The Long Winter (Chaprer 21)

The Long Winter

Laura Ingalls Wilder

Chapter 21
The Hard Winter

The sun shone again next morning and the winds were still. The day seemed warmer than it was, because the sunshine was so bright.

”This is a beautiful day,” Ma said at breakfast, but Pa shook his head.

“The sun is too bright,” he said. “I’ll get a load of hay as soon as I can for we’ll need plenty on hand if another storm comes.”

And he hurried away. Anxiously from time to time Ma or Laura or Carrie peeped out through the frosty window to see the northwestern sky. The sun still was shining when Pa came safely back, and after the day’s second meal of brown bread and potatoes he went across the street to hear the news.

In a little while he came gaily whistling through the front room and burst into the kitchen, singing out, “Guess what I got!”

Grace and Carrie ran to feel the package he carried. “It feels like… it feels like…” Carrie said, but she did not quite dare to say what it felt like for fear she was mistaken.

“It’s beef!” Pa said. “Four pounds of beef! To go with our bread and potatoes.” He handed the package to Ma.

“Charles! However did you get beef?” Ma asked, as if she could not believe it.

“Foster butchered his oxen,” Pa answered. “I got there just in time. Every last bit, to bones and gristle, sold twenty-five cents a pound. But I got four pounds and here it is! Now we’ll live like kings!”

Ma quickly took the paper off the meat. “I’ll sear it all over well and pot-roast it,” she said.

Looking at it made Laura’s mouth water. She swallowed and asked, “Can you make a gravy, Ma, with water and brown flour?”

“Indeed I can,” Ma smiled. “We can make this last a week, for flavoring at least, and by that time the train will surely come, won’t it?”

She looked smiling at Pa. Then she stopped smiling and quietly asked, “What is it, Charles?”

“Well,” Pa answered reluctantly, “I hate to tell you.” He cleared his throat. “The train isn’t coming.”

They all stood looking at him. He went on, “The railroad has stopped running trains, till spring.”

Ma threw up her hands and dropped into a chair. “How can it, Charles? It can’t. It can’t do that. Till spring? This is only the first of January.”

“They can’t get the trains through,” said Pa. “They no sooner get a train through a cut than a blizzard comes and snows it in again. They’ve got two trains between here and Tracy, snowed under between cuts. Every time they cleared a cut they threw up the snow on both sides, and now all the cuts are packed full of snow to the top of the snowbanks. And at Tracy the superintendent ran out of patience.”

“Patience?” Ma exclaimed. “Patience! What’s his patience got to do with it I’d like to know! He knows we are out here without supplies. How does he think we are going to live till spring? It isn’t his business to be patient. It’s his business to run the trains.”

“Now, Caroline,” Pa said. He put his hand on her shoulder and she stopped rocking and rolling her hands in her apron. “We haven’t had a train for more than a month, and we are getting along all right,” he told her.

“Yes,” Ma said.

“There’s only this month, then February is a short month, and March will be spring,” Pa encouraged her.

Laura looked at the four pounds of beef. She thought of the few potatoes left and she saw the partly filled sack of wheat standing in the corner.

“Is there any more wheat, Pa?” she asked in a low voice.

“I don’t know, Laura,” Pa said strangely. “But don’t worry. I bought a full bushel and it’s by no means gone.”

Laura could not help asking, “Pa, you couldn’t shoot a rabbit?”

Pa sat down before the open oven and settled Grace on his knee. “Come here, Half-Pint,” he said, “and you, too, Carrie. I’m going to tell you a story.”

He did not answer Laura’s question. She knew what the answer was. There was not a rabbit left in all that country. They must have gone south when the birds went. Pa never took his gun with him when he was hauling hay, and he would have taken it if he had ever seen so much as one rabbit’s track.

He put his arm around her as she stood close against Carrie on his knee. Grace cuddled in his other arm and laughed when his brown beard tickled her face as it used to tickle Laura’s when she was little. They were all cosy in Pa’s arms, with the warmth from the oven coming out pleasantly.

“Now listen, Grace and Carrie and Laura,” said Pa. “And you, too, Mary and Ma. This is a funny story.” And he told them the story of the superintendent.

The superintendent was an eastern man. He sat in his offices in the east and ordered the train dispatchers to keep the trains running. But the engineers reported that storms and snow stopped the trains.

“Snowstorms don’t stop us from running trains in the east,” the superintendent said. “Keep the trains running in the western end of the division. That’s orders.”

But in the west the trains kept stopping. He had reports that the cuts were full of snow.

“Clear the cuts,” he ordered. “Put on extra men. Keep the trains running. Hang the costs!”

They put on extra men. The costs were enormous. But still the trains did not run.

Then the superintendent said, “I’ll go out there and clear those tracks myself. What those men need is someone to show them how we do things in the east.”

So he came out to Tracy, in his special car, and he got off there in his city clothes and his gloves and his fur-lined coat and this is what he said. “I’ve come out to take charge myself,” he said. “I’ll show you how to keep these trains running.”

In spite of that, he was not a bad fellow when you knew him. He rode out in the work train to the big cut west of Tracy, and he piled out in the snow with the work crew and gave his orders like any good foreman. He moved that snow up out of the cut in double-quick time and in a couple of days the track was clear.

“That shows you how to do it,” he said. “Now run the train through tomorrow and keep it running.” But that night a blizzard hit Tracy. His special train couldn’t run in that blizzard, and when it stopped blowing the cut was packed full of snow to the top of the snowbanks he’d had thrown up on both sides.

He got right out there with the men again, and again they cleared the cut. It took longer that time because they had to move more snow. But he got the work train through, just in time to be snowed under by the next blizzard.

You had to admit that the superintendent had stickto-itiveness. He tackled the cut again and got it cleared again, and then he sat in Tracy through another blizzard. This time he ordered out two fresh work crews and two locomotives with a snowplow.

He rode out to the Tracy cut on the first locomotive. The cut rose up like a hill now. Between the snowbanks that he’d had thrown up on both sides of them, the blizzard had packed earth and snow, frozen solid, one hundred feet deep and tapering off for a quarter of a mile.

“All right, boys!” he said. “We’ll clear her out with picks and shovels till we can run the snowplows through.”

He kept them at it, double-quick and double pay, for two days. There was still about twelve feet of snow on the tracks, but he had learned something. He knew he would be lucky to get three clear days between blizzards. So on the third morning, he was going to run the snowplows through.

He gave his orders to the two locomotive engineers. They coupled the locomotives together with the snowplow in front and ran the work train out to the cut. The two work crews piled out and in a couple of hours of fast work they had moved another couple of feet of snow. Then the superintendent stopped the work.

“Now,” he ordered the engineers, “you boys back down the track a full two miles, and come ahead from there with all the steam-pressure you’ve got. With two miles to get up speed you ought to hit this cut at forty miles an hour and go through her clean as a whistle.”

The engineers climbed into their locomotives. Then the man on the front engine got down again. The men of the work crews were standing around in the snow, stamping their feet and beating their hands to keep warm. They crowded in to hear what the engineer was going to say, but he walked up to the superintendent and said it just the same.

“I quit,” he said. “I’ve been driving a locomotive for fifteen years and no man can call me a coward. But I’m not taking any orders to commit suicide. You want to send a locomotive up against ten foot of frozen snow at forty miles an hour, Mr. Superintendent; you can get some other man to drive it. I quit, right here and now.”

Pa paused, and Carrie said, “I don’t blame him.”

“I do,” said Laura. “He oughtn’t to quit. He ought to figure out some other way to get through, if he thinks that way won’t work. I think he was scared.”

“Even if he was scared,” Mary said, “he ought to do as he was told. The superintendent must know best what to do or how would he be the superintendent?”

“He doesn’t know best,” Laura contradicted. “Or he’d be keeping the train running.”

“Go on, Pa, go on!” Grace begged.

“‘Please,’ Grace,” Ma said.

“Please,” said Grace. “Go on, Pa! What happened next?”

“Yes, Pa, what did the superintendent do then?” Mary asked.

“He fired him,” said Laura. “Didn’t he, Pa?”

Pa went on.

“The superintendent looked at that engineer, and he looked at the men standing around listening, and he said, ‘I’ve driven a locomotive in my time. And I don’t order any man to do anything I won’t do myself. I’ll take that throttle.’

“He climbed up into the locomotive, and he set her in reverse, and the two locomotives backed off down the track.

“The superintendent kept them backing for a good long two miles, till they looked smaller than your thumb, far off down the track. Then he signaled with the whistle to the engineer behind and they both put on the steam-power.

“Those locomotives came charging down that two miles of straight track with wide-open throttles, full speed ahead and coming faster every second. Black plumes of coal smoke rolling away far behind them, headlights glaring bigger in the sunshine, wheels blurring faster, faster, roaring up to fifty miles an hour they hit that frozen snow.”

“What… what happened… then, Pa?” Carrie asked, breathless.

“Then up rose a fountain of flying snow that fell in chunks for forty yards around. For a minute or two no one saw anything clear, nobody knew what had happened. But when the men came running to find out, there was the second locomotive buried halfway in the snow and the engineer crawling out of its hind end. He was considerably shaken up, but not hurt badly enough to mention.

“‘Where’s the superintendent? What happened to him?’ they asked the engineer. All he said was, ‘How the dickens do I know? All I know is I’m not killed. I wouldn’t do that again,’ he said. ‘Not for a million dollars in gold.’

“The foremen were shouting to the men to come on with their picks and shovels. They dug the snow loose from around the second engine and shoveled it away. The engineer backed it out and down the track out of the way, while the men dug furiously into the snow ahead, to come at the first engine and the superintendent. In hardly any time at all they struck solid ice.

“That first locomotive had run full speed, head-on into that snow, its full length. It was hot with speed and steam. It melted the snow all around it and the snow-water froze solid in the frozen snow. There sat the superintendent, madder than a hornet, inside the locomotive frozen solid in a cake of ice!”

Grace and Carrie and Laura laughed out loud. Even Ma smiled.

“The poor man,” Mary said. “I don’t think it’s funny.”

“I do,” said Laura. “I guess now he doesn’t think he knows so much.”

“‘Pride goes before a fall,’” said Ma.

“Go on, Pa, please!” Carrie begged. “Did they dig him out?”

“Yes, they dug down and cracked the ice and broke a hole through it to the engine and they hauled him out. He was not hurt and neither was the locomotive. The snowplow had taken the brunt. The superintendent climbed out of the cut and walked back to the second engineer and said, ‘Can you back her out?’

“The engineer said he thought so.

“‘All right, do it,’ the superintendent said. He stood watching till they got the engine out. Then he said to the men, ‘Pile in, we’re going back to Tracy. Work’s shut down till spring.’

“You see, girls,” said Pa, “the trouble is, he didn’t have enough patience.”

“Nor perseverance,” said Ma.

“Nor perseverance,” Pa agreed. “Just because he couldn’t get through with shovels or snowplows, he figured he couldn’t get through at all and he quit trying. Well, he’s an easterner. It takes patience and perseverance to contend with things out here in the west.”

“When did he quit, Pa?” Laura asked.

“This morning. The news was on the electric telegraph, and the operator at Tracy told Woodworth how it happened,” Pa answered. “And now I must hustle to do the chores before it’s too dark.”

His arm tightened and gave Laura a little hugging shake, before he set Carrie and Grace down from his knees. Laura knew what he meant. She was old enough now to stand by him and Ma in hard times. She must not worry; she must be cheerful and help to keep up all their spirits.

So when Ma began to sing softly to Grace while she undressed her for bed, Laura joined in the song:

“Oh Canaan, bright Canaan,
I am bound for the…”

“Sing, Carrie!” Laura said hurriedly. So Carrie began to sing, then Mary’s sweet soprano came in.

“On Jordan’s stormy banks I stand
And cast a wishful eye
On Canaan’s bright and shining strand
Where my possessions lie.
Oh Canaan, bright Canaan,
I am bound for the happy land of Canaan.

The sun was setting so red that it colored the frosted windowpanes. It gave a faintly rosy light to the kitchen where they all sat undressing and singing by the warm stove. But Laura thought there was a change in the sound of the wind, a wild and frightening note.

After Ma had seen them all tucked in bed and had gone downstairs, they heard and felt the blizzard strike the house. Huddled close together and shivering under the covers they listened to it. Laura thought of the lost and lonely houses, each one alone and blind and cowering in the fury of the storm. There were houses in town, but not even a light from one of them could reach another. And the town was all alone on the frozen, endless prairie, where snow drifted and winds howled and the whirling blizzard put out the stars and the sun.

Laura tried to think of the good brown smell and taste of the beef for dinner tomorrow, but she could not forget that now the houses and the town would be all alone till spring. There was half a bushel of wheat that they could grind to make flour, and there were the few potatoes, but nothing more to eat until the train came. The wheat and the potatoes were not enough.

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