The Long Winter (Chaprer 19)

The Long Winter

Laura Ingalls Wilder

Chapter 19
Where there’s a Will

The hay made a quick, hot fire, but it burned away more swiftly than kindling. Ma kept the stove’s drafts closed and all day long she was feeding the fire. All day long, except when he went through the storm to do the chores, Pa was twisting more sticks of hay in the lean-to. The storm grew fiercer and the cold more cruel.

Often Pa came to the stove to warm his hands. “My fingers get so numb,” he said, “I can’t make a good twist.”

“Let me help you, Pa,” Laura begged.

He did not want to let her. “Your hands are too small for such work,” he told her. Then he admitted, “But somebody’s got to help. It is going to be more than one person can do, to keep this stove going and haul hay for it.” Finally he decided, “Come along. I’ll show you how.”

Laura put on Pa’s old coat and her hood and muffler and went into the lean-to with Pa.

The lean-to was not ceiled inside. The wind was blowing snow through all the cracks of the board walls. Snow traveled in little drifts across the floor and sifted over the hay.

Pa picked up a double handful of hay and shook the snow from it.

“Shake off all the snow,” he told Laura. “If you leave it on, it will melt when you take the sticks in and make them too wet to burn.”

Laura picked up all the hay her hands could hold and shook the snow from it. Then, watching Pa, she followed his motions in twisting the hay. First he twisted the long strand as far as his two hands could do it. Then he put the right-hand end of it under his left elbow and held it there, tight against his side, so that it could not untwist. Then his right hand took the other end from his left hand. His left hand slid down as near as it could get to the end under his left elbow and took hold of it. Pa twisted the strand again. This time he put its other end under his left elbow. He repeated these motions, again and again and again, till the whole strand of hay was twisted tight and kinking in the middle. Each time he twisted and tucked the end under his left arm, the tight twist coiled around itself.

When the whole length of the twist had wound itself tight, Pa bent the ends of hay together and tucked them into the last kink. He dropped the hard stick of hay on the floor and looked at Laura.

She was trying to tuck in the ends as Pa had done. The hay was twisted so tightly that she couldn’t push them in.

“Bend your twist a little to loosen it,” said Pa. “Then slip the ends in between the kinks and let it twist itself back tight. That’s the way!”

Laura’s stick of hay was uneven and raggedy, not smooth and hard like Pa’s. But Pa told her that it was well done for the first one; she would do better next time.

She made six sticks of hay, each better than the one before till the sixth one was as it should be. But now she was so cold that her hands could not feel the hay.

“That’s enough!” Pa told her. “Gather them up, and we’ll go warm ourselves.”

They carried the sticks of hay into the kitchen. Laura’s feet were numb from cold; they felt like wooden feet. Her hands were red and when she held them in the warm air above the stove they tingled and stung and smarted where the sharp blades of the grass had cut them. But she had helped Pa. The sticks of hay that she had made gave him time enough to get thoroughly warm before they must go into the cold to twist more hay.

All that day and all the next day, Laura helped Pa twist hay while Ma kept the fire going and Carrie helped her take care of Grace and of the housework. For dinner they had baked potatoes and mashed turnips with pepper and salt, and for supper Ma chopped the potatoes and heated them in the oven because there was no fat to fry them in. But the food was hot and good, and there was plenty of tea and still some sugar.

“This is the last loaf of bread,” Ma said, the second night at supper. “We really must have some flour, Charles.”

“I’ll buy some as soon as this storm lets up,” Pa said. “No matter what it costs.”

“Use my college money, Pa,” Mary said. “Thirty-five dollars and twenty-five cents will buy all the flour we could want.”

“That’s our good girl, Mary,” said Ma. “But I hope we won’t have to spend your college money. I suppose prices depend on when they can get the train through?” she said to Pa.

“Yes,” Pa said. “That’s what they depend on.”

Ma got up and put another stick of hay on the fire. When she lifted the stove lid, a reddish-yellow smoky light flared up and drove back the dark for a moment. Then the dark came back again. The wild screaming of the storm seemed louder and nearer in the dark.

“If only I had some grease I could fix some kind of a light,” Ma considered. “We didn’t lack for light when I was a girl, before this newfangled kerosene was ever heard of.”

“That’s so,” said Pa. “These times are too progressive. Everything has changed too fast. Railroads and telegraph and kerosene and coal stoves—they’re good things to have but the trouble is, folks get to depend on ’em.”

In the morning the winds were still howling and outside the thick-frosted windows the snow was still whirling. But by midmorning a straight, strong wind was blowing from the south and the sun was shining. It was very cold, so cold that the snow squeaked under Laura’s feet in the lean-to.

Pa went across the street to get the flour. He was gone some time, and when he came back he was carrying a grain sack on his shoulder. He let it slide to the floor with a thump.

“Here’s your flour, Caroline, or what will have to take the place of it,” he said. “It is wheat, the last that’s left of the Wilder boys’ stock. There is no flour in the stores. Banker Ruth bought the last sack this morning. He paid fifty dollars for it, a dollar a pound.”

“My goodness, Charles,” Ma gasped.

“Yes. We couldn’t buy much flour at that price, so I guess it’s just as well Ruth got it. We may as well learn now how to cook wheat. How will it be, boiled?”

“I don’t know, Charles. It isn’t as if we had anything to eat on it,” said Ma.

“It’s a pity there isn’t a grist mill in town,” Pa said.

“We have a mill,” Ma replied. She reached to the top of the cupboard and took down the coffee mill.

“So we have,” said Pa. “Let’s see how it works.”

Ma set the little brown wooden box on the table. She turned the handle for a moment, to loosen every last grain of coffee from the grinders. Then she pulled out the little drawer, emptied it, and wiped it carefully. Pa opened the sack of wheat.

The black iron hopper in the top of the mill held half a cupful of the grain. Ma shut its top. Then she sat down, placed the square box between her knees to hold it firmly, and began turning the handle around and around. The mill gave out its grinding noise.

“Wheat will grind just like coffee,” Ma said. She looked into the little drawer. The broken bits of wheat were crushed out flat. “Not like coffee, either,” Ma said. “The wheat hasn’t been roasted and has more moisture in it.”

“Can you make bread of that?” Pa asked.

“Of course I can,” Ma replied. “But we must keep the mill grinding if I’m to have enough to make a loaf for dinner.”

“And I must go haul some hay to bake it with,” said Pa. He took a round, flat wooden box from his pocket and handed it to Ma. “Here’s something you can maybe use to make a light.”

“Is there any word of the train, Charles?” Ma asked him.

“They’re working again at that Tracy cut,” said Pa. “It’s packed full of snow again, to the top of the snowbanks they threw up on both sides when they cleared it last time.”

He went to the stable to hitch David to the sled. Ma looked into the box. It was full of yellow axle grease. But there was no time then to think about making a light. The fire was dying and Ma put the last stick of hay on it. Laura hurried into the lean-to to twist more hay.

In a few minutes Ma came to help her. “Mary is grinding the wheat,” Ma said. “We must twist a lot of hay to keep the fire going. We must have a good warm fire when Pa comes back. He will be almost frozen.”

It was late afternoon before Pa came back. He unhitched the sled near the back door and put David in the stable. Then he pitched the hay into the lean-to until there was hardly space to squeeze through from door to door. When that was done, he came in to the stove. He was so cold that it was some time before he was warm enough to speak.

“I’m sorry to be so late, Caroline,” he made excuse. “The snow is much deeper than it was. I had a hard time digging the hay out of the drift.”

“I think we may as well have dinner at this time every day,” Ma answered. “What with saving fire and light, the days are so short that there’s hardly time for three meals. A late dinner will serve for supper as well.”

The brown bread that Ma had made from the ground wheat was very good. It had a fresh, nutty flavor that seemed almost to take the place of butter.

“I see you’ve got your sourdough working again,” Pa remarked.

“Yes,” Ma answered. “We don’t need yeast or milk to make good bread.”

“‘Where there’s a will there’s a way,’” said Pa. He helped himself to another potato and sprinkled it with salt. “Potatoes and salt aren’t to be sneezed at either. Salt brings out the full flavor of a potato; it’s not all hidden with butter and gravy.”

“Don’t put sugar in your tea, Pa, and you’ll get the full flavor of the tea,” Laura said naughtily.

Pa’s eyes twinkled at her. “A good hot cup of tea brings out the flavor of the sugar, Half-Pint,” he answered. Then he asked Ma, “How did you make out with the axle grease, for a light?”

“I haven’t had time yet,” Ma told him. “But as soon as we finish eating I’m going to make a button lamp.”

“What’s a button lamp?” Pa asked.

“Wait and see,” said Ma.

When he had gone to do the chores for the night Ma told Carrie to bring her the rag bag. She took some of the axle grease from the box and spread it in an old saucer. Then she cut a small square of calico. “Now find me a button in the button bag, Carrie.”

“What kind of button, Ma?” Carrie asked, bringing the button bag from the cold front room.

“Oh, one of Pa’s old overcoat buttons,” said Ma.

She put the button in the center of the square of calico. She drew the cloth together over the button and wound a thread tightly around it and twisted the corners of calico straight upward in a tapering bunch. Then she rubbed a little axle grease up the calico and set the button into the axle grease in the saucer.

“Now we’ll wait till Pa comes,” she said.

Laura and Carrie hurried to finish washing the dishes in the gathering dusk. It was dark when Pa came in.

“Give me a match, Charles, please,” Ma said. She lighted the taper tip of the button lamp. A tiny flame flickered and grew stronger. It burned steadily, melting the axle grease and drawing it up through the cloth into itself, keeping itself alight by burning. The little flame was like the flame of a candle in the dark.

“You’re a wonder, Caroline,” said Pa. “It’s only a little light, but it makes all the difference.”

Warming his hands above the stove, he looked down at the little pile of twisted hay. “But I don’t need a light to twist hay,” he said. “And we must have more now. There’s not enough here for morning.”

He went out to twist hay and Laura took the coffee mill from Mary. Turning the little handle around and around made the arm and shoulder ache so badly that they must take turns at the grinding. The little mill ground wheat so slowly that they had to keep it grinding all the time to make flour enough to bake for each meal.

Ma took off Grace’s shoes and warmed her feet by the oven door while she slipped off her little dress, pulled on her nightgown, and wrapped her in the shawl that was warming over a chair by the stove.

“Come, Carrie, if you’re good and warm,” she said. “I’ll put Grace in bed with you now.”

When Grace and Carrie were tucked in bed with the warm shawl and the hot flatiron Ma came downstairs.

“I’ll grind wheat now, Laura,” she said. “You and Mary go to bed. As soon as Pa comes in we’ll go to bed, too, to save this hay that is so hard to get and to twist.”

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