Guest post by Karen Witham
In which our hero and his brave sidekick set out in search of lifesaving wheat…
The chapter opens: “In the third night of that storm a stillness woke Almanzo.” There is then a rather touching discussion of how difficult it is to get out of bed and face the day in the cold (and in the 19th century — no heat, no electricity, no indoor plumbing!) and without his father to “rout” him out of bed. We also read that Almanzo is one of those annoying people who loves the early morning (sorry, editorializing there!). You get the sense that he’s been going to bed at night just waiting for the storm to break.
Cap Garland was waiting, too, as without the convenience of a phone to call each other, they manage to meet up on their sleds on Main Street. Could Cap Garland possibly have a more dashing name? No wonder Laura had a crush on him, he seems like he was very crush-inspiring — funny, brave, polite, handsome, tough — and he’d probably make a lot of men today look like total wimps. (Laura spells out how Almanzo felt, too: “He liked Cap Garland.”)
They head out toward the slough, but there was “no trace of a road.” No sign of any living thing. Almanzo optimistically thinks, “We’ll have to make it by guess and by golly!” You sense he has the same optimistic streak that Laura’s Pa has in him. But almost immediately it happens: “With no warning, Prince went down.” The horrific breaking through the snow and plunging down into the slough grass that had so hindered Pa earlier is once again slowing down the other male heroes of our story. After freeing Prince, they exchange ironic banter: “Nothing much to it,” says Almanzo; “Fine day for a trip,” returns Cap.
We are then reminded somewhat shockingly that both men are only NINETEEN YEARS OLD. Almanzo seems older because he has a homestead claim, but that is only because he lied about his age. (“. . .Cap treated Almanzo with respect. Almanzo made no objection to that.”) I know, of course, that in those days people assumed the duties of adulthood much earlier, but to realize these young men are the same age as the college “kids” I am surrounded by each day at work — well, it’s certainly food for thought.
As they get colder, they alternate riding on the sleds with running along beside the trotting horses to keep their blood moving. They have some more lighthearted banter and I think it’s really some of the neatest dialogue in the book. I’m amazed by the mental toughness they display throughout this chapter. After a couple more stumbles into the snow, they see the Lone Cottonwood, one of the only landmarks still visible on the snow-covered prairie. It would be the last one.
We’re reminded of the utter blankness and lifelessness of the cold, snow-covered prairie. We’re reminded that this could be a fool’s errand with deadly consequences — there could be no man, no wheat, no reason for venturing out — and no salvation for the town. Almanzo considers turning around after he estimates they’ve gone about 20 miles, but, “He did not want to go back to the hungry town and say that he had turned back with an empty sled.” After more reconnaissance, trotting, and some fears of frostbite, Almanzo spots “a smear of gray-brown in the snow.” Smoke. From a fire.
“Shadows were beginning to creep eastward” by the time they near the source of the fire. Which means if they left around 3 am it’s now past 12 noon — so they’ll have at minimum a 9-hour journey home, but they will be encumbered by the wheat (if they get it) and the horses will be tired. And dark will be coming.
A door opens and an “astonished” man stands there with long hair and an unkempt beard. (He must have smelled pretty ripe, too, but I’m guessing they all did at this point in history and also during this winter.) He excitedly greets them; he has been alone since last October. Anderson’s his name. His sod house is warm (albeit dark) and after they care for the horses they all sit down to eat “boiled beans, sourdough biscuit and dried-apple sauce.” They spotted Anderson’s wheat when they watered and fed the horses, so after eating, the negotiations begin.
When told women and children are near starving in town, Anderson responds: “That’s not my lookout… nobody’s responsible for other folks that haven’t got enough forethought to take care of themselves.” Almanzo responds that no one is asking for a handout; they want to pay for the wheat. Cap then tries his charm on the reluctant Anderson. (Anyone else wonder if it occurred to them that they could beat him unconscious and steal his wheat if needed? Would they have done this if it meant it was the only way to save the town? Did this ever occur to Anderson?)
When Almanzo whips out a wad of cash and offers $1.25 a bushel, Anderson folds and takes the deal. (Thank goodness!) With relief (and urgency) they get up and get the wheat loaded. They even thought to bring empty sacks to carry it in. As tempting as it is to stay, they want to get back. The threat of blizzards hangs over them, and nightfall.
So, they set out. Soon, Cap’s poor horse falls through the snow, and screams as he does so (how awful this must have been). They have no trail to follow and the horses are tired. They are tired. It’s getting late, and it’s getting colder. You can sense the fear that is kept locked down tight, for they cannot acknowledge it. The horses fall through the snow, and fall again. They trudge on, showing signs of frostbite now, and when they finally see the Lone Cottonwood in this treeless land, it is far away to the northeast, and a blizzard cloud lies in the northwest.
When both teams tumble down together into the snowy slough grass, and the darkness of night has set in, and the blizzard cloud slowly blots out the stars, we feel despair for Cap, for Almanzo, for the horses, and for the town. “We’re in for it, I guess,” said Cap. “We must be nearly there,” Almanzo answered. “They could see only a little way by the paleness of the snow and the faint starshine.”