FREE AND INDEPENDENT
All the days of that storm Almanzo was thinking. He did not crack jokes as usual, and when doing the chores he curried and brushed his horses mechanically. He even sat thoughtfully whittling and let Royal make the supper pancakes.
“You know what I think, Roy?” he asked at last.
“It ought to be something worthwhile, the time you’ve been spending on it,” Royal replied. “I think there’s folks in this town that are starving,” Almanzo stated.
“Some are getting pretty hungry, maybe,” Royal admitted, turning the pancakes.
“I said starving,” Almanzo repeated. “Take Ingalls, there’s six in his family. You notice his eyes and how thin he was? He said he was out of wheat. Well, take a peck, say a peck and a quarter, of wheat, how long will it last a family of six? Figure it out for yourself.”
“He must have other provisions,” said Royal. “They came out here summer before last and they didn’t go west with the railroad jobs. He took a homestead. You know yourself how much a man can raise the first summer on sod. And
there’s been no work around here for wages.” “What are you getting at?” Royal asked. “Going to sell your seed wheat?”
“Not on your tintype! Not if there’s any way to save it,” Almanzo declared.
“Well, then what?” Royal demanded. Almanzo paid no attention to the question.
“I figure Ingalls isn’t the only man in about the same fix,” he continued. Slowly and methodic- ally he reckoned up the supply of provisions in town when the train stopped running and named the families that he had reason to believe were already running short. He estimated the time it would take to clear the railroad cuts of snow, after the blizzard stopped.
“Say they stop in March,” he concluded, “I’ve proved that folks will have to eat up my wheat or starve before provisions can be shipped in, haven’t I?”
“I guess you have, for a fact,” Royal admitted soberly.
“On the other hand, suppose this weather keeps up till April. That old Indian predicted seven months of it, don’t forget. If trains aren’t running before April or if they don’t bring in seed wheat before then, I’ve got to save my seed wheat, or lose a year’s crop.”
“Looks that way,” Royal agreed.
“And to top that, if trains don’t run early in April folks will starve anyway. Even if they have eaten up my wheat.”
“Well, come to the point,” said Royal.
“This is the point. Somebody’s got to go get that wheat that was raised south of town.”
Royal slowly shook his head. “Nobody’ll does it. It’s as much as a man’s life is worth.”
All at once, Almanzo was cheerful again. He pulled up to the table, lifted a stack of pancakes onto his plate. “Oh well, why not take a chance?” he asked gaily, pouring molasses over the steaming pile. “You can’t sometimes ’most always tell!”
“Forty miles?” Royal said. “Go out on these prairies looking for a needle in a hay- stack—twenty miles and back? Man alive, you know yourself nobody can tell when a blizzard will hit you. We haven’t had more than one clear day at a time since this thing started. More often, half a day. It can’t be done, Manzo. A fellow wouldn’t have the chance of a snowball in hades.”
“Somebody’s got to do it,” Almanzo replied reasonably. “I proved that.”
“Yes, but, gee whillikins!” said Royal.
“‘Be sure you’re right, then go ahead,’” Almanzo quoted their father.
“‘Better be safe than sorry,’” Royal retorted with their mother’s saying.
“Oh well, you’re a storekeeper, Roy,” Almanzo returned. “A farmer takes chances. He has to.”
“Almanzo,” Royal said solemnly, “if I let you lose your fool self out on these prairies, what’ll I say to Father and Mother?”
“You tell ’em you had nothing to say about it, Roy,” Almanzo answered. “I’m free, white, and twenty-one . . . or as good as. Anyway, this is a free country and I’m free and independent. I do as I please.”
“Don’t go off half-cocked, Manzo,” Royal urged him. “Think it over.”
“I been thinking it over,” said Almanzo.
Royal was silent. They sat quietly eating in the steady warmth of the coal fire and the strong light shining from the lamp and its bright tin reflector. The walls trembled a little and the shadows on them slightly quivered under the blows of winds that squealed along the eaves, split shrieking at the corners, and always roared like a water- fall. Almanzo took another stack of pancakes.
Suddenly Royal laid down his knife and pushed back his plate.
“One thing’s sure,” he said. “You’re not going to tackle any such foolhardy trip alone. If you’re bound and determined to do it, I’m going along with you.”
“See here!” Almanzo exclaimed. “We can’t both of us go!”
Next morning was still. The sun shone bright and cold and only the round-and-round growl of the coffee grinder, the rush of a steady wind, and the crackling of the hay sounded in the lean-to where Laura and Mary worked. They were very cold. Neither could twist more than two or three sticks of hay without going to thaw their hands over the stove.
They could barely keep the fire alive; they could not pile up a store of sticks and get time to help with the washing. So, Ma put the washing by till later. “Perhaps it will be warmer tomorrow,” she said, and she helped twist hay. She spelled Mary and Laura in turns so that they could spell Carrie at the coffee grinder.
Pa did not come home until late afternoon. The afternoon meal of bread and tea was waiting when he came at last.
“Gee whillikins, it’s a cold day,” he said.
He had been able to haul only one load of hay that day. The haystacks were buried in snow. He had to dig the hay out of enormous drifts. Fresh snow had covered the sled’s old tracks and changed the look of the slough. David had continually fallen deep into hidden pockets of slough grass.
“Did your nose freeze, Pa?” Grace asked him anxiously. Of course, in this weather Pa’s ears and his nose froze so that he had to rub them with snow to thaw them. He pretended to Grace that his nose grew longer every time it froze, and Grace pretended to believe that it did. This was their own special joke.
“Froze it five or six times today,” Pa answered her, tenderly feeling his red, swollen nose.
“If spring doesn’t come soon, I’m going to have a nose as long as an elephant’s. Ears like an elephant’s, too.” That made Grace laugh.
After they had eaten the daily bread, Pa twisted hay enough to last till bedtime. He had done the chores when he put David in the stable. There was still a little daylight left, and he said, “I believe I’ll go over to Bradley’s drugstore and watch the checker game awhile.”
“Do, Charles,” Ma said. “Why don’t you play some checkers yourself?”
“Well, you see, those bachelors spend all their time this winter at checkers and cards,” Pa answered. “They are good checker players, having nothing else to do. Too good for me. So, I’ll just look on but I don’t know’s there’s anything more enjoyable than watching a good game of checkers.”
He was not gone long. The drugstore was so cold, he said, that there was no game of checkers that day. But there was news.
“Almanzo Wilder and Cap Garland are going after that wheat south of town.”
Ma’s face went still, and her eyes opened as if she saw something frightening. “How far did you say it was?”
“No one knows exactly,” Pa said. “Nor exactly where it is. There’s only a rumor that a settler around there somewhere raised wheat last year. Nobody around here sold wheat to anybody in town, so it must be there, if he is, and if he raised wheat. Foster says somebody told him the settler was wintering on his claim. The boys are going to try to find it. Loftus has put up the money for them to buy all that they can haul.”
Grace began to clamor at his knee, trying to climb up to measure his nose with her finger. He lifted her absently. Even Grace, little as she was, saw that this was no time for a joke. She looked anxiously up at him and then at Ma, and sat still on Pa’s knee.
“When are they starting?” Ma asked.
“First thing tomorrow morning. They built a sled for Cap Garland today. Both Wilders were going but they decided that one of them ought to stay in case the one who goes gets caught in a blizzard.”
No one said anything for a moment.
“They may make it all right,” Pa said. “So long as this clear weather holds, they’ll be able to travel. It may hold for two or three days. You can’t tell.”
“That’s the trouble,” said Ma. “You can’t tell.”
“If they do make it,” Pa pointed out, “we’ll have wheat enough to last us till spring. If the wheat’s there and they find it.”
In the night Laura felt the shock and heard the howls of the blizzard winds. There had been only one short day of rest. The blizzard would let nobody start out tomorrow to look for wheat.[/sociallocker]