"By Christmas," she said to Kitty, "the snow may be so bad that I cannot get to town. We'll have our high old time now."
There is no denying that Catherine used slang even in talking to the children. The little pony had been sold long ago, and going to town meant a walk of twelve miles. But Catherine started out early in the morning, and was back by nightfall, not so very much the worse, and carrying in her arms bundles which might have fatigued a bronco.
The next morning she was up early, and was as happy and ridiculously excited over the prospect of the day's merrymaking as if she had been Kitty. Busy as she was, she noticed a peculiar oppression in the air, which intensified as the day went on. The sky seemed to hang but a little way above the rolling stretch of frost-bitten grass. But Kitty laughing over her new doll, Roderick startling the sullen silence with his drum, the smell of the chicken, slaughtered to make a prairie holiday, browning in the oven, drove all apprehensions from Cath- erine's mind. She was a common creature. Such very little things could make her happy. She sang as she worked; and what with the drumming of her boy, and the little exulting shrieks of her baby, the shack was filled with a deafening and exhilarating din.
It was a little past noon, when she became conscious that there was sweeping down on her a gray sheet of snow and ice, and not till then did she realize what those lowering clouds had signified. For one moment she stood half paralyzed. She thought of every- thing, -- of the cattle, of the chance for being buried in this drift, of the stock of provi- sions, of the power of endurance of the children. While she was still thinking, the first ice-needles of the blizzard came pepper- ing the windows. The cattle ran bellowing to the lee side of the house and crouched there, and the chickens scurried for the coop. Catherine seized such blankets and bits of carpet as she could find, and crammed them at windows and doors. Then she piled coal on the fire, and clothed the children in all they had that was warmest, their out-door gar- ments included; and with them close about her, she sat and waited. The wind seemed to push steadily at the walls of the house. The howling became horrible. She could see that the children were crying with fright, but she could not hear them. The air was dusky; the cold, in spite of the fire, intol- erable. In every crevice of the wretched structure the ice and snow made their way. It came through the roof, and began piling up in little pointed strips under the crevices. Catherine put the children all together in one bunk, covered them with all the bed- clothes she had, and then stood before them defiantly, facing the west, from whence the wind was driving. Not suddenly, but by steady pressure, at length the window-sash yielded, and the next moment that whirlwind was in the house, -- a maddening tumult of ice and wind, leaving no room for resistance; a killing cold, against which it was futile to fight. Catherine threw the bedclothes over the heads of the children, and then threw herself across the bunk, gasping and chok- ing for breath. Her body would not have yielded to the suffering yet, so strongly made and sustained was it; but her dismay stifled her. She saw in one horrified moment the frozen forms of her babies, now so pink and pleasant to the sense; and oblivion came to save her from further misery.
She was alive -- just barely alive -- when Gillispie and Henderson got there, three hours later, the very balls of their eyes almost frozen into blindness. But for an instinct stronger than reason they would never have been able to have found their way across that trackless stretch. The chil- dren lying unconscious under their coverings were neither dead nor actually frozen, al- though the men putting their hands on their little hearts could not at first discover the beating. Stiff and suffering as these young fellows were, it was no easy matter to get the window back into place and re-light the fire. They had tied flasks of liquor about their waists; and this beneficent fluid they used with that sense of appreciation which only a pioneer can feel toward whiskey. It was hours before Catherine rewarded them with a gleam of consciousness. Her body had been frozen in many places. Her arms, outstretched over her children and holding the clothes down about them, were rigid. But consciousness came at length, dimly struggling up through her brain; and over her she saw her friends rubbing and rubbing those strong firm arms of hers with snow.
She half raised her head, with a horror of comprehension in her eyes, and listened. A cry answered her, -- a cry of dull pain from the baby. Henderson dropped on his knees beside her.
"They are all safe," he said. "And we will never leave you again. I have been afraid to tell you how I love you. I thought I might offend you. I thought I ought to wait -- you know why. But I will never let you run the risks of this awful life alone again. You must rename the baby. From this day his name is John. And we will have the three Johns again back at the old ranch. It doesn't matter whether you love me or not, Catherine, I am going to take care of you just the same. Gillispie agrees with me."
"Damme, yes," muttered Gillispie, feeling of his hip-pocket for consolation in his old manner.