carrie was looking at her present. The picture was of the Good Shepherd in His blue and white robes, holding in His arms a snow-white lamb. The silvery cardboard embroidered in blue flowers made a perfect frame for it.
“Oh, how lovely. How lovely,” Carrie whispered.
Ma said the hair-receiver was just what she had been needing.
Then Grace tore the paper from her gift and gave a gurgle of joy. Two little, flat wooden men stood on a platform between two flat red posts. Their hands held on to two strings twisted tightly together above their heads. They wore peaked red caps and blue coats with gold buttons. Their trousers were red-and-green stripes. Their boots were black with turned-up toes.
Ma gently pressed the bottoms of the posts inward. One of the men somersaulted up and the other swung into his place. Then the first came down while the second went up and they nodded their heads and jerked their arms and swung their legs, dancing and somersaulting.
“Oh, look! Oh, look!” Grace shouted. She could never have enough of watching the funny little men dancing.
The small striped packages at each place held Christmas candy.
“Wherever did you get candy, Pa?” Laura wondered.
“I got it some time ago. It was the last bit of sugar in town,” said Pa. “Some folks said they’d use it for sugar, but I made sure of our Christmas candy.”
“Oh, what a lovely Christmas,” Carrie sighed. Laura thought so too. Whatever happened, they could always have a merry Christmas. And the sun was shining, the sky was blue, the railroad tracks were clear, and the train was coming. The train had come through the Tracy cut that morning. Sometime that day they would hear its whistle and see it stopping by the depot.
At noon Ma was making the oyster soup. Laura was setting the table, Carrie and Grace were playing with the jumping-jack. Ma tasted the soup and set the kettle back on the stove. “The oysters are ready,” she said, and stooping she looked at the slices of bread toasting in the oven. “And the bread is toasted. Whatever is Pa doing?”
“He’s bringing in hay,” said Laura.
Pa opened the door. Behind him the lean-to was almost full of slough hay. He asked, “Is the oyster soup ready?”
“I’m taking it up,” Ma replied. “I’m glad the train is coming, this is the last of the coal.” Then she looked at Pa and asked, “What is wrong, Charles?”
Pa said slowly, “There is a cloud in the northwest.”
“Oh, not another blizzard!” Ma cried.
“I’m afraid so,” Pa answered. “But it needn’t spoil our dinner.” He drew his chair up to the table. “I’ve packed plenty of hay into the stable and filled the lean-to. Now for our oyster soup!”
The sun kept on shining while they ate. The hot soup was good, even though the milk was mostly water. Pa crumbled the toast into his soup plate. “This toasted bread is every bit as good as crackers,” he told Ma. “I don’t know but better.”
Laura enjoyed the good soup, but she could not stop thinking of that dark cloud coming up. She could not stop listening for the wind that she knew would soon come.
It came with a shriek. The windows rattled and the house shook.
“She must be a daisy!” Pa said. He went to the window but he could not see out. Snow came on the wind from the sky. Snow rose from the hard drifts as the wind cut them away. It all met in the whirling air and swirled madly. The sky, the sunshine, the town, were gone, lost in that blinding dance of snow. The house was alone again.
Laura thought, “The train can’t come now.”
“Come, girls,” Ma said. “We’ll get these dishes out of the way, and then we’ll open our papers and have a cosy afternoon.”
“Is there coal enough, Ma?” Laura asked.
Pa looked at the fire. “It will last till suppertime,” he said. “And then we’ll burn hay.”
Frost was freezing up the windowpanes and the room was cold near the walls. Near the stove, the light was too dim for reading. When the dishes were washed and put away, Ma set the lamp on the red-checked tablecloth and lighted it. There was only a little kerosene in the bowl where the wick coiled, but it gave a warm and cheery light. Laura opened the bundle of Youths Companions and she and Carrie looked eagerly at the wealth of stories printed on the smooth white paper.
“You girls choose a story,” Ma said. “And I will read it out loud, so we can all enjoy it together.”
So, close together between the stove and the bright table, they listened to Ma’s reading the story in her soft, clear voice. The story took them all far away from the stormy cold and dark. When she had finished that one, Ma read a second and a third. That was enough for one day; they must save some for another time.
“Aren’t you glad we saved those wonderful stories for Christmas day?” Mary sighed happily. And they were. The whole afternoon had gone so quickly. Already it was chore time.
When Pa came back from the stable, he stayed some time in the lean-to and came in at last with his arms full of sticks.
“Here is your breakfast fuel, Caroline,” he said, laying his armful down by the stove. “Good hard sticks of hay. I guess they will burn all right.”
“Sticks of hay?” Laura exclaimed.
“That’s right, Laura.” Pa spread his hands in the warmth above the stove. “I’m glad that hay’s in the lean-to. I couldn’t carry it in through the wind that’s blowing now, unless I brought it one bale at a time, in my teeth.”
The hay was in sticks. Pa had somehow twisted and knotted it tightly till each stick was almost as hard as wood.
“Sticks of hay!” Ma laughed. “What won’t you think of next? Trust you, Charles, to find a way.”
“You are good at that yourself,” Pa smiled at her.
For supper there were hot boiled potatoes and a slice of bread apiece, with salt. That was the last baking of bread, but there were still beans in the sack and a few turnips. There was still hot tea with sugar, and Grace had her cup of cambric tea made with hot water because there was no more milk. While they were eating, the lamp began to flicker. With all its might the flame pulled itself up, drawing the last drop of kerosene up the wick. Then it fainted down and desperately tried again. Ma leaned over and blew it out. The dark came in, loud with the roar and the shrieking of the storm.
“The fire is dying, anyway, so we may as well go to bed,” Ma said gently. Christmas day was over.
Laura lay in bed and listened to the winds blowing, louder and louder. They sounded like the pack of wolves howling around the little house on the prairie long ago, when she was small and Pa had carried her in his arms. And there was the deeper howl of the great buffalo wolf that she and Carrie had met on the bank of Silver Lake.
She started trembling, when she heard the scream of the panther in the creek bed, in Indian territory. But she knew it was only the wind. Now she heard the Indian war whoops when the Indians were dancing their war dances all through the horrible nights by the Verdigris River.
The war whoops died away and she heard crowds of people muttering, then shrieking and fleeing screaming away from fierce yells chasing them. But she knew she heard only the voices of the blizzard winds. She pulled the bedcovers over her head and covered her ears tightly to shut out the sounds, but still she heard them.