The Long Winter ( Chapter 29)
The Long Winter
Laura Ingalls Wilder
The Last Mile
Almanzo thought that perhaps they had crossed the neck of Big Slough. He could not be sure where they were. He could see Prince and the slowly moving bulk of the loaded sled. Beyond them the darkness was like a mist thickening over a flat, white world. Stars twinkled far away around part of its rim. Before him, the black storm climbed rapidly up the sky and in silence destroyed the stars.
He shouted to Cap, “Think we’ve crossed Big Slough?”
He had forgotten that they need not shout since the wind had stopped. Cap said, “Don’t know. You think so?”
“We haven’t broken down,” Almanzo said.
“She’s coming fast,” Cap said. He meant the rising black storm.
There was nothing to say to that. Almanzo spoke encouragingly to Prince again and trudged on. He stamped his feet as he walked but he could hardly feel the shock; his legs were like wood from the knees down. Every muscle in his body was drawn tight against the cold. He could not relax the tightness and it hurt his jaws and ached in his middle. He beat his numb hands together.
Prince was pulling harder. Though the snow underfoot looked level, it was an upward slope. They had not seen the hole where Prince had broken down in Big Slough that morning, but they must somehow have crossed the slough.
Yet everything seemed unfamiliar. The darkness mixed with faint starshine coming up from the snow made the way strange. In the blackness ahead there was no star to steer by.
“Guess we’ve crossed it!” Almanzo called back. Cap’s sled came on behind him and after a while Cap answered, “Looks that way.”
But Prince still pulled hesitatingly, trembling not only from cold and tiredness but from fear that his footing would give way.
“Yep! We’re across!” Almanzo sang out. He was sure of it now. “We’re on the upland, all right!”
“Where’s town?” Cap called.
“We must be pretty near there,” Almanzo answered.
“It’ll take fast driving,” Cap said.
Almanzo knew that. He slapped Prince’s flank. “Get up, Prince! Get up!” But Prince quickened only one step, then plodded again. The horse was tired out and he did not want to go toward the storm. It was rising fast now; almost half the sky was blotted and the dark air was stirring.
“Get on and drive or we won’t make it!” Cap said. Almanzo hated to do it, but he stepped onto the sled and taking the stiff lines from his shoulders he beat Prince with the knotted ends.
“Get up there, Prince! Get up!” Prince was startled and frightened; Almanzo had never beaten him before. He lunged against the neckyoke and jerked the sled forward, then on a downward slope he trotted. Cap was beating the buckskin, too. But they were not sure where the town was.
Almanzo headed for it as well as he could. It was somewhere in the thick darkness ahead.
“See anything?” Almanzo called.
“Nope. We’re in for it, I guess,” Cap answered.
“Town can’t be far ahead,” Almanzo told him.
The corner of his eye caught a gleam of light. He looked toward it and saw nothing in the storm-dark. Then he saw it again—a glow that shone bright, then abruptly went out. He knew what it was; light was shining out from a door opened and shut. Near where it had been, he thought he saw now the faint glow of a frost-covered window, and he yelled to Cap. “See that light? Come on!”
They had been going a little too far to the west. Now, headed straight north, Almanzo felt that he knew the way. Prince, too, went more eagerly and the buckskin came trotting behind. Once more Almanzo saw the glow flash out across the street, and now the dim blur of the window was steady. It was the window of Loftus’ store.
As they pulled up in front of it, the winds struck them with a whirl of snow.
“Unhitch and run for it!” Almanzo told Cap. “I’ll take care of the wheat.”
Cap unfastened the tugs and swung onto the buckskin.
“Think you can make it?” Almanzo asked him through the storm.
“Can I? I got to,” Cap shouted as he started the buckskin on a run across the vacant lots toward his stable.
Almanzo clumped into the warm store. Mr. Loftus got up from his chair by the stove. No one else was there. Mr. Loftus said, “So you boys made it. We figured you hadn’t.”
“Cap and I figure we’ll do what we set out to do,” Almanzo said.
“Find that fellow that raised wheat?” Mr. Loftus asked.
“And bought sixty bushels. Want to help bring it in?” Almanzo answered.
They lugged in the sacks of wheat and stacked them by the wall. The storm was blowing fiercely. When the last sack was on the pile, Almanzo gave Mr. Loftus the receipt that Mr. Anderson had signed and handed over the balance in change.
“You gave me eighty dollars to buy wheat with, and here’s what’s left, just five dollars even.”
“A dollar and twenty-five cents a bushel. That’s the best you could do?” Mr. Loftus said, looking at the receipt.
“Any time you say, I’ll take it off your hands at that price,” Almanzo retorted.
“I don’t go back on a bargain,” the storekeeper hastily replied. “How much do I owe you for hauling?”
“Not a red cent,” Almanzo told him, leaving.
“Hey, aren’t you going to stay and thaw out?” Mr. Loftus called after him.
“And let my horse stand in this storm?” Almanzo slammed the door.
He took Prince by the bridle bits and led him up the straight street, along the row of hitching posts and the porch edges in front of the stores. By the long side wall of the feed store they plodded to the stable. Almanzo unhitched and led Prince into the stable’s quiet where Lady whinnied a welcome. He barred the door against the storm, then pulled off a mitten and warmed his right hand in his armpit until the fingers were supple enough to light the lantern.
He put Prince in his stall, watered him, and fed him, then curried and brushed him well. That done, he spread for the tired horse a soft, deep bed of clean hay.
“You saved the seed wheat, old boy,” he told Prince, giving him a gentle slap.
He took the water pail on his arm and struggled through the blizzard. Just outside the door of the back room he filled the pail with snow. When he stumbled in, Royal was coming from the empty feed store in front.
“Well. Here you are,” Royal said. “I was trying to see down the street, looking for you, but you can’t see a foot into this blizzard. Listen to it howl! Lucky you got in when you did.”
“We brought sixty bushels of wheat,” Almanzo told him.
“You don’t say! And I thought it was a wild-goose chase.” Royal put coal on the fire. “How much did you pay for it?”
“A dollar and a quarter.” Almanzo had got his boots off.
“Whew!” Royal whistled. “That the best you could do?”
“Yes,” Almanzo said shortly, peeling down layers of socks.
Then Royal noticed what he was doing and saw the pail full of snow. He exclaimed, “What’s that snow for?”
“What do you suppose?” Almanzo snorted. “To thaw my feet.”
His feet were bloodless-white and dead to the touch. Royal helped him rub them with snow, in the coldest corner of the room, until they began to tingle with a pain that made his stomach sick. Tired as he was, he could not sleep that night with the feverish pain of his feet and he was glad because the pain meant that they were not dangerously frozen. All the days and nights of that blizzard his feet were so swollen and painful that he had to borrow Royal’s boots when it was his turn to do the chores. But when the blizzard stopped, in the late afternoon of the fourth day, he was able to get into his own boots and go down the street.
It was good to be out in the fresh, clean cold, to see sunshine and hear only the straight wind after hearing the storm so long. But the strength of that wind would wear a man out, and before he had gone a block he was so chilled that he was glad enough to blow into Fuller’s Hardware store.
The place was crowded. Nearly every man in town was there and they were talking angrily in growing excitement.
“Hello, what’s up?” Almanzo asked.
Mr. Harthorn turned round to him. “Say, you charge Loftus anything for hauling that wheat? Cap Garland, here, says he didn’t.”
Cap’s grin lighted up his face. “Hello, Wilder! You soak it to that skinflint, why don’t you? I was fool enough to tell him we made that trip for the fun of it. I wish now I’d charged him all he’s got.”
“What’s all this about?” Almanzo demanded. “No, I’m not charging a red cent. Who says we took that trip for pay?”
Gerald Fuller told him, “Loftus is charging three dollars a bushel for that wheat.”
They all began to talk again, but Mr. Ingalls rose up thin and tall from the box by the stove. His face had shrunken to hollows and jutting cheekbones above his brown beard, and his blue eyes glittered bright.
“We aren’t getting anywhere with all this talk,” he said. “I say, let’s all go reason with Loftus.”
“Now you’re talking!” another man sang out. “Come on, boys! We’ll help ourselves to that wheat!”
“Reason with him, I said,” Mr. Ingalls objected to that. “I’m talking about reason and justice.”
“Maybe you are,” someone shouted. “I’m talking about something to eat, and by the Almighty! I’m not going back to my youngsters without it! Are the rest of you fellows?”
“No! No!” several agreed with him. Then Cap spoke up.
“Wilder and I have got something to say about this. We brought in the wheat. We didn’t haul it in to make trouble.”
“That’s so,” Gerald Fuller said. “See here, boys, we don’t want any trouble in town.”
“I don’t see any sense of flying off the handle,” said Almanzo. He was going on, but one of the men interrupted him.
“Yes, and you’ve got plenty to eat! Both you and Fuller. I’m not going home without—”
“How much you got to eat at your house, Mr. Ingalls?” Cap interrupted him.
“Not a thing,” Mr. Ingalls answered. “We ground up the last wheat we had, yesterday. Ate it this morning.”
“There you are!” said Almanzo. “Let Mr. Ingalls engineer this.”
“All right, I’ll take the lead,” Mr. Ingalls agreed. “The rest of you boys come along and we’ll see what Loftus has to say.”
They all tramped along after him single file over the snowdrifts. They crowded into the store where Loftus, when they began coming in, went behind his counter. There was no wheat in sight. Loftus had moved the sacks into his back room.
Mr. Ingalls told him that they thought he was charging too much for the wheat.
“That’s my business,” said Loftus. “It’s my wheat, isn’t it? I paid good hard money for it.”
“A dollar and a quarter a bushel, we understand,” Mr. Ingalls said.
“That’s my business,” Mr. Loftus repeated.
“We’ll show you whose business it is!” the angry man shouted.
“You fellows so much as touch my property and I’ll have the law on you!” Mr. Loftus answered. Some of them laughed snarlingly. But Loftus was not going to back down. He banged his fist on the counter and told them, “That wheat’s mine and I’ve got a right to charge any price I want to for it.”
“That’s so, Loftus, you have,” Mr. Ingalls agreed with him. “This is a free country and every man’s got a right to do as he pleases with his own property.” He said to the crowd, “You know that’s a fact, boys,” and he went on, “Don’t forget every one of us is free and independent, Loftus. This winter won’t last forever and maybe you want to go on doing business after it’s over.”
“Threatening me, are you?” Mr. Loftus demanded.
“We don’t need to,” Mr. Ingalls replied. “It’s a plain fact. If you’ve got a right to do as you please, we’ve got a right to do as we please. It works both ways. You’ve got us down now. That’s your business, as you say. But your business depends on our good will. You maybe don’t notice that now, but along next summer you’ll likely notice it.”
“That’s so, Loftus,” Gerald Fuller said. “You got to treat folks right or you don’t last long in business, not in this country.”
The angry man said, “We’re not here to palaver. Where’s that wheat?”
“Don’t be a fool, Loftus,” Mr. Harthorn said.
“The money wasn’t out of your till more than a day,” Mr. Ingalls said. “And the boys didn’t charge you a cent for hauling it. Charge a fair profit and you’ll have the cash back inside of an hour.”
“What do you call a fair profit?” Mr. Loftus asked. “I buy as low as I can and sell as high as I can; that’s good business.”
“That’s not my idea,” said Gerald Fuller. “I say it’s good business to treat people right.”
“We wouldn’t object to your price, if Wilder and Garland here had charged you what it was worth to go after that wheat,” Mr. Ingalls told Loftus.
“Well, why didn’t you?” Mr. Loftus asked them. “I stood ready to pay any reasonable charge for hauling.”
Cap Garland spoke up. He was not grinning. He had the look that had made the railroader back down. “Don’t offer us any of your filthy cash. Wilder and I didn’t make that trip to skin a profit off folks that are hungry.”
Almanzo was angry, too. “Get it through your head if you can, there’s not money enough in the mint to pay for that trip. We didn’t make it for you and you can’t pay us for it.”
Mr. Loftus looked from Cap to Almanzo and then around at the other faces. They all despised him. He opened his mouth and shut it. He
looked beaten. Then he said, “I’ll tell you what I’ll do, boys. You can buy the wheat for just what it cost me, a dollar twenty-five cents a bushel.”
“We don’t object to your making a fair profit, Loftus,” Mr. Ingalls said, but Loftus shook his head. “No, I’ll let it go for what it cost me.”
This was so unexpected that for a moment no one knew exactly how to take it. Then Mr. Ingalls suggested, “What do you say we all get together and kind of ration it out, on a basis of how much our families need to last through till spring?”
They did this. It seemed that there was wheat enough to keep every family going for eight to ten weeks. Some had a few potatoes left and some even had crackers. One man had molasses. They bought less wheat. Almanzo bought none. Cap Garland bought half a bushel and Mr. Ingalls paid for a two-bushel sack.
Almanzo noticed that he did not swing it onto his shoulder as a man naturally would. “That’s quite a load to handle,” Almanzo said, and helped him lift and balance it. He would have carried it across the street for him, but a man does not like to admit that he cannot carry a hundred and twenty-five pounds.
“Bet you a cigar I can beat you at a game of checkers,” Almanzo then said to Cap, and they went up the street to the drugstore. Mr. Ingalls was going into his store building as they passed by in the blowing snow.
Laura heard the front door open and shut. They all sat still in the dark and, as if in a dream, they heard Pa’s steps coming heavily the length of the front room, and the kitchen door opening. Pa let a heavy weight come down on the floor with a thud that painfully shook it. Then he shut the door against the solid cold coming in with him.
“The boys got back!” he said, breathing hard. “Here’s some of the wheat they brought, Caroline!”