And all through the night her tears fell, and she told herself that they were all for the man whose last thought was for her and her babies; she told herself over and over again that her tears were all for him. After this the autumn began to hurry on, and the snow fell capriciously, days of biting cold giving place to retrospective glances at summer. The last of the vegetables were taken out of the garden and buried in the cellar; and a few tons of coal -- dear almost as diamonds -- were brought out to provide against the severest weather. Ordinarily buffalo chips were the fuel. Catherine was alarmed at the way her wretched little store of money began to vanish. The baby was fretful with its teething, and was really more care than when she nursed it. The days shortened, and it seemed to her that she was forever working by lamp-light The prairies were brown and forbidding, the sky often a mere gray pall. The monotony of the life began to seem terrible. Sometimes her ears ached for a sound. For a time in the summer so many had seemed to need her that she had been happy in spite of her poverty and her loneliness. Now, suddenly, no one wanted her. She could find no source of inspiration. She wondered how she was going to live through the winter, and keep her patience and her good-nature.
"You'll love me," she said, almost fiercely, one night to the children -- "you'll love mamma, no matter how cross and homely she gets, won't you?"
The cold grew day by day. A strong winter was setting in. Catherine took up her study of medicine again, and sat over her books till midnight. It occurred to her that she might fit herself for nursing by spring, and that the children could be put with some one -- she did not dare to think with whom. But this was the only solution she could find to her problem of existence.
November settled down drearily. Few passed the shack. Catherine, who had no one to speak with excepting the children, continually devised amusements for them. They got to living in a world of fantasy, and were never themselves, but always wild Indians, or arctic explorers, or Robinson Crusoes. Kitty and Roderick, young as they were, found a never-ending source of amusement in these little grotesque dreams and dramas. The fund of money was get- ting so low that Catherine was obliged to economize even in the necessities. If it had not been for her two cows, she would hardly have known how to find food for her little ones. But she had a wonderful way of mak- ing things with eggs and milk, and she kept her little table always inviting. The day before Thanksgiving she determined that they should all have a frolic.
"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.