The evening of the school Christmas pageant, the weather turned nasty. All day the north wind had been howling and blowing steadily over the snow covered prairie. By the time Karl hitched the horse to the sleigh driven wagon, the temperatures had reached a frigid twenty-eight below.
He drove the rig close to the house then hopped down from the wagon and ran towards the house.
Inside the warm house everyone was gathered near the door in various states of readiness. The youngest children were bundled in their snowsuits and waiting patiently; George, Sue and Charles Jr. pushed and shoved at one another until Emilie could no longer stand it.
“Stop! She yelled, effectively silencing the trio and alarming the others.
Karl opened the door at just that moment. “What’s going on here? George?”
“Awe these two are holding us all up.” He pointed at Sue and Charles Jr..
Karl looked at each child and then turned to Emilie.
“It’s very cold outside. I’m not even sure if we should go out in this weather, it could very well turn into a buzzard before the night’s out.”
“Oh, but the children have worked so hard, Karl; and who will say their lines?”
He understood, but his concern was for the safety of his family, not for some social get-together at the school.
“You’d better bring every spare blanket you can find then. I’ll get some extra candles and matches and a shovel. We’d better get going.”
Emilie followed the group outside and waited beside the wagon until all the children were settled, then she handed Anne-Marie up to George’s waiting arms. “Put her between you and cover her with two blankets,” she instructed as she climbed up onto the bench of the wagon then wrapped herself in one of the spare blankets.
The wind was one thing within the sheltered confines of Karl’s yard, but quite another when they turned onto the open road. A few yards from the driveway the homestead disappeared; a half mile further the road disappeared. They couldn’t see ahead, and behind was a solid wall of white.
“Daddy, I’m cold,” Raymond’s voice battled with the howling wind.
Karl looked across the seat at Emilie who was all but buried in the blanket around her. “I’m turning around. It’s three miles to the school, we’ll never make it.”
She didn’t even consider arguing this time. “How are you going to turn around when you can’t even see the road? Emilie’s teeth chattered as she shivered uncontrollably. Too late she realized that she was dressed inadequately for the severe winter conditions. Her feet were already freezing in her thin high-heeled fashion boots and her back felt as if a thick slab of ice lay against it.
The horse whinnied and Karl knew that the wind and deepening snow would soon stop their progress.
“I’m not even sure I can turn the wagon around in this anymore,” Karl’s voice was low, “I might have to unhook the horse and leave the wagon behind. We are going to have to walk back to the house.”
Emilie’s heart fluttered in her chest. How could they possibly walk back to the house? The snow was knee deep; it would be waist high on the younger children. The wind and the blowing snow made it impossible to see where they were going. Would they even be able to tell where the driveway into the yard was, let alone be able to reach the house?
All was quiet in the wagon. It was as if the children knew the adults had a difficult decision to make and needed their wits about them to do it.
The horse reared her head and stopped. Karl dropped the reins and turned to Emilie.
“We have to stay together. I’m going to take a rope and tie it to the horse. I’ll take the lead and guide her. Raymond and Richard will ride the horse. Charles Jr. will follow me, then Sue, then you and Anne-Marie, and George on the end. You must always keep your hand on the rope. It’s the only way we can be sure to all stay together.”
“Karl, we can’t do this.” Her hushed whisper would have been impossible for him to hear had he not been so close to her.
“We don’t have a choice. It’s either attempt to walk home, or freeze to death out here. I’m sorry I brought you all out in this.
He did not tell her that their chances of returning home safely were slim at best. He did not tell her that every winter someone from this area froze to death in just these conditions, many just yards from their own front door. He told her none of this because to lose hope now would mean certain death for them all.
“Stay here until I come and get you.” He turned in his seat, “George hand me those ropes and come with me.” He said before he jumped off the wagon and then disappeared at the front of the horse.
It took them no time to disconnect the horse from the wagon, and then George was lifting Raymond and Richard from the wagon while Karl folded one of the blankets across the horses back. He lifted both boys onto the horse, then spoke quietly to them She saw both children take the rope attached to the bridle firmly in their hands and then Karl took another large blanket and completely covered the riders.
The instructions were repeated for Charles Jr. and Sue, and then Karl was reaching for Anne-Marie.
“Okay, Emilie.” He watched as she carefully lowered herself from the wagon seat. He took another large blanket and folded it in half. “Take Anne-Marie,” he instructed and when she had he placed the blanket over the child’s body and pulled the ends of the blanket around Emilie’s thin waist and tied them together at her back. Next he took a thick rope and wound it around Emilie and the child several times, then attached it to the lead rope.
“Karl . . .” Emilie wanted to say something, but words would not come.
“You won’t drop her, Emilie; she is bound tightly to you. Use your arms to support her, but you won’t have to hold her.” His face was so near to hers and he saw the fear in her eyes that surely was in his own. “George knows what to do. He’ll be right behind you.”
She nodded her head in understanding and then Karl melted into the snow.
The rope jerked forward and they started to walk. Karl clutched the bridle and spoke softly to his horse. Charles Jr. wrapped his arm around the rope and grasped it tightly with one hand. Sue did the same, but she walked with her head bent so she could watch her feet plowing through the snow. She stumbled a few times then became accustomed to the pace of their progress.
Anne-Marie tried to squirm out of her restraints so Emilie looped her arm around the guide rope and then folded her arms around the child in a comforting embrace. With each step Emilie hummed her favorite hymn, as she offered up silent prayers for a safe journey home.
They had not moved far, or so it seemed, when the motion stopped. Karl walked the length of the rope and checked his family then returned to his position at the head of the line and coaxed the horse forward.
Time lost all meaning. He had no idea how far they had come. He could see nothing ahead or beside him and he began to feel dizzy with disorientation. It took all his concentration to put one foot in front of the other and to remember to keep a hold of the horse. He could no longer feel the tips of his fingers, and his face burned like it rested on a blazing fire. He knew if he was feeling this way, the others did too.
He worried that they had not gone far enough to reach his driveway, and then he worried that they had gone too far. How would he know? He wouldn’t know. He worried that the young boys would fall off the horse – but no – he looked, they were still there. He worried that someone would fall away from the guide rope and become lost and he worried more that if that happened no one would know. He imagined a child’s fear at being left in the snow to freeze to death, and he prayed that if that happened the time would be swift.
The horse whinnied and he relaxed his death grip on the bridle, she faltered a moment and then plowed forward again. He vowed if they ever saw home again, he would treat his old friend to a manger full of hay. He let the horse take the lead and he followed where she led, hoping and praying that those behind followed as well.
Emilie had long since lost the feeling in her toes. With each step she took the numbness crept further up her leg until she wasn’t even aware of their movement. She fell twice, landing face down in the snow with Anne-Marie pinned below her. Each time she fell, the rope around her body tightened painfully but then she felt strong hands grip her under the arms and suddenly she was walking again. She turned to thank George, but he was not there behind her.
“George!” She felt the heat of her tears as they left her eyes and trailed down her cheeks. The warmth was a welcome relief but then the moisture froze to her face and burned where it touched.
Her arms felt leaden, her back ached beyond anything she had ever experienced before. She wondered how far they had walked. Would they find the entrance to the yard, would they even make it that far? Her prayers became a mantra, her thoughts became disjointed and then her body demanded sleep.
She closed her eyes and all was calm. She could hear Wilhelm calling her name and she struggled to find the source of his voice. How happy she was, Wilhelm was near, and oh, she had missed him so . . .
“Wilhelm . . .” Her whispered cry was never heard.