The Long Winter (Chaprer 28)

The Long Winter

Laura Ingalls Wilder

Chapter 28
Four Days’ Blizzard

All day, while Laura turned the coffee mill or twisted hay, she remembered that Cap Garland and the younger Wilder brother were driving across the trackless snow fields, going in search of wheat to bring to town.

That afternoon she and Mary went out in the back yard for a breath of air and Laura looked fearfully to the northwest dreading to see the low-lying rim of darkness that was the sure sign of a coming blizzard. There was no cloud but still she distrusted the bright sunshine. It was too bright and the snow-covered prairie, glittering as far as eye could see, seemed menacing. She shivered.

“Let’s go in, Laura,” Mary said. “The sunshine is too cold. Do you see the cloud?”

“There is no cloud,” Laura assured her. “But I don’t like the weather. The air feels savage, somehow.”

“The air is only air,” Mary replied. “You mean it is cold.”

“I don’t either mean it’s cold. I mean it’s savage!” Laura snapped.

They went back into the kitchen through the lean-to entryway.

Ma looked up from Pa’s sock that she was darning. “You didn’t stay out long, girls,” she said. “You should get what fresh air you can, before the next storm.”

Pa came into the entry. Ma put away her work and took from the oven the loaf of sourdough brown bread, while Laura poured the thin codfish gravy into a bowl.

“Gravy again. Good!” Pa said, sitting down to eat. The cold and the hard work of hauling hay had made him hungry. His eyes glittered at sight of the food. Nobody, he said, could beat Ma at making good bread, and nothing was better on bread than codfish gravy. He made the coarse bread and the gruel of ground-wheat flour with a bit of salt fish in it seem almost a treat.

“The boys have a fine day for their trip,” he said. “I saw where one of the horses went down in Big Slough, but they got him out with no trouble.”

“Do you think they will get back all right, Pa?” Carrie asked timidly, and Pa said, “No reason why not, if this clear weather holds.”

He went out to do the chores. The sun had set and the light was growing dim when he came back. He came through the front room so they knew that he had gone across the street to get the news. They knew when they saw him that it was not good news.

“We’re in for it again,” he said, as he hung his coat and cap on the nail behind the door. “There’s a cloud coming fast.”

“They didn’t get back?” Ma asked him.

“No,” Pa said.

Ma silently rocked and they all sat silent while the dusk deepened. Grace was asleep in Mary’s lap. The others drew their chairs closer to the stove, but they were still silent, just waiting, when the jar of the house came and the roar and howl of the wind.

Pa rose with a deep breath. “Well, here it is again.”

Then suddenly he shook his clenched fist at the northwest. “Howl! blast you! howl!” he shouted. “We’re all here safe! You can’t get at us! You’ve tried all winter but we’ll beat you yet! We’ll be right here when spring comes!”

“Charles, Charles,” Ma said soothingly. “It is only a blizzard. We’re used to them.”

Pa dropped back in his chair. After a minute he said, “That was foolish, Caroline. Seemed for a minute like that wind was something alive, trying to get at us.”

“It does seem so, sometimes,” Ma went on soothing him.

“I wouldn’t mind so much if I could only play the fiddle,” Pa muttered, looking down at his cracked and stiffened hands that could be seen in the glow of fire from the cracks of the stove.

In all the hard times before, Pa had made music for them all. Now no one could make music for him. Laura tried to cheer herself by remembering what Pa had said; they were all there, safe. But she wanted to do something for Pa. Then suddenly she remembered. “We’re all here!” It was the chorus of the “Song of the Freed Men.”

“We can sing!” she exclaimed, and she began to hum the tune.

Pa looked up quickly. “You’ve got it, Laura, but you are a little high. Try it in B flat,” he said.

Laura started the tune again. First Pa, then the others, joined in, and they sang:

“When Paul and Silas were bound in jail,
Do thy-self-a no harm,
One did sing and the other did pray,
Do thy-self-a no harm.

“We’re all here, we’re all here,
Do thy-self-a no harm,
We’re all here, we’re all here,
Do thy-self-a no harm.

“If religion was a thing that money could buy,
Do thy-self-a no harm,
The rich would live and the poor would die,
Do thy-self-a no harm.”

Laura was standing up now and so was Carrie, and Grace was awake and singing with all her might:

“We’re all here, we’re all here!
Do thy-self-a no harm.
We’re all here, we’re all here!
Do thy-self-a no harm!”

“That was fine!” Pa said. Then he sounded a low note and began:

“De old Jim riber, I float down,
I ran my boat upon de groun’
De drif log come with a rushin’ din,
An’ stove both ends of my ol’ boat in.

“Now, all together on the chorus!” And they all sang:

“It will neber do to gib it up so,
It will neber do to gib it up so,

It will neber do to gib it up so, Mr. Brown!
It will neber to do gib it up so!”

When they stopped singing, the storm seemed louder than ever. It was truly like a great beast worrying the house, shaking it, growling and snarling and whining and roaring at the trembling walls that stood against it.

After a moment Pa sang again, and the stately measures were suited to the thankfulness they were all feeling:

Great is the Lord
And greatly to be prais-ed
In the city of our God,
In the mountain of His holiness.”

Then Ma began:

“When I can read my title clear
To mansions in the skies,
I’ll bid farewell to every fear
And wipe my weeping eyes.”

The storm raged outside, screaming and hammering at walls and window, but they were safely sheltered, and huddled in the warmth of the hay fire they went on singing.

It was past bedtime when the warmth died from the stove, and because they could not waste hay they crept from the dark, cold kitchen through the colder dark upstairs and to the beds.

Under the quilts, Laura and Mary silently said their prayers, and Mary whispered, “Laura.”

“What?” Laura whispered.

“Did you pray for them?”

“Yes,” Laura answered. “Do you think we ought to?”

“It isn’t like asking for anything for ourselves,” Mary replied. “I didn’t say anything about the wheat. I only said please to save their lives if it’s God’s will.”

“I think it ought to be,” Laura said. “They were doing their best. And Pa lived three days in that Christmas blizzard when we lived on Plum Creek.”

All the days of that blizzard nothing more was said about Cap Garland and the young Wilder brother. If they had found shelter they might live through the storm. If not, nothing could be done for them. It would do no good to talk.

The constant beating of the winds against the house, the roaring, shrieking, howling of the storm, made it hard even to think. It was possible only to wait for the storm to stop. All the time, while they ground wheat, twisted hay, kept the fire burning in the stove, and huddled over it to thaw their chapped, numb hands and their itching, burning, chilblained feet, and while they chewed and swallowed the coarse bread, they were all waiting until the storm stopped.

It did not stop during the third day or the third night. In the fourth morning it was still blowing fiercely.

“No sign of a letup,” Pa said when he came in from the stable. “This is the worst yet.”

After a while, when they were all eating their morning bread, Ma roused herself and answered, “I hope everyone is all right in town.”

There was no way to find out. Laura thought of the other houses, only across the street, that they could not even see. For some reason she remembered Mrs. Boast. They had not seen her since last summer, nor Mr. Boast since the long-ago time when he brought the last butter.

“But we might as well be out on a claim too,” she said. Ma looked at her, wondering what she meant, but did not ask. All of them were only waiting for the blizzard noises to stop.

That morning Ma carefully poured the last kernels of wheat into the coffee mill.

There was enough to make one last small loaf of bread. Ma scraped the bowl with the spoon and then with her finger to get every bit of dough into the baking pan.

“This is the last, Charles,” she said.

“I can get more,” Pa told her. “Almanzo Wilder was saving some seed wheat. I can get to it through the blizzard if I have to.”

Late that day, when the bread was on the table, the walls stopped shaking. The howling shrillness went away and only a rushing wind whistled under the eaves. Pa got up quickly, saying, “I believe it’s stopping!”

He put on his coat and cap and muffler and told Ma that he was going across the street to Fuller’s store. Looking through peepholes that they scratched in the frost, Laura and Carrie saw snow blowing by on the straight wind.

Ma relaxed in her chair and sighed, “What a merciful quiet.”

The snow was settling. After a while Carrie saw the sky and called Laura to see it. They looked at the cold, thin blue overhead and at the warm light of sunset on the low-blowing snow. The blizzard really was ended. And the northwest sky was empty.

“I hope Cap Garland and young Mr. Wilder are somewhere safe,” Carrie said. So did Laura, but she knew that saying so would not make any difference.

 

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