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.