The Long Winter (Chaprer 23)
The Long Winter
Laura Ingalls Wilder
The Wheat in the Wall
In the morning the snowdrift was gone. When Laura made a peephole on the upstairs window and looked through it she saw bare ground. Blown snow was driving over it in low clouds, but the street was hard, brown earth.
“Ma! Ma!” she cried. “I can see the ground!”
“I know,” Ma answered. “The winds blew all the snow away last night.”
“What time is it? I mean, what month is it?” Laura asked stupidly.
“It is the middle of February,” Ma answered.
Then spring was nearer than Laura had thought. February was a short month and March would be spring. The train would come again and they would have white bread and meat.
“I am so tired of brown bread with nothing on it,” Laura said.
“Don’t complain, Laura!” Ma told her quickly. “Never complain of what you have. Always remember you are fortunate to have it.”
Laura had not meant to complain but she did not know how to explain what she had meant. She answered meekly, “Yes, Ma.” Then, startled, she looked at the wheat sack in the corner. There was so little wheat left in it that it lay folded like an empty sack.
“Ma!” she exclaimed, “Did you mean…” Pa had always said that she must never be afraid. She must never be afraid of anything. She asked, “How much more wheat is there?”
“I think enough for today’s grinding,” Ma answered.
“Pa can’t buy any more, can he?” Laura said.
“No, Laura. There’s no more in town.” Ma laid the slices of brown bread carefully on the oven grate to toast for breakfast.
Then Laura braced herself, she steadied herself, and she said, “Ma. Will we starve?”
“We won’t starve, no,” Ma replied. “If Pa must, he will kill Ellen and the heifer calf.”
“Oh, no! No!” Laura cried.
“Be quiet, Laura,” Ma said. Carrie and Mary were coming downstairs to dress by the stove, and Ma went up to carry Grace down.
Pa hauled hay all day, and came into the house only to say that he was going to Fuller’s store for a minute before supper. When he came back he brought news.
“There’s a rumor in town that some settler, eighteen or twenty miles south or southeast of here, raised some wheat last summer,” he said. “They say he’s wintering in his claim shanty.”
“Who says so?” Ma asked.
“It’s a rumor,” Pa said again. “Nearly everybody says so. Nearest I can find out, Foster is the man that started it. He says he heard it from somebody working on the railroad. Some fellow that was passing through last fall, he says, was telling about the crop of wheat this settler raised, said he had a ten-acre patch that must run thirty or forty bushels to the acre. Say three hundred bushels of wheat, within about twenty miles of here.”
“I trust you aren’t thinking of starting out on such a wild-goose chase, Charles,” Ma said gently.
“A fellow might do it,” Pa remarked. “With a couple of days of clear weather and a snowfall to hold up the sled, he ought to be able to make it all ri…”
“No!” said Ma.
Pa looked at her, startled. They all stared at her. They had never seen Ma look like that. She was quiet but she was terrible.
Quietly she told Pa, “I say, No. You don’t take such a chance.”
“Why… Caroline!” Pa said.
“Your hauling hay is bad enough,” Ma told him. “You don’t go hunting for that wheat.”
Pa said mildly, “Not as long as you feel that way about it, I won’t. But…”
“I won’t hear any buts,” Ma said, still terrible. “This time I put my foot down.”
“All right, that settles it,” Pa agreed.
Laura and Carrie looked at each other. They felt as if thunder and lightning had come down on them suddenly, and suddenly gone. Ma poured the tea with a trembling hand.
“Oh Charles, I’m sorry, I spilled it,” she said.
“Never mind,” said Pa. He poured the spilled tea from his saucer into the cup. “A long time since I had to pour my tea into the saucer to cool it,” he mentioned.
“I’m afraid the fire’s going down,” said Ma.
“It isn’t the fire. The weather’s turning colder,” said Pa.
“You couldn’t go, anyway,” Ma said. “There’d be nobody to do the chores and nobody to haul hay.”
“You’re right, Caroline, you always are,” Pa assured her. “We’ll make out with what we have.” Then he glanced at the corner where the wheat sack had been. But he said nothing about it until he had done the chores and twisted some hay. He laid down the armful of hay sticks by the stove and spread his hands to warm.
“Out of wheat, Caroline?” he asked.
“Yes, Charles,” Ma said. “There’s bread for breakfast.”
“Running out of potatoes?”
“It seems as though everything is giving out at once,” Ma answered. “But I have six potatoes for tomorrow.”
“Where is the milk pail?” Pa asked.
“The milk pail?” Ma repeated.
“I’m going up the street a few minutes and I want the milk pail,” Pa said.
Laura brought him the milk pail. She could not help asking, “Is there a milk cow in town, Pa?”
“No, Laura,” he said. He went through the front room and they heard the front door shut.
Almanzo and Royal were eating supper. Almanzo had stacked the pancakes with brown sugar and he had made plenty of them. Royal had eaten halfway down his stack, Almanzo was nearing the bottom of his, and one tall stack of two dozen pancakes, dripping melted brown sugar, was standing untouched when Pa knocked at the door. Royal opened it.
“Come in, Mr. Ingalls! Sit up and have some pancakes with us!” Royal invited him.
“Thank you just the same. Could you be persuaded to sell me some wheat?” Pa asked, stepping in.
“Sorry,” Royal said. “We have no more to sell.”
“Clean sold out, uh?” said Pa.
“Clean sold out!” said Royal.
“I’d be willing to pay pretty high for some wheat,” Pa said.
“I wish I’d brought out another carload,” Royal replied. “Sit up and have some supper with us anyway. Manzo brags on his pancakes.”
Pa did not answer. He walked to the end wall and lifted one of the saddles from its peg. Almanzo exclaimed, “Hey, what are you doing?”
Pa held the milk pail’s rim firmly against the wall. He pulled the plug out of the knothole. A round stream of wheat, as large as the hole, poured rattling into the pail.
“I’m buying some wheat from you boys,” Pa answered Almanzo.
“Say, that’s my seed wheat; and I’m not selling it!” Almanzo declared.
“We’re out of wheat at my house and I am buying some,” Pa repeated. The wheat kept on pouring into the pail, sliding down the climbing pile and tinkling a little against the tin. Almanzo stood watching him, but after a minute Royal sat down. He tipped his chair back against the wall, put his hands in his pockets, and grinned at Almanzo.
When the pail was full, Pa thrust the plug into the hole. He tapped it firm with his fist and then tapped lightly up the wall and across it.
“You’ve got plenty of wheat there,” he said. “Now we’ll talk price. What do you figure this pailful’s worth?”
“How did you know it was there?” Almanzo wanted to know.
“The inside of this room doesn’t fit the outside,” said Pa. “It’s a good foot short, allowing for two-by-four studding besides. Gives you a sixteen-inch space there. Any man with an eye can see it.”
“I’ll be darned,” said Almanzo.
“I noticed that plug in the knothole, the day you had the saddles off on that antelope hunt,” Pa added. “So I figured you had grain there. It’s the only thing likely to run out of a knothole.”
“Anybody else in town know it?” Almanzo asked.
“Not that I know of,” Pa said.
“See here,” Royal put in, “we didn’t know you were out of wheat. That’s Almanzo’s wheat, it’s not mine, but he wouldn’t hang on to it and see anybody starve.”
“It’s my seed wheat,” Almanzo explained. “Extra good seed, too. And no telling either if seed will be shipped in here in time for spring planting. Of course I won’t see anybody starve, but somebody can go after that wheat that was raised south of town.”
“Southeast, I heard,” Pa said. “I did think of going myself, but…”
“You can’t go,” Royal interrupted. “Who’d take care of your folks if you got caught in a storm and… got delayed or anything?”
“This isn’t settling what I’m to pay for this wheat,” Pa reminded them.
Almanzo waved that away, “What’s a little wheat between neighbors? You’re welcome to it, Mr. Ingalls. Draw up a chair and sample these pancakes before they get cold.”
But Pa insisted on paying for the wheat. After some talk about it, Almanzo charged a quarter and Pa paid it. Then he did sit down, as they urged him, and lifting the blanket cake on the untouched pile, he slipped from under it a section of the stack of hot, syrupy pancakes. Royal forked a brown slice of ham from the frying pan onto Pa’s plate and Almanzo filled his coffee cup.
“You boys certainly live in the lap of luxury,” Pa remarked. The pancakes were no ordinary pancakes. Almanzo followed his mother’s pancake rule and the cakes were light as foam, soaked through with melted brown sugar. The ham was sugar-cured and hickory-smoked, from the Wilder farm in Minnesota. “I don’t know when I’ve eaten a tastier meal,” said Pa.
They talked about weather and hunting and politics, railroads and farming, and when Pa left both Royal and Almanzo urged him to drop in often. Neither of them played checkers, so they did not spend much time in the stores. Their own place was warmer.
“Now you’ve found the way, Mr. Ingalls, come back!” Royal said heartily. “Be glad to see you any time; Manzo and I get tired of each other’s company. Drop in any time, the latchstring is always out!”
“I’ll be glad to!” Pa was answering; he broke off and listened. Almanzo stepped out with him into the freezing wind. Stars glittered overhead, but in the northwest sky they were going out rapidly as solid darkness swept up over them. “Here she comes!” said Pa. “I guess nobody’ll do any visiting for a spell. I’ll just about make it home if I hurry.”
The blizzard struck the house when he was at the door so no one heard him come in. But they had little time to worry, for almost at once he came into the kitchen where they were all sitting in the dark. They were close to the stove and warm enough, but Laura was shivering, hearing the blizzard again and thinking that Pa was out in it.
“Here’s some wheat to go on with, Caroline,” Pa said, setting the pail down beside her. She reached down to it and felt the kernels.
“Oh, Charles. Oh, Charles,” she said, rocking, “I might have known you’d provide for us, but wherever did you get it? I thought there was no wheat left in town.”
“I wasn’t sure there was or I’d have told you. But I didn’t want to raise hopes to be disappointed,” Pa explained. “I agreed not to tell where I got it, but don’t worry, Caroline. There’s more where that came from.”
“Come, Carrie, I’m going to put you and Grace to bed now,” Ma said with new energy. When she came downstairs she lighted the button lamp and filled the coffee mill. The sound of the grinding began again,