11. The Big Blizzard
Several miles from Ammons a bachelor gave a venison dinner on his claim to which a little group of us had gone. About noon it clouded up and no barometer was needed to tell us that a big storm was on the way. As soon as we had eaten we started home.
The sky was ominous. Antelope went fleeting by; a little herd of horses, heads high, went snorting over the prairie. Coyotes and rabbits were running to shelter and a drove of cattle belonging to the Phillips ranch were on a stampede. One could hear them bawling madly.
The guests had gone to the dinner together in a big wagon and were delivered to their respective shacks on the way back. We raced the horses ahead of the storm for a mile or two, but it was upon us by the time we reached Margaret Houlihan's. As we drove on up the draw to the settlement we saw the chimney of our cabin, consisting of a joint of stovepipe (the regulation chimney in this country) go flying across the prairie. And there was not an extra joint of pipe on the place--probably not one on the reservation, which meant that we would not be able to build a fire in the house until we could go to Presho or the state capital for a joint.
"Hey, whata you goin' to do," exclaimed the young neighbor boy who had taken us to the dinner. "You can't live in your shack through the storm that's comin' without a fire."
"We have a monkey-stove in the store," Ida Mary told him. He shook his head, but before hurrying home he scooped up a few buckets of coal we had on hand and took it into the store, and watered and fed the horses, knowing we might not be able to reach them until the blizzard had passed. "That all the fuel you got?" he demanded.
"A settler went to town this morning to get coal for us."
"But he can't get back until the storm is over. How you goin' to manage? No fire in your shack? No fuel for the monkey-stove?"
"We'll be all right," we assured him. He was not convinced, but he dared not linger. He had to get home while he could still find the way.
In thirty minutes we were completely shut in by the lashing force of wind and snow that swept across the plains in a blinding rage. Ma Wagor and Kathryn, our typesetter, had gone home and we were alone, Ida Mary and I. We built up a hot fire in the monkey-stove, which sat in the middle of the store building and was used for heating both store and print shop. From canned goods on the shelf, baked beans and corned beef, we prepared a sketchy supper, and ate on the counter.
Although it had been without heat only a few hours, the shack was already like an iceberg, and we were shaking with cold by the time we managed to drag the couch out of it, with a mighty effort, and into the store. It was warm there, and we lay safe under warm blankets listening tranquilly to the storm hurling its strength furiously against the frail defense of the little store, the shriek of the wind, the beating of the snow on the roof. It must be horrible to be out in it, we thought, pleasantly aware of protection and warmth and safety.
Next morning there was a real old-time blizzard raging. We could barely see the outline of the shack ten feet from the store; the rest of the world was blotted out and the wind roared like an incoming tide as the snow and sleet pelted like shot on the low roof. A primeval force drove the storm before it. All over the plains people were hemmed in tar-paper shacks, the world diminished for them to the dimensions of their thin-walled houses, as alone as though each were the only dweller on the prairie.
The team, Fan and Bill, and Lakota were the only horses tied up in the hay barn. They could reach the hay and eat snow for water. There would be plenty of snow. Our menagerie of Indian plugs, including Pinto, was loose on the plains; but they were accustomed to battling storms in the open and there were haystacks now to provide food and shelter. Somewhere in the open they were standing, huddled together, facing the onslaught of the storm.
The west end wall of the flimsy ell print shop, exposed to the full force of the storm, was swaying in. Together we dragged forth some boxes of canned goods, heavy cans of lard and molasses, and propped it with their weight. We watched anxiously for a time, but the heavy boxes seemed to provide sufficient support. There were no further signs of the wall collapsing.
By evening the storm had gripped the plains like a demon of wrath. We had been rather enjoying this seclusion--no Indians. And--we chuckled like a victim of persecution whose persecutor had been overtaken--there would be no mail carrier in the morning. No mail to be taken care of. Exultant, we tried to figure how many days Dave would be blockaded and we would be spared that morning penance of handing the mail sack out from the icy shack.
On the second morning the storm was still raging, with the snow two feet deep between the store and the barn. The west wall still held, and between glances at it we stoked the monkey-stove. Stoked it while the coal dwindled. When the last chunk had been swallowed up we hunted around for something else to burn. Newspapers, cartons, wooden boxes--everything we could find went into the voracious maw of the stove.
We tended it as religiously as priestesses at an altar, or as primitive men building up a fire to keep off wild animals. Only under such conditions does one fully experience that elemental worship of fire. It literally meant life to us.
Searching for something else we could burn, something else to keep that flame going even a little while longer, that pleasant glow which had come with our sense of protection gradually disappeared. The blizzard was not merely a gigantic spectacle put on by nature for our entertainment, it was a menace, to be kept at bay only by constant alertness on our part.
Now there was nothing left in the store that we could burn!
"The Indians brought some fence posts," Ida Mary recalled. "They are back of the barn where they unloaded them. We'll have to get them."
We put on our coats, pulled fur caps close down around our faces and ears, wrapped gunny sacks around our feet and legs over high arctics to serve as snowshoes. It took our combined strength to push the door open against the storm. Before we could close it behind us, snow had swept into the store and was making little mounds. Clinging to each other we plowed our way through the loose snow to the fence posts and dragged in a few, making two trips, breaking a trail with them as we went. The wind-blown snow cut our faces like points of steel. Hearing the restless whinny of the horses, we stopped to untie them. They would not go far from shelter.
Naturally the fence posts were much too long to go into the stove, and we had no way of chopping them up. So we lifted up a cap of the two-hole stove and stuck one end of a post into the fire, propped the other end up against the counter, and fed the fire by automatic control. When one post burned down to the end, we stuck in another. It seemed to us that they burned awfully fast, and that the store was getting colder and colder. We put on our heavy coats for warmth and finally our overshoes.
Storm or no storm, however, The Wand
had to be printed. We pulled the type-case into the store, close to the stove. In those heavy coats and overshoes we went to work on the newspaper--and that issue was one of the best we ever published. In those two long nights, shut off from all the world, we talked and planned. We dared not take the risk of going to bed. If we should sleep and let the fire go out, we were apt to freeze, so we huddled around the stove, punching fence posts down into the fire, watching the blaze flicker.
At least there was time to look ahead, time to think, time to weigh what we had done and what we wanted to do. So that week The Wand
came out with ideas for cooperative action that were an innovation in the development of new lands, a banded strength for the homesteader's protection. It seemed logical and simple and inevitable to me then--as it does now. "Banded together as friends"--the Indian meaning of Lakota--was the underlying theme of what I wanted to tell the homesteaders. The strength and the potentialities of one settler counted for little, but--banded together!
Our enthusiasm in planning and talking carried us through most of that day. But toward evening there were more immediate problems. It began to turn bitter cold. The very air was freezing up. It was no longer snowing, but the wind had picked up the snow and whirled it over the prairie into high drifts that in places covered up the barbed-wire fences against which it piled.
And under the piling snow our fuel lay buried; a long windrow drift had piled high between the posts and the shop. And the shop was growing colder and colder. Even with the heavy coats and overshoes we stamped our feet to keep out the chill and huddled over the dying fire. It would soon be freezing cold in the store, as cold as the icy shack which we had abandoned. No wonder people worshiped fire!
There was no sense of snug protection against the storm now. It seemed to have invaded the store, although the west wall still held. "We'll have to go somewhere for warmth," Ida Mary decided. Margaret's shack was the nearest, but even so we knew the grave risk we took of perishing on the way there. Action, however, is nearly always easier than inaction. A time or two we stuck our heads out of the door and the cold fairly froze our breath. Once I went outside, and when I tried to get back into the shack the wind, sucking between the few buildings, blew me back as though an iron hand held me.
"If we stay here," we thought, "we may be walled in by morning by the fast-drifting snow." So we decided on Margaret's, a quarter-mile down the draw. The chief difficulty was that the trip must be made against the storm, and we did not know whether we could make it or not. We each wrapped up tightly in a heavy Indian shawl, tied ourselves together with a light blanket, picked up the scoop shovel, and started down the buried trail.
Out through the side door and the narrow space between the buildings which had been protected against the drifts, we made our way; then, facing the full strength of the storm, we dug our way, shoveling as we went, through a drift that had piled in front of the buildings, and on through the deep level of snow.
It was getting dark now--the sudden steel-gray that envelops the plains early on a winter night and closes in around the white stretches, holding them in a vise. The only sign of life in the whole blanketed world was the faint glimmer of light in Margaret's window. We knew now how the light in the print shop must have looked many a night to strangers lost on the prairie in a storm.
Such lightweights were we that, at every step we took, the wind blew us back; we used all our force, pushing against that heavy wall of wind, until we struck drifts that almost buried us. For all our clumsy tying, the blanket held us together or we would have lost each other. We could not speak, because if we so much as parted our lips they seemed to freeze to our teeth, and the cold wind rasped in our throats and lungs as though we had been running for a very long time.
Had the snow been tightly packed we could never have dug our way out of some of the drifts. But it had been picked up and swirled around so much by the wind that it was loose and light. It blew up off the ground, lashed against our faces like sharp knives, and blinded us. "How horrible," we had thought from the shelter of the store, "to be out in the storm." But we hadn't tasted then the malignant fury of the thing, battling with us for every step we made.
At last we turned and walked backwards, resting on the shovel handle for fear we would fall from exhaustion. Every few steps we looked around to see whether we were still going in a straight line toward the dim light that shone like a frosted glimmer from the tiny shack which now looked like a dark blur. We realized that if we were to swerve a few feet in either direction, so that we lost sight of the lamp, we would not find Margaret's shack that night.
It was quite dark now, and no sound on the prairie but the triumphant howl of the wind and the dry crunch of our overshoes on the snow, slipping, stumbling. We were pushing ourselves on, but our feet were so numb it was almost impossible to walk. We had been doing it for hours, it seemed; we had always been fighting our way through the deep snow. The store we had left seemed as unreal as though we had never known its protection.
Ida Mary, still walking backwards, stumbled and fell. She had struck Margaret's shack. I pushed against the door, too numb to turn the knob.
The door opened and Margaret, with a cry, pulled us in. Swiftly she unbundled us, taking care not to bring us near the fire. She took off our gloves and overshoes, then ran to the door and scooped up a basin of snow for our numb hands and feet, snow which felt curiously warm and comforting. While the snow drew out the frost, she hastened about, making strong, hot tea.
While we drank the tea and felt warmth slowly creeping over us, "Why on earth did you attempt to come here on a night like this?" she demanded. "You might have frozen to death."
"We were out of fuel," we told her. "We had to take the chance."
The shack was cheerful and warm. There was a hot supper and fuel enough to last through the storm. Only a refuge for which one has fought as Ida Mary and I fought to reach that tar-paper shack could seem as warm and safe as Margaret's shack seemed to us that night. In a numb, delicious lethargy we sat around the stove, too tired and contented to move.
Safe from the fury of the wind, we listened to it raging about the cabin as though cheated of its victims. And then, toward midnight, it died away. There was a hush as though the night were holding its breath, and then the sky cleared, the stars came out.
The next day Margaret's brother took up a sack of coal on his bronco, so we made our way back over the trail we had broken the night before, to the store, and he built a fire for us. Later that same morning Chris rode over with a sack of coal tied on behind the saddle.
"Yoost in case you should run out once," he said as he brought it in. "My wife she bane uneasy when she see no light last night."
When we told him what had happened he shook his head in concern and went to work. He scooped a path to the barn and attended to the horses. From under the snow he got some fence posts which he chopped up while Charlie excavated an opening to the front door--in case anyone should be mad enough to try to reach the store on a day like that.
About noon a cowboy came fighting his way through the drifts in search of lost cattle which the storm must have driven in this direction--the only soul who dared to cross the plains that day.
It was Sourdough. I never knew his real name. I doubt if those with or for whom he worked knew.
He stopped at the print shop to rest his horse, which was wringing wet with sweat, though the day was piercing cold. He threw the saddle blanket over the horse and came in.
We begged him to go and find out whether or not the Wagors were all right. After Ida Mary and I had got straightened out, it occurred to us that they had sent in their order for coal with ours. Like us they might be imprisoned in their shack and low on fuel; but, unlike us, there would be no question of their battling their way across the prairie to shelter.
"Sufferin' sinners," grumbled Sourdough. "Think I got time to fool around with homesteaders when a bunch of critters is maybe dead or starvin' to death? Godamighty!"
We argued and insisted, telling him that he knew better how to break a trail than the tenderfeet around here, that his horse was better trained for it.
"This country warn't made for no humans--just Indians and rattlesnakes and cowhands is all it was intended for."
I agreed with him. I was ready to agree with anything he might say if he would only go to the Wagors' shack. At last, after we had exhausted all the wiles and arts of persuasion at our command, Ida Mary told him that, come to think of it, she had seen a bunch of cattle drifting in the direction of the Wagor claim. He started out, saying he might stop in if he happened to drift by and it "come handy."
Sourdough found the Wagors covered up in bed. They had been in bed two days and three nights. The fuel had given out, as we had feared--cow chips and all. They had burned hay until the drifts became so high and the stack so deeply covered that the poor old man could no longer get to it. The cow and the blind horse had barely enough feed left to keep alive.
Not daring to burn the last bit of hay or newspaper--which would not have warmed the house anyhow--the old couple had gone to bed, piling over them everything that could conceivably shut out that penetrating dead cold, getting up just long enough to boil coffee, fry a little bacon and thaw out the bread. They dipped up snow at the door and melted it for water. The bread had run out, and the last scrap of fuel. They tore down the kitchen shelf, chopped it up, and the last piece of it had gone for a flame to make the morning coffee. The little snugly built shack was freezing cold. A glass jar of milk in the kitchen had frozen so hard that it broke the jar.
When Sourdough walked in and learned the situation he bellowed, "Sufferin' sinners!" and tore out like a mad steer. He cut into the haystack, cut up a few posts from the corral fence and made a fire--and when a range rider makes a fire it burns like a conflagration.
He fed the two dumb animals (meaning the cow and horse, he explained, though they weren't half as dumb as anyone who would go homesteading) while Ma stirred up some corn cakes and made coffee for them all. Milk the cow? What the hell did they think he was, a calf? Sourdough, like most cowboys, had never milked a cow. The only milk he ever used came out of a can.
Mid-afternoon he reported. When we wondered what could be done next, he said carelessly, "Godamighty! Let 'em stay in bed. If they freeze to death it will serve 'em right for comin' out here."
Grumbling, ranting on, he slammed the door and strode out to the barn, saddled Bill--the stronger horse of the brown team--and led him to the door.
"What are you going to do?" I demanded.
"Ride this no-count plug of yourn to hunt them critters. You never saw a bunch goin' that way," he accused Ida Mary. She smiled at the ruse she had used to start him out.
He jumped on Bill, leading his cow pony behind--a range rider knows how to conserve a horse's strength--and followed the trail he had broken, straight back toward the Wagor shack. Now we knew. He was going after Ma and Pa. They would be warm and nourished, with strength for the trip, and good old Bill could carry them both.
A few days later when we asked Ma about the harrowing experience she laughed and said, "Oh, it wasn't so bad. Pa and I talked over our whole life in those three days, telling each other about our young days; Pa telling me about some girls he used to spark that I never woulda heard about if it hadn't been for that blizzard.... I told him about my first husband ... he's the one who left me the ant-tic broach ... we did get pretty cold toward the last.
"I burned up every old mail-order catalog I had saved. I always told Pa they would come in handy.... What? Afraid we would freeze to death? Well, we woulda gone together."
The blizzard was over, but the snow lay deep all over the prairie and the great cold lasted so that few of the settlers ventured outside their shacks. For days there was no hauling done. The trails that had been worn since spring were buried deep and the drifts were treacherous. There were many homesteaders over the Reservation who were running out of fuel.
Now, if ever, was a time for cooperation, and The Wand
printed a list of those who could spare fuel; they would share with those in need of it. They brought what they could to the settlement and pooled it, chopping up all the poles and posts they could find into stovewood, and taking home small loads to tide them over.
With the fury of that storm, one of the hardest blizzards the frontier had experienced, the winter spent itself. Under the soft warm breath of a chinook the snow disappeared like magic, melting into the soil, preparing it for the onslaught of the plow.