The Long Winter (Chaprer 20)
The Long Winter
Laura Ingalls Wilder
There came a sunny day when the loose snow was rolling like drifts of smoke across the frozen white prairie.
Pa came hurrying into the house. “There’s a herd of antelope west of town!” he said, as he took his shotgun down from its hooks and filled his pockets with cartridges.
Laura threw Ma’s shawl around her and ran into the cold front room. She scratched a peephole through the frost on the window and she saw a crowd of men gathering in the street. Several were on horseback. Mr. Foster and Almanzo Wilder were riding the beautiful Morgan horses. Cap Garland came running and joined the men on foot who were listening to Pa. They all carried guns. They looked excited and their voices sounded excited and loud.
“Come back where it’s warm, Laura,” Ma called.
“Think of venison!” Laura said, hanging up the shawl. “I hope Pa gets two antelopes!”
“I will be glad to have some meat to go with the brown bread,” Ma said. “But we must not count chickens before they are hatched.”
“Why, Ma, Pa will get an antelope, if there are any antelopes,” said Laura.
Carrie brought a dish of wheat to fill the hopper of the coffee mill that Mary was grinding. “Roast venison,” Carrie said. “With gravy, gravy on the potatoes and the brown bread!”
“Wait a minute, Mary!” Laura exclaimed. “Listen. There they go!”
The steady wind rushed by the house and whistled shrill along the eaves, but they could dimly hear the voices and the feet of men and horses moving away along Main Street.
At the end of the street they paused. They could see, a mile away across the snowdrifts and the blowing snow, the gray herd of antelope drifting southward.
“Slow and easy does it,” said Pa. “Give us time to work around ’em to the north before you boys close in from the south. Come in slow and herd ’em toward us without scaring ’em, if you can, till they’re in gunshot. There’s no hurry, we’ve got the day before us and if we work it right we ought to get us one apiece.”
“Maybe we’d better ride to the north and you fellows on foot surround ’em from the south,” Mr. Foster said.
“No, let it go as Ingalls said,” Mr. Harthorn told him. “Come on, boys!”
“String out,” Pa called. “And go slow and easy. Don’t scare ’em!”
On the Morgans, Almanzo and Mr. Foster took the lead. The cold wind made the horses eager to go. They pricked their ears forward and back and tossed their heads, jingling the bits and pretending to shy a little at their own shadows. They stretched their noses forward, pulling on the bits and prancing to go faster.
“Hold her steady,” Almanzo said to Mr. Foster. “Don’t saw on the bits, she’s tender-mouthed.” Mr. Foster did not know how to ride. He was as nervous as Lady and he was making her more nervous. He bounced in the saddle and did not hold the reins steadily. Almanzo was sorry he had let him ride Lady. “Careful, Foster,” Almanzo said. “That mare will jump out from under you.”
“What’s the matter with her? What’s the matter with her?” Mr. Foster chattered in the cold wind. “Oh, there they are!”
In the clear air the antelope seemed nearer than they were. Beyond the drifting herd the men on foot were working westward. Almanzo saw Mr. Ingalls at the head of the line. In a few more minutes they would have the herd surrounded.
He turned to speak to Mr. Foster and he saw Lady’s saddle empty. At that instant a shot deafened him and both horses jumped high and far. Almanzo reined Prince down, as Lady streaked away.
Foster was jumping up and down, waving his gun and yelling. Crazy with excitement, he had jumped off Lady, let go her reins, and fired at the antelope that were too far away to hit.
Heads and tails up, the antelope were skimming away as if the wind were blowing them above the snowdrifts. Brown Lady overtook the gray herd and reached its middle, running with them.
“Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot!” Almanzo yelled, though he knew that his yells were useless against the wind. The antelope were already passing through the line of men on foot, but no one fired at them for fear of hitting the mare. The glossy brown Morgan, head up and black mane and tail flying, went over a prairie swell in the midst of the gray, low cloud of antelope and vanished. In a moment the horse and the herd passed over another white curve, then, smaller, they appeared again and again the swallowed them.
“Looks like you’ve lost her, Wilder,” Mr. Harthorn said. “Too bad.”
The other riders had come up. They sat still, on their horses, watching the distant prairie. The antelope herd, with Lady small and dark in it, appeared once more as a flying gray smudge that quickly vanished.
Pa came and the other men on foot. Cap Garland said, “Tough luck, Wilder. Guess we might as well have risked a shot.”
“You’re a mighty hunter before the Lord, Foster,” Gerald Fuller said.
“He’s the only man that got a shot,” said Cap Garland. “And what a shot!”
“I’m sorry. I must have let the mare go,” Mr. Foster said. “I was so excited, I didn’t think. I thought the horse would stand. I never saw an antelope before.”
“Next time you take a shot at one, Foster, wait till you’re within range,” Gerald Fuller told him.
No one else said anything. Almanzo sat in the saddle while Prince fought the bit, trying to get free to follow his mate. Frightened as Lady was, and racing with the herd, the danger was that she would run herself to death. Trying to catch her would do no good; chasing the herd would only make it run faster.
Judging by the landmarks, the antelope were five or six miles to the west when they turned northward.
“They’re making for Spirit Lake,” Pa said. “They’ll shelter there in the brush and then they’ll range back into the bluffs of the river. We’ll not see them again.”
“What about Wilder’s horse, Mr. Ingalls?” Cap Garland asked.
Pa looked at Almanzo and then he looked again at the northwest. There was no cloud there but the wind blew strongly and bitter cold.
“That’s the only horse in this country that can race an antelope, unless it’s her mate here, and you’d kill him trying to catch them,” Pa said. “It’s a day’s journey to Spirit Lake, at best, and no one knows when a blizzard’ll hit. I wouldn’t risk it myself, not this winter.”
“I don’t intend to,” said Almanzo. “But I’ll just circle around and come into town from the north. Maybe I’ll catch sight of the mare. If not, maybe she’ll find her own way back. So long! See you in town!”
He let Prince go into a canter and set off toward the north, while the others shouldered their guns and turned straight toward town.
He rode with his head bowed against the wind but on each prairie swell or high snowbank he looked over the land before him. There was nothing to be seen but gentle slopes of snow and the snow-spray blown from their tops by the cutting wind. The loss of Lady made him sick at heart, but he did not intend to risk his life for a horse. The matched team was ruined without her. In a lifetime he would not find another perfect match for Prince. He thought what a fool he had been to lend a horse to a stranger.
Prince went on smoothly, head up to the wind, galloping up the slopes and cantering down them. Almanzo did not intend to go far from the town, but the sky remained clear in the northwest and there was always another slope ahead of him, from which he might see farther north.
Lady, he thought, might have grown tired and dropped behind the antelope herd. She might be wandering, lost and bewildered. She might be in sight from the top of the next prairie swell.
When he reached it, there was only the white land beyond. Prince went smoothly down the slope and another one rose before him.
He looked back to see the town and there was no town. The huddle of tall false fronts and the thin smoke blowing from their stovepipes had vanished. Under the whole sky there was nothing but the white land, the snow blowing, and the wind and the cold.
He was not afraid. He knew where the town was and as long as the sun was in the sky or the moon or stars he could not be lost. But he had a feeling colder than the wind. He felt that he was the only life on the cold earth under the cold sky; he and his horse alone in an enormous coldness.
“Hi-yup, Prince!” he said, but the wind carried away the sound in the ceaseless rush of its blowing. Then he was afraid of being afraid. He said to himself, “There’s nothing to be afraid of.” He thought, “I won’t turn back now. I’ll turn back from the top of that next slope,” and he tightened the reins ever so little to hold the rhythm of Prince’s galloping.
From the top of that slope he saw a low edge of cloud on the northwestern sky line. Then suddenly the whole great prairie seemed to be a trap that knew it had caught him. But he also saw Lady.
Far away and small, on a ridge of the rolling snow fields, the brown horse stood looking eastward. Almanzo tore off his glove and putting two fingers into his mouth he blew the piercing whistle used to call Lady across his father’s pastures in Minnesota when she was a colt. But this prairie wind caught the shrill note at his lips and carried it soundlessly away. It carried away the long, whickering call from Prince’s stretched throat. Lady still stood, looking away from them.
Then she turned to look southward and saw them. The wind brought her far, faint whinny. Her neck arched, her tail curved up, and she came galloping.
Almanzo waited until she topped a nearer rise and again her call came down the wind. He turned then and rode toward the town. The low cloud fell below the sky line as he rode, but again and again Lady appeared behind him.
In the stable behind the feed store he put Prince in his stall and rubbed him down. He filled the manger and held the water pail to let Prince drink a little.
There was a rattling at the stable door and he opened it to let Lady in. She was white with lather. A foam of sweat dripped from her and her sides were heaving.
Almanzo shut the stable door against the cold while Lady went into her stall. Then with the currycomb he scraped the foam from her panting sides and her flanks and covered her warmly with a blanket. He squeezed a wet cloth into her mouth to moisten her tongue. He rubbed her slender legs and dried them where the sweat still ran down.
“Well, Lady, so you can outrun an antelope! Made a fool of yourself, didn’t you?” Almanzo talked to her while he worked. “It’s the last time I’ll let a fool ride you, anyway. Now you rest warm and quiet. I’ll water and feed you after a while.”
Pa had come quietly into the kitchen and without a word he laid his shotgun on its hooks. No one said anything; there was no need to. Carrie sighed. There would be no venison, no gravy on the brown bread. Pa sat down by the stove and spread his hands to the warmth.
After a little, he said, “Foster lost his head from excitement. He jumped off his horse and fired before he was anywhere near within gunshot. None of the rest of us had a chance. The whole herd’s high-tailed it north.”
Ma put a stick of hay in the stove. “They would have been poor eating anyway, this time of year,” she said.
Laura knew that antelope had to paw away the deep snow to reach the dry grass that was their food. In a blizzard they couldn’t do that, and now the snow was so deep that they must be starving. It was true that their meat would have been thin and tough. But it would have been meat. They were all so tired of nothing but potatoes and brown bread.
“The younger Wilder boy’s horse got away, too,” Pa said, and he told them how it had run with the antelope. He made a story for Carrie and Grace of the beautiful horse running free and far with the wild herd.
“And didn’t it ever, ever come back, Pa?” Grace asked him, wide-eyed.
“I don’t know,” said Pa. “Almanzo Wilder rode off that way and I don’t know whether he’s come back or not. While you’re getting dinner ready, Caroline, I’ll step up to the feed store and find out.”
The feed store was bare and empty, but Royal looked from the back room and said heartily, “Come on in, Mr. Ingalls! You’re just in time to sample the pancakes and bacon!”
“I didn’t know this was your dinnertime,” Pa said. He looked at the platter of bacon keeping hot on the stove hearth. Three stacks of pancakes were tall on a plate, too, and Royal was frying more. There was molasses on the table and the coffeepot was boiling.
“We eat when we get hungry,” said Royal. “That’s the advantage of baching it. Where there’s no womenfolks, there’s no regular mealtimes.”
“You boys are lucky to have brought in supplies,” Pa said.
“Well, I was bringing out a carload of feed anyway and thought I might as well bring the stuff along,” Royal replied. “I wish I’d brought a couple of carloads, now. I guess I could sell another carload before they get the train through.”
“I guess you could,” Pa agreed. He looked around the snug room, ran his eyes along the walls hung with clothes and harness, and noticed the empty spaces on the end wall. “Your brother not got back yet?”
“He just came into the stable,” Royal answered. Then he exclaimed, “Jiminy crickets, look there!” They saw Lady, dripping with lather and empty-saddled, streaking past the window to the stable.
While they were talking about the hunt and Mr. Foster’s crazy shot, Almanzo came in. He dumped the saddles in a corner to be cleaned before he hung them up and he warmed himself by the stove. Then he and Royal urged Pa to sit up to the table and eat with them.
“Royal don’t make as good pancakes as I do,” Almanzo said. “But nobody can beat this bacon. It’s home-cured and hickory-smoked from corn-fattened young hogs raised on clover, back on the farm in Minnesota.”
“Sit right up, Mr. Ingalls, and help yourself. There’s plenty more down cellar in a teacup!” said Royal. So Pa did.