These Happy Golden Years (Chaprer 8)

These Happy Golden Years

Laura Ingalls Wilder

Chapter 8
Cold Ride

“Careful of the lantern,” was all that Almanzo said as he helped her into the cutter. Several horse blankets were spread over the seat, and on their ends, under the fur buffalo robes, a lantern stood burning to warm the nest for Laura’s feet.

When she ran into the house, Mr. Brewster said, “You aren’t thinking of such a thing as driving in this cold?”

“Yes,” she answered. She lost no time. In the bedroom, she buttoned on her other flannel petticoat, and pulled over her shoes her other pair of woolen stockings. She doubled her thick black woolen veil and wrapped it twice around her face and hood, and wound its long ends around her throat. Over that she put her muffler, crossed its ends on her chest, and buttoned her coat over all. She ran out to the cutter.

Mr. Brewster was there, protesting. “You folks are fools to try it,” he said. “It is not safe. I want him to put up here for the night,” he said to Laura.

“Think you’d better not risk it?” Almanzo asked her.

“Are you going back?” she asked him.

“Yes, I’ve got stock to take care of,” he said.

“Then I’m going,” she said.

Prince and Lady started swiftly into the wind. It struck through all the woolen folds and took Laura’s breath away. She bent her head into it, but she felt it flowing like icy water on her cheeks and chest. Her teeth clenched to keep from chattering.

The horses were eager to go. Their trotting feet drummed on the hard snow and every sleigh bell cheerily rang. Laura was thankful for the speed that would soon reach shelter from the cold. She was sorry when they trotted more slowly. They dropped into a walk, and she supposed that Almanzo was slowing them for a rest. Probably horses must not be driven too hard against such a bitter wind.

She was surprised when he stopped them, and got out of the cutter. Dimly through the black veil she saw him going to their drooping heads, and she heard him say, “Just a minute, Lady,” as he laid his mittened hands on Prince’s nose. After a moment he took his hands away with a scraping motion, and Prince tossed his head high and shook music from his bells. Quickly Almanzo did the same thing to Lady’s nose, and she too, tossed up her head. Almanzo tucked himself into the cutter and they sped on.

Laura’s veil was a slab of frost against her mouth that made speaking uncomfortable, so she said nothing, but she wondered. Almanzo’s fur cap came down to his eyebrows, and his muffler covered his face to his eyes. His breath froze white on the fur and along the muffler’s edge. He drove with one hand, keeping the other under the robes, and often changing so that neither hand would freeze.

The horses trotted more slowly again, and again he got out and went to hold his hands on their noses. When he came back Laura asked him, “What’s the matter?”

He answered, “Their breath freezes over their noses till they can’t breathe. Have to thaw it off.”

They said no more. Laura remembered the cattle drifting in the October blizzard that began the Hard Winter; their breath had smothered them, till they would have died if Pa had not broken the ice from their noses.

The cold was piercing through the buffalo robes. It crept through Laura’s wool coat and woolen dress, through all her flannel petticoats and the two pairs of her woolen stockings drawn over the folded legs of her warm flannel union suit. In spite of the heat from the lantern, her feet and her legs grew cold. Her clenched jaws ached, and two sharp little aches began at her temples.

Almanzo reached across and pulled the robes higher, tucking them behind her elbows.

“Cold?” he asked.

“No,” Laura answered clearly. It was all she could say without letting her teeth chatter. It was not true, but he knew that she meant she was not so cold that she could not bear it. There was nothing to do but go on, and she knew that he was cold, too.

Again he stopped the horses and got out into the wind, to thaw the ice from their noses. Again the bells rang out merrily. The sound seemed as cruel, now, as the merciless wind. Though her veil made a darkness, she could see that the sun was shining bright on the white prairie. Almanzo came back into the cutter.

“All right?” he asked.

“Yes,” she said.

“I’ve got to stop every couple of miles. They can’t make more,” he explained.

Laura’s heart sank. Then they had come only six miles. There were still six miles to go. They went on swiftly against the cutting wind. In spite of all she could do, Laura shook all over. Pressing her knees tight together did not stop their shaking. The lantern beside her feet under the fur robes seemed to give no warmth. The pains bored into her temples, and a knot of pain tightened in her middle.

It seemed a long time before the horses slowed again, and again Almanzo stopped them. The bells rang out, first Prince’s, then Lady’s. Almanzo was clumsy, getting into the cutter again.

“You all right?” he asked.

“Yes,” she said.

She was growing more used to the cold. It did not hurt so much. Only the pain in her middle kept tightening, but it was duller. The sound of the wind and the bells and the cutter’s runners on the snow all blended into one monotonous sound, rather pleasant. She knew when Almanzo left the cutter to thaw the ice from the horses’ noses again but everything seemed like a dream.

“All right?” he asked. She nodded. It was too much trouble to speak.

“Laura!” he said, taking hold of her shoulder and shaking her a little. The shaking hurt; it made her feel the cold again. “You sleepy?”

“A little,” she answered.

“Don’t go to sleep. You hear me?”

“I won’t,” she said. She knew what he meant. If you go to sleep in such cold, you freeze to death.

The horses stopped again. Almanzo asked, “Making it all right?”

“Yes.” she said. He went to take the ice from the horses’ noses. When he came back he said, “It’s not far now.”

She knew he wanted her to answer. She said, “That’s good.”

Sleepiness kept coming over her in long, warm waves, though she was holding her eyes wide open. She shook her head and took burning gulps of air, and struggled awake, but another wave of sleepiness came, and another. Often when she was too tired to struggle any longer, Almanzo’s voice helped her. She heard him ask, “All right?”

“Yes,” she said, and for a moment she would be awake; she heard the sleigh bells clearly and felt the wind blowing. Then another wave came.

“Here we are!” she heard him say.

“Yes,” she answered. Then suddenly she knew that they were at the back door of home. The wind was not so strong here; its force was broken by the building on the other side of Second Street. Almanzo lifted the robes and she tried to get out of the cutter, but she was too stiff; she could not stand up.

The door flashed open, and Ma took hold of her, exclaiming, “My goodness! are you frozen?”

“I’m afraid she’s pretty cold,” Almanzo said.

“Get those horses into shelter before they freeze,” Pa said. “We’ll take care of her.”

The sleigh bells dashed away, while with Pa and Ma holding her arms, Laura stumbled into the kitchen.

“Take off her shoes, Carrie,” Ma said as she peeled off Laura’s veil and knitted woolen hood. The frost of her breath had frozen the veil to the hood and they came away together. “Your face is red,” Ma said in relief. “I’m thankful it isn’t white and frozen.”

“I’m only numb,” Laura said. Her feet were not frozen, either, though she could hardly feel Pa’s hands rubbing them. Now in the warm room she began to shake from head to foot and her teeth chattered. She sat close by the stove while she drank the hot ginger tea that Ma made for her. But she could not get warm.

She had been cold so long, ever since she got out of bed that morning. In the Brewsters’ cold kitchen her place at the table was farthest from the stove and near the window. Then came the long walk through the snow to school, with the wind blowing against her and whirling up under her skirts; the long, cold day in the schoolhouse, and then the long ride home. But there was nothing to complain of, for now she was at home.

“You took a long chance, Laura,” Pa said soberly. “I did not know that Wilder was starting until he had gone, and then I was sure he’d stay at Brewster’s. It was forty below zero when that crazy fellow started, and the thermometer froze soon afterward. It has been steadily growing colder ever since; there’s no telling how cold it is now.”

“All’s well that ends well, Pa,” Laura answered him with a shaky laugh.

It seemed to her that she never would get warm. But it was wonderful to eat supper in the happy kitchen, and then to sleep safely in her own bed. She woke to find the weather moderating; at breakfast Pa said that the temperature was near twenty below zero. The cold snap was over.

In church that Sunday morning Laura thought how foolish she had been to let herself be so miserable and frightened. There were only two weeks more, and then she could come home to stay.

While Almanzo was driving her out to the Brewsters’ that afternoon she thanked him for taking her home that week.

“No need for thanks,” he said. “You knew I would.”

“Why, no, I didn’t,” she answered honestly.

“What do you take me for?” he asked. “Do you think I’m the kind of a fellow that’d leave you out there at Brewster’s when you’re so homesick, just because there’s nothing in it for me?”

“Why, I…” Laura stopped. The truth was that she had never thought much about what kind of a person he was. He was so much older; he was a homesteader.

“To tell you the whole truth,” he said, “I was in two minds about risking that trip. I figured all week I’d drive out for you, but when I looked at the thermometer I came pretty near deciding against it.”

“Why didn’t you?” Laura asked.

“Well, I was starting out in the cutter, and I pulled up in front of Fuller’s to look at the thermometer. The mercury was all down in the bulb, below forty, and the wind blowing colder every minute. Just then Cap Garland came by. He saw me there, ready to go out to Brewster’s for you, and looking at the thermometer. So he looked at it, and you know how he grins? Well, as he was going on into Fuller’s, he just said to me over his shoulder, ‘God hates a coward.’”

“So you came because you wouldn’t take a dare?” Laura asked.

“No, it wasn’t a dare,” Almanzo said. “I just figured he was right.”

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