The Long Winter (Chaprer 25)
The Long Winter
Laura Ingalls Wilder
Free and Independent
All the days of that storm Almanzo was thinking. He did not crack jokes as usual, and when doing the chores he curried and brushed his horses mechanically. He even sat thoughtfully whittling and let Royal make the supper pancakes. “You know what I think, Roy?” he asked at last.
“It ought to be something worth while, the time you’ve been spending on it,” Royal replied.
“I think there’s folks in this town that are starving,” Almanzo stated.
“Some are getting pretty hungry, maybe,” Royal admitted, turning the pancakes.
“I said starving,” Almanzo repeated. “Take Ingalls, there’s six in his family. You notice his eyes and how thin he was? He said he was out of wheat. Well, take a peck, say a peck and a quarter, of wheat, how long will it last a family of six? Figure it out for yourself.”
“He must have other provisions,” said Royal. “They came out here summer before last and they didn’t go west with the railroad jobs. He took a homestead. You know yourself how much a man can raise the first summer on sod. And there’s been no work around here for wages.”
“What are you getting at?” Royal asked. “Going to sell your seed wheat?”
“Not on your tintype! Not if there’s any way to save it,” Almanzo declared.
“Well, then what?” Royal demanded.
Almanzo paid no attention to the question. “I figure Ingalls isn’t the only man in about the same fix,” he continued. Slowly and methodically he reckoned up the supply of provisions in town when the train stopped running, and named the families that he had reason to believe were already running short. He estimated the time it would take to clear the railroad cuts of snow, after the blizzard stopped.
“Say they stop in March,” he concluded, “I’ve proved that folks will have to eat up my wheat or starve before provisions can be shipped in, haven’t I?”
“I guess you have, for a fact,” Royal admitted soberly.
“On the other hand, suppose this weather keeps up till April. That old Indian predicted seven months of it, don’t forget. If trains aren’t running before April or if they don’t bring in seed wheat before then, I’ve got to save my seed wheat, or lose a year’s crop.”
“Looks that way,” Royal agreed.
“And to top that, if trains don’t run early in April folks will starve anyway. Even if they have eaten up my wheat.”
“Well, come to the point,” said Royal.
“This is the point. Somebody’s got to go get that wheat that was raised south of town.”
Royal slowly shook his head. “Nobody’ll do it. It’s as much as a man’s life is worth.”
All at once, Almanzo was cheerful again. He pulled up to the table, lifted a stack of pancakes onto his plate. “Oh well, why not take a chance?” he asked gaily, pouring molasses over the steaming pile. “You can’t sometimes ’most always tell!”
“Forty miles?” Royal said. “Go out on these prairies looking for a needle in a haystack—twenty miles and back? Man alive, you know yourself nobody can tell when a blizzard will hit you. We haven’t had more than one clear day at a time since this thing started. More often, half a day. It can’t be done, Manzo. A fellow wouldn’t have the chance of a snowball in hades.”
“Somebody’s got to do it,” Almanzo replied reasonably. “I proved that.”
“Yes, but, gee whillikins!” said Royal.
“‘Be sure you’re right, then go ahead,’” Almanzo quoted their father.
“‘Better be safe than sorry,’” Royal retorted with their mother’s saying.
“Oh well, you’re a storekeeper, Roy,” Almanzo returned. “A farmer takes chances. He has to.”
“Almanzo,” Royal said solemnly, “if I let you lose your fool self out on these prairies, what’ll I say to Father and Mother?”
“You tell ’em you had nothing to say about it, Roy,” Almanzo answered. “I’m free, white, and twenty-one… or as good as. Anyway, this is a free country and I’m free and independent. I do as I please.”
“Don’t go off half-cocked, Manzo,” Royal urged him. “Think it over.”
“I been thinking it over,” said Almanzo.
Royal was silent. They sat quietly eating in the steady warmth of the coal fire and the strong light shining from the lamp and its bright tin reflector. The walls trembled a little and the shadows on them slightly quivered under the blows of winds that squealed along the eaves, split shrieking at the corners, and always roared like a waterfall. Almanzo took another stack of pancakes.
Suddenly Royal laid down his knife and pushed back his plate.
“One thing’s sure,” he said. “You’re not going to tackle any such foolhardy trip alone. If you’re bound and determined to do it, I’m going along with you.”
“See here!” Almanzo exclaimed. “We can’t both of us go!”