The Long Winter (Chaprer 31)
The Long Winter
Laura Ingalls Wilder
Waiting for the Train
“We’ve got to wait for the train,” Pa said. “We can’t move to the claim till it comes.”
Tightly as he had nailed and battened the tar-paper to the shanty, blizzard winds had torn it loose and whipped it to shreds, letting in the snow at sides and roof. And now the spring rains were beating in through the cracks. The shanty must be repaired before anyone could live in it and Pa could not repair it until the train came, for there was no tar-paper at the lumberyard.
The snow had all disappeared from the prairie. In its place was the soft green of new grass. All the sloughs brimmed with water that had run into them when the deep snow melted. Big Slough had spread until it was a part of Silver Lake and Pa must drive miles around it to reach the homestead from the south.
One day Mr. Boast came walking into town. He explained that he could not drive in, because much of the road was under water. He had walked the railroad track on the long fill that crossed the slough.
Mrs. Boast was well, he told them. She had not come with him because of the slough-lakes spreading everywhere. He had not known whether he could reach town by the railroad track. He promised that Mrs. Boast would walk in with him some day soon.
One afternoon Mary Power came, and she and Laura took Mary walking on the high prairie west of town. It was so long since Laura had seen Mary Power that they felt like strangers again, beginning to get acquainted.
All over the softly green prairie the sloughs were a broken network of water, reflecting the warm, blue sky. Wild geese and ducks were flying high overhead, their clamoring calls coming faintly down. None of them stopped at Silver Lake. They were hurrying, late, to their nesting grounds in the north.
Soft spring rains fell all day long from harmless gray skies and swelled still wider the brimming sloughs. Days of sunshine came and then again rain. The feed store was locked and vacant. The Wilder brothers had hauled the seed wheat around the slough north of town to their claims. Pa said that they were sowing the wheat on their big fields.
And still the train did not come. Still, day after day, Laura and Mary and Carrie took turns at the endless grind of the coffee mill, and morning and evening they ate the coarse brown bread. The wheat was low in the sack. And the train did not come.
The blizzard winds had blown earth from the fields where the sod was broken, and had mixed it with snow packed in so tightly in the railroad cuts that snowplows could not move it. The icy snow could not melt because of the earth mixed with it, and men with picks were digging it out inch by inch. It was slow work because in many big cuts they must dig down twenty feet to the steel rails.
April went slowly by. There was no food in the town except the little wheat left from the sixty bushels that young Mr. Wilder and Cap had brought in the last week of February. Every day Ma made a smaller loaf and still the train did not come.
“Could something be hauled in, Charles?” Ma asked.
“We’ve talked that over, Caroline. None of us see how,” Pa answered. He was tired from working all day with a pick. The men from town were digging away at the cut to the west, for the stranded work train must go on to Huron before a freight train could come on the single track.
“There’s no way to get a team and wagon out to the east,” Pa said. “All the roads are under water, the sloughs are lakes in every direction, and even on the uplands a wagon would mire down in the mud. If worst comes to worst, a man can walk out on the railroad ties, but it’s more than a hundred miles to Brookings and back. He couldn’t carry much and he’d have to eat some of that while he was getting here.”
“I’ve thought of greens,” Ma said. “But I can’t find any weeds in the yard that are big enough to pick yet.”
“Could we eat grass?” Carrie asked.
“No, Nebuchadnezzar,” Pa laughed. “You don’t have to eat grass! The work crews at Tracy are more than half way through the big cut already. They ought to get the train here inside of a week.”
“We can make the wheat last that long,” said Ma. “But I wish you wouldn’t work so hard, Charles.”
Pa’s hands were shaking. He was very tired from working all day with pick and shovel. But he said that a good night’s sleep was all he needed. “The main thing is to get the cut clear,” he said.
On the last day of April the work train went through to Huron. It seemed to wake the whole town up to hear the train whistle again and see the smoke on the sky. Puffing and steaming and clanging its bell, it stopped at the depot, then pulled out, whistling loud and clear again. It was only a passing train that brought nothing, but a freight train was coming tomorrow.
In the morning Laura woke thinking, “The train is coming!” The sun was shining brightly; she had overslept, and Ma had not called her. She jumped out of bed and hurried to dress.
“Wait for me, Laura!” Mary begged. “Don’t be in such a hurry, I can’t find my stockings.”
Laura looked for them. “Here they are. I’m sorry, I pushed them out of the way when I jumped out of bed. Now hurry! Come on, Grace!”
“When will it get here?” Carrie asked breathless.
“Any minute. Nobody knows when,” Laura answered, and she ran downstairs singing:
“If you’re waking call me early,
Call me early, mother dear.”
Pa was at the table. He looked up and laughed at her. “Well, Flutterbudget! you’re to be Queen of the May, are you? And late to breakfast!”
“Ma didn’t call me,” Laura made excuse. “I didn’t need help to cook this little bit of breakfast,” Ma said. “Only one biscuit apiece, and small ones at that. It took the last bit of the wheat to make them.”
“I don’t want even one,” Laura said. “The rest of you can divide mine. I won’t be hungry till the train comes in.”
“You will eat your share,” Pa told her. “Then we’ll all wait till the train brings more.”
They were all merry over the biscuits. Ma said that Pa must have the biggest one. When Pa agreed to that, he insisted that Ma take the next size. Mary’s of course came next. Then there was some doubt about Laura and Carrie; they had to have the two most nearly alike. And
the smallest one was for Grace.
“I thought I made them all the same size,” Ma protested.
“Trust a Scotchwoman to manage,” Pa teased her. “You not only make the wheat come out even with the very last meal before the train comes, but you make the biscuits in sizes to fit the six of us.”
“It is a wonder, how evenly it comes out,” Ma admitted.
“You are the wonder, Caroline,” Pa smiled at her. He got up and put on his hat. “I feel good!” he declared. “We really got winter licked now! with the last of the blizzards thrown out of the cuts and the train coming in!”
Ma left the doors open that morning to let in the spring air, moist from the sloughs. The house was fresh and fragrant, the sun was shining, and the town astir with men going toward the depot. Clear and long across the prairie, the train whistle sounded and Laura and Carrie ran to the kitchen window. Ma and Grace came, too.
They saw the smoke from the smokestack rolling up black against the sky. Then puffing and chuffing the engine came hauling the line of freight cars toward the depot. A little crowd of men on the depot platform stood watching the engine go by. White steam puffed up through its smoke and its clear whistle came after every puff. Brakemen along the top of the train were jumping from car to car and setting the brakes.
The train stopped. It was really there, a train at last.
“Oh, I do hope that Harthorn and Wilmarth both get all the groceries they ordered last fall,” said Ma.
After a few moments the engine whistled, the brakemen ran along the tops of the cars loosening the brakes. Clanging its bell, the engine went ahead, then backed, then went ahead again and rushed on away to the west, trailing its smoke and its last long whistle. It left behind it three freight cars standing on the sidetrack.
Ma drew a deep breath. “It will be so good to have enough of everything to cook with again.”
“I hope I never see another bite of brown bread,” Laura declared.
“When is Pa coming? I want Pa to come!” Grace insisted. “I want Pa to come now!”
“Grace,” Ma reproved her, gently but firmly, and Mary took Grace into her lap while Ma added, “Come, girls, we must finish airing the bedding.”
It was almost an hour before Pa came. At last even Ma wondered aloud what could be keeping him. They were all impatiently waiting before he came. His arms were filled with a large package and two smaller ones. He laid them on the table before he spoke.
“We forgot the train that was snowed in all winter,” he said. “It came through, and what do you suppose it left for De Smet?” He answered his own question. “One carload of telegraph poles, one carload of farm machinery, and one emigrant car.”
“No groceries?” Ma almost wailed.
“No. Nothing,” Pa said.
“Then what is this?” Ma touched the large package.
“That is potatoes. The small one is flour and the smallest is fat salt pork. Woodworth broke into the emigrant car and shared out what eatables he could find,” said Pa.
“Charles! He ought not to do that,” Ma said in dismay.
“I’m past caring what he ought to do!” Pa said savagely. “Let the railroad stand some damages! This isn’t the only family in town that’s got nothing to eat. We told Woodworth to open up that car or we’d do it. He tried to argue that there’ll be another train tomorrow, but we didn’t feel like waiting. Now if you’ll boil some potatoes and fry some meat, we’ll have us a dinner.”
Ma began to untie the packages. “Put some hay in the stove, Carrie, to make the oven hot. I’ll mix up some white-flour biscuits, too,” she said.