The Long Winter (Chapter 27)
The Long Winter
Laura Ingalls Wilder
For Daily Bread
In the third night of that storm a stillness woke Almanzo. The blizzard had stopped. He reached out through the cold to his vest hanging on a chair, got out his watch and a match, and saw that the time was nearly three o’clock.
In winter’s dark, cold mornings he still missed his father’s routing him out of bed. Now he had to rout himself out of warm blankets into the cold. He must light the lantern, stir up the fire, and break the ice in the water pail himself, and he could choose between getting his own breakfast and going hungry. Three o’clock on winter mornings was the only time that he was not glad to be free and independent.
Once out of bed and into his clothes, though, he liked early morning better than any other part of the day. The air was fresher then than at any other time.
Low in the eastern sky hung the morning star. The temperature was ten below zero, the wind blew steadily. The day promised to be fair.
When he rode down Main Street on the hay-sled, the sun had not yet risen but the morning star had melted in an upward rush of light. The Ingalls building stood solid black against the endless eastern prairie covered with snow. Down Second Street, beyond it, the two stables with their haystacks looked small, and beyond them Garland’s little house had a speck of light in its kitchen. Cap Garland came riding up on his sled, driving his buckskin gelding.
He waved to Almanzo and Almanzo lifted his own arms, stiff in the weight of woolen sleeves. Their faces were wrapped in mufflers and there was no need to say anything. Three days ago, before the last blizzard struck, they had made their plan. Almanzo drove on without stopping and Cap Garland swung the buckskin into Main Street behind him.
At the end of the short street Almanzo turned southeast to cross the neck of Big Slough at its narrowest place. The sun was rising. The sky was a thin, cold blue and the earth to its far horizon was covered with snowdrifts, flushed pink and faintly shadowed with blue. The horse’s breath made a white cloud about his head.
The only sounds were the dumping of Prince’s hoofs on the hard snow and the rasp of the sled’s runners. There was not a track on the waves of snow, not a print of rabbit’s paw or bird’s claws. There was no trace of a road, no sign that any living thing had ever been on the frozen snow fields where every curve was changed and unknown. Only the wind had furrowed them in tiny wavelets, each holding its own faint line of blue shadow, and the wind was blowing a spray of snow from every smooth, hard crest.
There was something mocking in the glitter of that trackless sea where every shadow moved a little and the blown snow spray confused
the eyes searching for lost landmarks. Almanzo judged directions and distance as well as he could, where everything was changed and uncertain, and he thought, “Well, we’ll have to make it by guess and by golly!”
He guessed that he had struck the neck of the buried Big Slough somewhere near the place where he crossed to haul hay. If he was right, the snow underneath the sled would be packed hard and in five minutes or less he would be safe on upland again. He glanced back. Cap had slowed the buckskin and was following at a cautious distance. With no warning, Prince went down.
“Whoa-oa, steady!” Almanzo shouted through his muffler but he shouted calmly and soothingly. Only the horse’s snorting head stuck up from the grassy air-pocket in front of the sled. The sled ran on, sliding forward; there is no way to put brakes on a sled, but it stopped in time.
“Whoa, Prince. Steady now,” Almanzo said, drawing the reins firmly. “Steady, steady.” Buried deep in snow, Prince stood still.
Almanzo jumped off the sled. He unhitched the whiffletree from the chain fastened to the sled’s runners. Cap Garland drove around him and stopped. Almanzo went to Prince’s head and wallowing down into the broken snow and tangling dead grass he took hold of the reins under the bits. “Steady, Prince old fellow, steady, steady,” he said, for his own flounderings were frightening Prince again.
Then he trampled down the snow until he could persuade Prince that it was firm enough to step on. Holding Prince by the bits again he urged him forward till with a mighty heave he burst up out of the hole and Almanzo led him rapidly climbing up out of the hole to the solid snow again. He led him on to Cap Garland’s sled and handed over the reins to Cap.
Cap’s light eyes showed that he was cheerfully grinning under the muffler. “So that’s the way you do it!” he said.
“Nothing much to it,” Almanzo replied.
“Fine day for a trip,” Cap remarked.
“Yep, it’s a fine, large morning!” Almanzo agreed. Almanzo went to pull his empty sled sidewise behind the large hole that Prince and he had made in the snow. He liked Cap Garland. Cap was light-hearted and merry but he would fight his weight in wildcats. When Cap Garland had reason to lose his temper his eyes narrowed and glittered with a look that no man cared to stand up to. Almanzo had seen him make the toughest railroader back down.
Taking a coiled rope from his sled Almanzo tied one end to the sled’s chain. The other end he tied to Prince’s whiffletree, and with Prince helping him pull he guided the sled around the hole. Then he hitched Prince to the sled, coiled the long rope again, and drove on.
Cap Garland fell in behind him once more. He was really only a month younger than Almanzo. They were both nineteen. But because Almanzo had a homestead claim, Cap supposed that he was older than twenty-one. Partly for that reason, Cap treated Almanzo with respect. Almanzo made no objection to that.
Leading the way, he drove toward the sun until he was sure he had crossed Big Slough. Then he headed southward toward the twin lakes, Henry and Thompson.
The only color now on the endless snow fields was a pale reflection of the blue sky. Everywhere tiny glints sparkled sharply. The glitter stabbed Almanzo’s eyes, screwed almost shut in the slot between his cap and muffler. The icy wool blew out and sucked back against his nose and mouth with every breath.
His hands grew too cold to feel the reins, so he shifted the reins from hand to hand, beating the free arm against his chest to make the blood flow warm in it.
When his feet grew numb he stepped off the sled and ran beside it. His heart, pumping fast, forced warmth to his feet until they tingled and itched and burned, and he jumped onto the sled again.
“Nothing like exercise to warm you up!” he shouted back to Cap.
“Let me in by the stove!” Cap shouted, and he jumped off his sled and ran beside it.
So they went on, running, riding, and thumping their chests, then running again, while the horses briskly trotted. “Say, how long do we keep this up?” Cap shouted once, joking. “Till we find wheat, or hell freezes!” Almanzo answered.
“You can skate on it now!” Cap shouted back.
They went on. The rising sun poured down sunshine that seemed colder than the wind. There was no cloud in the sky, but the cold steadily grew more intense.
Prince went down again in some unknown little slough. Cap drove up and stopped. Almanzo unhitched Prince, got him up on the firm snow, hauled the sled around the hole, hitched up again.
“See the Lone Cottonwood anywhere ahead?” he asked Cap.
“Nope. But I can’t depend on my eyes,” Cap answered. The sun-glare made them see black spots everywhere.
They rewound their mufflers, shifting the ice-patches away from their raw faces. To the far horizon all around them, there was nothing but glittering snow and the cruel wind blowing.
“Lucky so far,” Almanzo said. “Gone down only twice.”
He stepped onto his sled and started and heard Cap shout. Swinging in to follow, the buckskin had gone down.
Cap dug him out, hauled the sled around the hole, and hitched up again.
“Nothing like exercise to keep a fellow warm!” he reminded Almanzo.
From the top of the next low swell they saw the Lone Cottonwood, bare and gaunt. Snow covered the twin lakes and the low bushes that grew between them. Only the lonely tree’s bare top rose up from the endless whiteness.
As soon as he saw it, Almanzo turned westward quickly to keep well away from the sloughs around the lakes. On the upland grass the snow was solid.
The Lone Tree was the last landmark. It was soon lost again in the trackless waves of snow. There was no road, no trace nor track of any kind to be seen anywhere. No one knew where the settler lived who had raised wheat. No one was even sure that he was still in that country. It might be that he had gone out for the winter. It might be that there had never been such a man. There was only a rumor that someone had told somebody that a man living somewhere in that region had raised wheat.
One wave of the endless frozen snow-sea was like another. Beneath the snow-spray blown from their crests, the low prairie swells seemed to come on forever, all the same. The sun slowly rose higher and the cold increased.
There was no sound but the horses’ hoofs and the rasp of the sled runners that made no tracks on the ice-hard snow, and the rushing sound of the wind that faintly whistled against the sled.
From time to time Almanzo looked back and Cap shook his head. Neither of them saw any wisp of smoke against the cold sky. The small, cold sun seemed to hang motionless but it was climbing. The shadows narrowed, the waves of snow and the prairie’s curves seemed to flatten. The white wilderness leveled out, bleak and empty.
“How far we going?” Cap shouted.
“Till we find that wheat!” Almanzo called back. But he, too, was wondering whether there was any wheat in the endless emptiness. The sun was in the zenith now, the day half gone. There was still no threat in the northwestern sky, but it would be unusual to have more than this one clear day between blizzards.
Almanzo knew they should turn back toward town. Numb from cold, he stumbled off the sled and ran on beside it. He did not want to go back to the hungry town and say that he had turned back with an empty sled.
“How far you figure we’ve come?” Cap asked.
“About twenty miles,” Almanzo guessed. “Think we better go back?”
“Never give up till you’re licked!” Cap said cheerfully.
They looked around. They were on an upland. If the lower air had not been a little hazy with a glitter of blowing snow, they could have seen perhaps twenty miles. But the prairie swells, that seemed level under the high sun, hid the town to the northwest. The northwest sky was still clear.
Stamping their feet and beating their arms on their chests they searched the white land from west to east, as far south as they could see. There was not a wisp of smoke anywhere.
“Which way’ll we go?” Cap asked.
“Any way’s as good as any other,” Almanzo said. They rewound their mufflers again. Their breath had filled the mufflers with ice. They could hardly find a spot of wool to relieve the pain of ice on skin that it had chafed raw. “How are your feet?” he asked Cap.
“They don’t say,” Cap replied. “They’ll be all right, I guess. I’m going on running.”
“So am I,” Almanzo said. “If they don’t warm up pretty soon, we better stop and rub them with snow. Let’s follow this swell west a ways. If we don’t find anything that way we can circle back, farther south.”
“Suits me,” Cap agreed. Their good horses went willingly into a trot again and they ran on beside the sleds.
The upland ended sooner than they had expected. The snow field sloped downward and spread into a flat hollow that the upland had hidden. It looked like a slough. Almanzo pulled Prince to a walk and got onto the sled to look the land over. The flat hollow ran on toward the west; he saw no way to get around it without turning back along the upland. Then he saw, ahead and across the slough, a smear of gray-brown in the snow blowing from a drift. He stopped Prince and yelled, “Hi, Cap! That look like smoke ahead there?” Cap was looking at it. “Looks like it comes out of a snowbank!” he shouted.
Almanzo drove on down the slope. After a few minutes he called back, “It’s smoke all right! There’s some kind of house there!”
They had to cross the slough to reach it. In their hurry, Cap drove alongside Almanzo and the buckskin went down. This was the deepest hole they had got a horse out of yet, and all around it the snow broke down into air-pockets under the surface till there seemed no end to their floundering. Shadows were beginning to creep eastward before they got the buckskin to solid footing and began cautiously to go on.
The thin smoke did rise from a long snowbank, and there was not a track on the snow. But when they circled southern side, they saw that the snow had been shoveled away from before a door in the snowbank. They pulled up their sleds and shouted.
The door opened and a man stood there, astonished. His hair was long and his unshaven beard grew up to his cheekbones.
“Hello! Hello!” he cried. “Come in! Come in! Where did you come from? Where are you going? Come in! How long can you stay? Come right in!” He was so excited that he did not wait for answers.
“We’ve got to take care of our horses first,” Almanzo answered.
The man snatched on a coat and came out, saying, “Come along, right over this way, follow me. Where did you fellows come from?”
“We just drove out from town,” Cap said. The man led the way to a door in another snowbank. They told him their names while they unhitched, and he said his name was Anderson. They led the horses into a warm, sod stable, snug under the snowbank.
The end of the stable was partitioned off with poles and a rough door, and grains of wheat had trickled through a crack. Almanzo and Cap looked at it and grinned to each other.
They watered Prince and the buckskin from the well at the door, fed them oats, and left them tied to a mangerful of hay beside Anderson’s team of black horses. Then they followed Anderson to the house under the snowbank.
The one room’s low ceiling was made of poles covered with hay and sagging under the weight of snow. The walls were sods. Anderson left the door ajar to let in a little light.
“I haven’t got my window shoveled out since the last blow,” he said. “The snow piles over that little rise to the northwest and covers me up. Keeps the place so warm I don’t need much fuel. Sod houses are the warmest there are, anyway.”
The room was warm, and steamy from a kettle boiling on the stove. Anderson’s dinner was on a rough table built against the wall. He urged them to draw up and eat with him. He had not seen a soul since last October, when he had gone to town and brought home his winter’s supplies.
Almanzo and Cap sat down with him and ate heartily of the boiled beans, sourdough biscuit and dried-apple sauce. The hot food and coffee warmed them, and their thawing feet burned so painfully that they knew they were not frozen. Almanzo mentioned to Mr. Anderson that he and Cap might buy some wheat.
“I’m not selling any,” Mr. Anderson said flatly. “All I raised, I’m keeping for seed. What are you buying wheat for, this time of year?” he wanted to know.
They had to tell him that the trains had stopped running, and the people in town were hungry.
“There’s women and children that haven’t had a square meal since before Christmas,” Almanzo put it to him. “They’ve got to get something to eat or they’ll starve to death before spring.”
“That’s not my lookout,” said Mr. Anderson. “Nobody’s responsible for other folks that haven’t got enough forethought to take care of themselves.”
“Nobody thinks you are,” Almanzo retorted. “And nobody’s asking you to give them anything. We’ll pay you the full elevator price of eighty-two cents a barrel, and save you hauling it to town into the bargain.”
“I’ve got no wheat to sell,” Mr. Anderson answered, and Almanzo knew he meant what he said.
Cap came in then, his smile flashing in his raw-red face chapped by the icy wind. “We’re open and aboveboard with you, Mr. Anderson. We’ve put our cards on the table. The folks in town have got to have some of your wheat or starve. All right, they’ve got to pay for it. What’ll you take?”
“I’m not trying to take advantage of you boys,” Mr. Anderson said. “I don’t want to sell. That’s my seed wheat. It’s my next year’s crop. I could have sold it last fall if I was going to sell it.”
Almanzo quickly decided. “We’ll make it a dollar a bushel,” he said. “Eighteen cents a bushel above market price. And don’t forget we do the hauling to boot.”
“I’m not selling my seed,” said Mr. Anderson. “I got to make a crop next summer.”
Almanzo said meditatively, “A man can always buy seed. Most folks out here are going to. You’re throwing away a clear profit of eighteen cents a bushel above market price, Mr. Anderson.”
“How do I know they’ll ship in seed wheat in time for sowing?” Mr. Anderson demanded.
Cap asked him reasonably, “Well, for that matter, how do you know you’ll make a crop? Say you turn down this cash offer and sow your wheat. Hailstorm’s liable to hit it, or grasshoppers.”
“That’s true enough,” Mr. Anderson admitted.
“The one thing you’re sure of is cash in your pocket,” said Almanzo.
Mr. Anderson slowly shook his head. “No, I’m not selling. I like to killed myself breaking forty acres last summer. I got to keep the seed to sow it.”
Almanzo and Cap looked at each other. Almanzo took out his wallet. “We’ll give you a dollar and twenty-five cents a bushel. Cash.” He laid the stack of bills on the table.
Mr. Anderson hesitated. Then he took his gaze away from the money.
“‘A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush,’” Cap said.
Mr. Anderson glanced again at the bills in spite of himself. Then he leaned back and considered. He scratched his head. “Well,” he said finally, “I might sow some oats.”
Neither Almanzo nor Cap said anything. They knew his mind was quivering in the balance and if he decided now against selling, he would not change. At last he decided, “I guess I could let you have around sixty bushels at that price.”
Almanzo and Cap rose quickly from the table.
“Come on, let’s get it loaded!” said Cap. “We’re a long way from home.”
Mr. Anderson urged them to stay all night but Almanzo agreed with Cap. “Thanks just the same,” he said hurriedly, “but one day is all we have between blizzards lately, and it’s past noon now. We’re already late getting started back.”
“The wheat’s not sacked,” Mr. Anderson pointed out, but Almanzo said, “We brought sacks.”
They hurried to the stable. Mr. Anderson helped them shovel the wheat from the bin into the two-bushel sacks, and they loaded the sleds. While they hitched up they asked Mr. Anderson how best to get across the slough, but he had not crossed it that winter, and for lack of landmarks he could not show them exactly where he had driven through the grass last summer.
“You boys better spend the night here,” he urged them again, but they told him good-by and started home.
They drove from the shelter of the big snowbanks into the piercing cold wind, and they had hardly begun to cross the flat valley when Prince broke down into an air-pocket. Swinging out to circle the dangerous place, Cap’s buckskin felt the snow give way under him so suddenly that he screamed as he went plunging down.
The horse’s scream was horrible. For a moment Almanzo had all he could do to keep Prince quiet. Then he saw Cap down in the snow, hanging on to the frantic buckskin by the bits. Plunging and rearing, the buckskin almost jerked Cap’s sled into the hole. It tipped on the very edge and the load of wheat slid partly off it.
“All right?” Almanzo asked when the buckskin seemed quiet.
“Yep!” Cap answered. Then for some time they worked, each unhitching his own horse down in the broken snow and wiry grass, and floundering about in it, trampling and stamping to make a solid footing for the horse. They came up chilled to the bone and covered with snow.
They tied both horses to Almanzo’s sled, then unloaded Cap’s sled, dragged it back from the hole, and piled the snowy, hundred-and-twenty-five-pound sacks onto it again. They hitched up again. It was hard to make their numb fingers buckle the stiff, cold straps. And gingerly once more Almanzo drove on across the treacherous slough.
Prince went down again but fortunately the buckskin did not. With Cap to help, it did not take so long to get Prince out once more. And with no further trouble they reached the upland.
Almanzo stopped there and called to Cap, “Think we better try to pick up our trail back?”
“Nope!” Cap answered. “Better hit out for town. We’ve got no time to lose.” The horses’ hoofs and the sleds had made no tracks on the hard snowcrust. The only marks were the scattered holes where they had floundered in the sloughs and these lay east of the way home.
Almanzo headed toward the northwest, across the wide prairie white in its covering of snow. His shadow was his only guide. One prairie swell was like another, one snow-covered slough differed from the next only in size. To cross the lowland meant taking the risk of breaking down and losing time. To follow the ridges of higher ground meant more miles to travel. The horses were growing tired. They were afraid of falling into hidden holes in the snow and this fear added to their tiredness.
Time after time they did fall through a thin snow crust. Cap and Almanzo had to unhitch them, get them out, hitch up again.
They plodded on, into the sharp cold of the wind. Too tired now to trot with their heavy loads, the horses did not go fast enough so that Almanzo and Cap could run by the sleds. They could only stamp their feet hard as they walked to keep them from freezing, and beat their arms against their chests.
They grew colder. Almanzo’s feet no longer felt the shock when he stamped them. The hand that held the lines was so stiff that the fingers would not unclasp. He put the lines around his shoulders to leave both hands free, and with every step he whipped his hands across his chest to keep the blood moving in them.
“Hey, Wilder!” Cap called. “Aren’t we heading too straight north?”
“How do I know?” Almanzo called back.
They plodded on. Prince went down again and stood with drooping head while Almanzo unhitched him and trampled the snow, led him out, and hitched him again. They climbed to an upland, followed it around a slough, went down to cross another slough. Prince went down.
“You want me to take the lead awhile?” Cap asked, when Almanzo had hitched up again. “Save you and Prince the brunt of it.”
“Suits me,” said Almanzo. “We’ll take turns.”
After that, when a horse went down, the other took the lead until he went down. The sun was low and a haze was thickening in the northwest.
“We ought to see the Lone Cottonwood from that rise ahead,” Almanzo said to Cap.
After a moment Cap answered, “Yes, I think we will.”
But when they topped the rise there was nothing but the same endless, empty waves of snow beyond it and the thick haze low in the northwest. Almanzo and Cap looked at it, then spoke to their horses and went on. But they kept the sleds closer together.
The sun was setting red in the cold sky when they saw the bare top of the Lone Cottonwood away to the northeast. And in the northwest the blizzard cloud was plain to be seen, low along the horizon.
“It seems to be hanging off,” Almanzo said. “I’ve been watching it from away back.”
“So have I,” said Cap. “But we better forget about being cold and drive. Let’s ride awhile.”
“You bet you,” Almanzo agreed. “I could do with a few minutes’ rest.”
They said nothing more except to urge the tired horses to a faster walk. Cap led the way straight over the rises and straight across the hollows, into the teeth of the wind. Heads bent against it, they kept going until the buckskin broke through a snowcrust
Almanzo was so close behind that he could not avoid the hidden airhole. He turned quickly aside but Prince went down near the buckskin. Between them the whole snow crust gave way and Almanzo’s sled tipped, load and all, into the broken snow and grass.
Darkness slowly settled down while Cap helped Almanzo drag back the sled and dig out and carry the heavy sacks of wheat. The snow was palely luminous. The wind had died, not a breath of air moved in the darkening stillness. Stars shone in the sky overhead and to the south and the east, but low in the north and the west the sky was black. And the blackness rose, blotting out the stars above it one by one.
“We’re in for it, I guess,” Cap said.
“We must be nearly there,” Almanzo answered. He spoke to Prince and moved on ahead. Cap followed, he and the sled a bulky shadow moving over the dim whiteness of snow.
Before them in the sky, star after star went out as the black cloud rose.
Quietly Almanzo and Cap spoke to the tired horses, urging them on. There was still the neck of Big Slough to cross. They could not see the swells or the hollows now. They could see only a little way by the paleness of the snow and the faint starshine.