THE FOURTH DAY
In the morning those sounds were gone from the wind. It was blowing with a steady wailing scream and the house stood still. But the roaring fire in the stove gave hardly any heat.
“The cold is worse,” Ma said. “Don’t try to do the housework properly. Wrap up in your shawls and keep Carrie with you close to the stove.”
Soon after Ma came back from the stable, the frost on the eastern window glowed faintly yellow. Laura ran to breathe on it and scratch away the ice until she made a peephole. Outdoors the sun was shining!
Ma looked out, then Mary and Laura took turns looking out at the snow blowing in waves over the ground. The sky looked like ice. Even the air looked cold above that fast-blowing flood of snow, and the sunshine that came through the peephole was no warmer than a shadow.
Sidewise from the peephole, Laura glimpsed something dark. A furry big animal was wading deep in the blowing snow. A bear, she thought. It shambled behind the corner of the house and darkened the front window.
“Ma!” she cried. The door opened, the snowy, furry animal came in. Pa’s eyes looked out of its face. Pa’s voice said, “Have you been good girls while I was gone?”
Ma ran to him. Laura and Mary and Carrie ran, crying and laughing. Ma helped him out of his coat. The fur was full of snow that showered on the floor. Pa let the coat drop, too.
“Charles! You’re frozen!” Ma said.
“Just about,” said Pa. “And I’m hungry as a wolf. Let me sit down by the fire, Caroline, and feed me.”
His face was thin and his eyes large. He sat shivering, close to the oven, and said he was only cold, not frost-bitten. Ma quickly warmed some of the bean broth and gave it to him.
“That’s good,” he said. “That warms a fellow.”
Ma pulled off his boots and he put his feet up to the heat from the oven.
“Charles,” Ma asked, “did you— Were you—” She stood smiling with her mouth trembling.
“Now, Caroline, don’t you ever worry about me,” said Pa. “I’m bound to come home to take care of you and the girls.” He lifted Carrie to his knee, and put an arm around Laura, and the other around Mary. “What did you think, Mary?”
“I thought you would come,” Mary answered. “That’s the girl! And you, Laura?”
“I didn’t think you were with Mr. Fitch telling stories,” said Laura. “I—I kept wishing hard.”
“There you are, Caroline! How could a fellow fail to get home?” Pa asked Ma. “Give me some more of that broth, and I’ll tell you all about it.”
They waited while he rested, and ate bean broth with bread, and drank hot tea. His hair and his beard were wet with snow melting in them. Ma dried them with a towel. He took her hand and drew her down beside him and asked:
“Caroline, do you know what this weather means? It means we’ll have a bumper crop of wheat next year!”
“Does it, Charles?” said Ma.
“We won’t have any grasshoppers next sum- mer. They say in town that grasshoppers come only when the summers are hot and dry, and the winters are mild. We are getting so much snow now that we’re bound to have fine crops next year.”
“That’s good, Charles,” Ma said, quietly. “Well, they were talking about all this in the store, but I knew I ought to start home. Just as I was leaving, Fitch showed me the buffalo coat. He got it cheap from a man who went east on the last train running and had to have money to buy his ticket. Fitch said I could have the coat for ten dollars. Ten dollars is a lot of money, but—”
“I’m glad you got the coat, Charles,” said Ma. “As it turned out, it’s lucky I did, though I didn’t know it then. But going to town, the wind went right through me. It was cold enough to freeze the nose off a brass monkey. And seemed like my old coat didn’t even strain that wind. So, when Fitch told me to pay him when I sell my trapped furs next spring, I put that buffalo coat on over my old one.
“As soon as I was out on the prairie, I saw the cloud in the north-west, but it was so small and far away that I thought I could beat it home. Pretty soon I began to run, but I was no more than halfway when the storm struck me. I couldn’t see my hand before my face.
“It would be all right if these blizzard winds didn’t come from all directions at once. I don’t know how they do it. When a storm comes from the north-west, a man ought to be able to go straight north by keeping the wind on his left cheek. But a fellow can’t do anything like that in a blizzard.
“Still, it seemed I ought to be able to walk straight ahead, even if I couldn’t see or tell directions. So, I kept on walking, straight ahead, I thought. Till I knew I was lost. I had come a good two miles without getting to the creek, and I had no idea which way to turn. The only thing to do was to keep on going. I had to walk till the storm quit. If I stopped, I’d freeze.
“So, I set myself to outwalk the storm. I walked and walked. I could not see any more than if I had been stone blind. I could hear nothing but the wind. I kept on walking in that white blur. I don’t know if you noticed, there seem to be voices howling and things screaming overhead, in a blizzard?”
“Yes, Pa, I heard them!” Laura said. “So, did I,” said Mary. And Ma nodded. “And balls of fire,” said Laura.
“Balls of fire?” Pa asked.
“That will keep, Laura,” said Ma. “Go on, Charles. What did you do?”
“I kept on walking,” Pa answered. “I walked till the white blur turned gray and then black, and I knew it was night. I figured I had been walking four hours, and these blizzards last three days and nights. But I kept on walking.”
Pa stopped, and Ma said, “I had the lamp burning in the window for you.”
“I didn’t see it,” said Pa. “I kept straining my eyes to see something, but all I saw was the dark. Then of a sudden, everything gave way under me and I went straight down, must have been ten feet. It seemed farther.
“I had no idea what had happened or where I was. But I was out of the wind. The blizzard was yelling and shrieking overhead, but the air was fairly still where I was. I felt around me. There was snow banked up as high as I could reach on three sides of me, and the other side was a kind of wall of bare ground, sloping back at the bottom.
“It didn’t take me long to figure that I’d walked off the bank of some gully, somewhere on the prairie. I crawled back under the bank, and there I was with solid ground at my back and overhead, snug as a bear in a den. I didn’t believe I would freeze there, out of the wind and with the buffalo coat to keep warmth in my body. So, I curled up in it and went to sleep, being pretty tired.
“My, I was glad I had that coat, and a good warm cap with earlaps, and that extra pair of thick socks, Caroline.
“When I woke up, I could hear the blizzard, but faintly. There was solid snow in front of me, coated over with ice where my breath had melted it. The blizzard had filled up the hole I had made when I fell. There must have been six feet of snow over me, but the air was good. I moved my arms and legs and fingers and toes and felt my nose and ears to make sure I was not freezing. I could still hear the storm, so I went to sleep again.
“How long has it been, Caroline?”
“Three days and nights,” said Ma. “This is the fourth day.”
Then Pa asked Mary and Laura, “Do you know what day this is?”
“Is it Sunday?” Mary guessed.
“It’s the day before Christmas,” said Ma. Laura and Mary had forgotten all about
Christmas. Laura asked, “Did you sleep all that time, Pa?”
“No,” said Pa. “I kept on sleeping and waking up hungry, and sleeping some more, till I woke up just about starved. I was bringing home some oyster crackers for Christmas. They were in a pocket of the buffalo coat. I took a handful of those crackers out of the paper bag and ate them. I felt out in the snow and took a handful, and I ate that for a drink. Then all I could do was lie there and wait for the storm to stop.
“I tell you, Caroline, it was mighty hard to do that, thinking of you and the girls and knowing you would go out in the blizzard to do the chores. But I knew I could not get home till the blizzard stopped.
“So, I waited a long time, till I was so hungry again that I ate all the rest of the oyster crackers. They were no bigger than the end of my thumb. One of them wasn’t half a mouthful, and the whole half-pound of them wasn’t very filling.
“Then I went on waiting, sleeping some. I guessed it was night again. Whenever I woke, I listened closely, and I could hear the dim sound of the blizzard. I could tell by that sound that the snow was getting thicker over me, but the air was still good in my den. The heat of my blood was keeping me from freezing.
“I tried to sleep all I could, but I was so hungry that I kept waking up. Finally, I was too hungry to sleep at all. Girls, I was bound and determined I would not do it, but after some time I did. I took the paper bag out of the inside pocket of my old overcoat, and I ate every bit of the Christmas candy. I’m sorry.”
Laura hugged him from one side and Mary hugged him from the other. They hugged him hard and Laura said, “Oh Pa, I am so glad you did!”
“So am I, Pa! So am I!” said Mary. They were truly glad.
“Well,” Pa said, “we’ll have a big wheat crop next year, and you girls won’t have to wait till next Christmas for candy.”
“Was it good, Pa?” Laura asked. “Did you feel better after you ate it?”
“It was very good, and I felt much better,” said Pa. “I went right to sleep, and I must have slept most of yesterday and last night. Suddenly I sat up wide awake. I could not hear a sound.
“Now, was I buried so deep in snow that I couldn’t hear the blizzard, or had it stopped? I listened hard. It was so still that I could hear the silence.
“Girls, I began digging on that snow like a badger. I wasn’t slow in digging up out of that den. I came scrabbling through the top of that snowbank, and where do you suppose I was?
“I was on the bank of Plum Creek, just above the place where we set the fish-trap, Laura.”
“Why, I can see that place from the window,” said Laura.
“Yes. And I could see this house,” said Pa. All that long, terrible time he had been so near. The lamp in the window had not been able to shine into the blizzard at all, or he would have seen its light.
“My legs were so stiff and cramped that I could hardly stand on them,” said Pa. “But I saw this house and I started for home just as fast as I could go. And here I am!” he finished, hugging Laura and Mary.
Then he went to the big buffalo coat and he took out of one of its pockets a flat, square-edge can of bright tin. He asked, “What do you think I have brought you for Christmas dinner?”
They could not guess.
“Oysters!” said Pa. “Nice, fresh oysters! They were frozen solid when I got them, and they are frozen solid yet. Better put them in the lean-to, Caroline, so they will stay that way till tomorrow.”
Laura touched the can. It was cold as ice.
“I ate up the oyster crackers, and I ate up the Christmas candy, but by jinks,” said Pa, “I brought the oysters home!”