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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Long Shadow - Chapter 18. When The North Wind Blows
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The Long Shadow - Chapter 18. When The North Wind Blows Post by :Althea_Wright Category :Long Stories Author :B. M. Bower Date :July 2011 Read :720

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The Long Shadow - Chapter 18. When The North Wind Blows

CHAPTER XVIII. When the North Wind Blows

November came in with a blizzard; one of those sudden, sweeping whirls of snow, with bitter cold and a wind that drove the fine snow-flour through shack walls and around window casings, and made one look speculatively at the supply of fuel. It was such a storm as brings an aftermath of sheepherders reported missing with their bands scattered and wandering aimlessly or else frozen, a huddled mass, in some washout; such a storm as sends the range cattle drifting, heads down and bodies hunched together, neither knowing nor caring where their trail may end, so they need not face that bitter drive of wind and snow.

It was the first storm of the season, and they told one another it would be the worst. The Double-Crank wagons were on the way in with a bunch of bawling calves and cows when it came, and they were forced to camp hastily in the shelter of a coulee till it was over, and to walk and lead their horses much of the time on guard that they might not freeze in the saddle. But they pulled through it, and they got to the ranch and the corrals with only a few calves left beside the trail to mark their bitter passing. In the first days of cold and calm that came after, the ranch was resonant day and night with that monotonous, indescribable sound, like nothing else on earth unless it be the beating of surf against a rocky shore--the bawling of nine hundred calves penned in corrals, their uproar but the nucleus for the protesting clamor of nine hundred cows circling outside or standing with noses pressed close against the corral rails.

Not one day and night it lasted, nor two. For four days the uproar showed no sign of ever lessening, and on the fifth the eighteen hundred voices were so hoarse that the calves merely whispered their plaint, gave over in disgust and began nosing the scattered piles of hay. The cows, urged by hunger, strayed from the blackened circle around the corrals and went to burrowing in the snow for the ripened grass whereby they must live throughout the winter. They were driven forth to the open range and left there, and the Double-Crank settled down to comparative quiet and what peace they might attain. Half the crew rolled their beds and rode elsewhere to spend the winter, returning, like the meadowlarks, with the first hint of soft skies and green grass.

Jim Bleeker and a fellow they called Spikes moved over to the Bridger place with as many calves as the hay there would feed, and two men were sent down to the line-camp to winter. Two were kept at the Double-Crank Ranch to feed the calves and make themselves generally useful--the quietest, best boys of the lot they were, because they must eat in the house and Billy was thoughtful of the women.

So the Double-Crank settled itself for the long winter and what it might bring of good or ill.

Billy was troubled over more things than one. He could not help seeing that Flora was worrying a great deal over her father, and that the relations between herself and Mama Joy were, to put it mildly and tritely, strained. With the shadow of what sorrow might be theirs, hidden away from them in the frost-prisoned North, there was no dancing to lighten the weeks as they passed, and the women of the range land are not greatly given to "visiting" in winter. The miles between ranches are too long and too cold and uncertain, so that nothing less alluring than a dance may draw them from home. Billy thought it a shame, and that Flora must be terribly lonesome.

It was a long time before he had more than five minutes at a stretch in which to talk privately with her. Then one morning he came in to breakfast and saw that the chair of Mama Joy was empty; and Flora, when he went into the kitchen afterward, told him with almost a relish in her tone that Mrs. Bridger--she called her that, also with a relish--was in bed with toothache.

"Her face is swollen on one side till she couldn't raise a dimple to save her life," she announced, glancing to see that the doors were discreetly closed. "It's such a relief, when you've had to look at them for four years. If _I had dimples," she added, spitefully rattling a handful of knives and forks into the dishpan, "I'd plug the things with beeswax or dough, or anything that I could get my hands on. Heavens! How I hate them!"

"Same here," said Billy, with guilty fervor. It was treason to one of his few principles to speak disparagingly of a woman, but it was in this case a great relief. He had never before seen Flora in just this explosive state, and he had never heard her say "Heavens!" Somehow, it also seemed to him that he had never seen her so wholly lovable. He went up to her, tilted her head back a little, and put a kiss on the place where dimples were not. "That's one uh the reasons why I like yuh so much," he murmured. "Yuh haven't got dimples or yellow hair or blue eyes--thank the Lord! Some uh these days, girlie, I'm going t' pick yuh up and run off with yuh."

Her eyes, as she looked briefly up at him, were a shade less turbulent. "You'd better watch out or _she will be running off with _you_!" she said, and drew gently away from him. "There! That's a horrid thing to say, Billy Boy, but it isn't half as horrid as--And she watches me and wants to know everything we say to each other, and is--" She stopped abruptly and turned to get hot water.

"I know it's tough, girlie." Charming Billy, considering his ignorance of women, showed an instinct for just the sympathy she needed. "I haven't had a chance to speak to yuh, hardly, for months--anything but common remarks made in public. How long does the toothache last as a general thing?" He took down the dish towel from its nail inside the pantry door and prepared to help her. "She's good for to-day, ain't she?"

"Oh, yes--and I suppose it _does hurt, and I ought to be sorry. But I'm not. I'm glad of it. I wish her face would stay that way all winter! She's so fussy about her looks she won't put her nose out of her room till she's pretty again. Oh, Billy Boy, I wish I were a man!"

"Well, _I don't!" Billy disagreed. "If yuh was," he added soberly, "and stayed as pretty as yuh are now, she'd--" But Billy could not bring himself to finish the sentence.

"Do you think it's because you're so pretty that she--"

Flora smiled reluctantly. "If I were a man I could swear and _swear!_"

"Swear anyhow," suggested Billy encouragingly. "I'll show yuh how."

"And father away off in Klondyke," she said irrelevantly, passing over his generous offer, "and--and dead, for all we know! And she doesn't care--at _all! She--"

Sympathy is good, but it has a disagreeable way of bringing all one's troubles to the front rather overwhelmingly. Flora suddenly dropped a plate back into the pan, leaned her face against the wall by the sink and began to cry in a tempestuous manner rather frightened Charming Billy Boyle, who had never before seen a grown woman cry real tears and sob like that.

He did what he could. He put his arms around her and held her close, and patted her hair and called her girlie, and laid his brown cheek against her wet one and told her to never mind and that it would be all right anyway, and that her father was probably picking away in his mine right then and wishing she was there to fry his bacon for him.

"I wish I was, too," she murmured, weaned from her weeping and talking into his coat. "If I'd known how--_she_--really was, I wouldn't ever have stayed. I'd have gone with father."

"And where would _I come in?" he demanded selfishly, and so turned the conversation still farther from her trouble.

The water went stone cold in the dishpan and the fire died in the stove so that the frost spread a film over the thawed centre of the window panes. There is no telling when the dishes would have been washed that day if Mama Joy had not begun to pound energetically upon the floor--with the heel of a shoe, judging from the sound. Even that might not have proved a serious interruption; but Dill put his head in from the dining room and got as far as "That gray horse, William--" before he caught the significance of Flora perched on the knee of "William" and retreated hastily.

So Flora went to see what Mama Joy wanted, and Billy hurried somewhat guiltily out to find what was the matter with the gray horse, and practical affairs once more took control.

After that, Billy considered himself an engaged young man. He went back to his ditty and inquired frequently:

"Can she make a punkin pie, Billy boy, Billy Boy?"

and was very nearly the old, care-free Charming Billy of the line-camp. It is true that Mama Joy recovered disconcertingly that afternoon, and became once more ubiquitous, but Billy felt that nothing could cheat him of his joy, and remained cheerful under difficulties. He could exchange glances of much secret understanding with Flora, and he could snatch a hasty kiss, now and then, and when the chaperonage was too unremitting she could slip into his hands a hurriedly penciled note, filled with important nothings. Which made a bright spot in his life and kept Flora from thinking altogether of her father and fretting for some news of him.

Still, there were other things to worry him and to keep him from forgetting that the law of nature, which he had before defined to his own satisfaction, still governed the game. Storm followed storm with a monotonous regularity that was, to say the least, depressing, though to be sure there had been other winters like this, and not even Billy could claim that Nature was especially malignant.

But with Brown's new fence stretching for miles to the south and east of the open range near home, the drifting cattle brought up against it during the blinding blizzards and huddled there, freezing in the open, or else plodded stolidly along beside it until some washout or coulee too deep for crossing barred their way, so that the huddling and freezing was at best merely postponed. Billy, being quite alive to the exigencies of the matter, rode and rode, and with him rode Dill and the other two men when they had the leisure--which was not often, since the storms made much "shoveling" of hay necessary if they would keep the calves from dying by the dozen. They pushed the cattle away from the fences--to speak figuratively and colloquially--and drove them back to the open range until the next storm or cold north wind came and compelled them to repeat the process.

If Billy had had unlimited opportunity for lovemaking, he would not have had the time, for he spent hours in the saddle every day, unless the storm was too bitter for even him to face. There was the line-camp with which to keep in touch; he must ride often to the Bridger place--or he thought he must--to see how they were getting on. It worried him to see how large the "hospital bunch" was growing, and to see how many dark little mounds dotted the hollows, except when a new-fallen blanket of snow made them white--the carcasses of the calves that had "laid 'em down" already.

"Yuh ain't feeding heavy enough, boys," he told them once, before he quite realized how hard the weather was for stock.

"Yuh better ride around the hill and take a look at the stacks," suggested Jim Bleeker. "We're feeding heavy as we dare, Bill. If we don't get a let-up early we're going to be plumb out uh hay. There ain't been a week all together that the calves could feed away from the sheds. _That's where the trouble lays."

Billy rode the long half-mile up the coulee to where the hay had mostly been stacked, and came back looking sober. "There's no use splitting the bunch and taking some to the Double-Crank," he said. "We need all the hay we've got over there. Shove 'em out on the hills and make 'em feed a little every day that's fit, and bank up them sheds and make 'em warmer. This winter's going to be one of our old steadies, the way she acts so far. It's sure a fright, the way this weather eats up the hay."

It was such incidents as these which weaned him again from his singing and his light-heartedness as the weeks passed coldly toward spring. He did not say very much about it to Dill, because he had a constitutional aversion to piling up agony ahead of him; besides, Dill could see for himself that the loss would be heavy, though just how heavy he hadn't the experience with which to estimate. As March came in with a blizzard and went, a succession of bleak days, into April, Billy knew more than he cared to admit even to himself. He would lie awake at night when the wind and snow raved over the land, and picture the bare open that he knew, with lean, Double-Crank stock drifting tail to the wind. He could fancy them coming up against this fence and that fence, which had not been there a year or two ago, and huddling there, freezing, cut off from the sheltered coulees that would have saved them.

"Damn these nesters and their fences!" He would grit his teeth at his helplessness, and then try to forget it all and think only of Flora.

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