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Straight across the hills it was five miles from John’s farm to his father’s. But in winter, with the roads impassable, a team had to make a wide detour and skirt the hills, so that from five the distance was more than trebled to seventeen.
“I think I’ll walk,” John said at breakfast to his wife. “The drifts in the hills wouldn’t hold a horse, but they’ll carry me all right. If I leave early I can spend a few hours helping him with his chores, and still be back by suppertime.”
Moodily she went to the window, and thawing a clear place in the frost with her breath, stood looking across the snowswept farmyard to the huddle of stables and sheds. “There was a double wheel around the moon last night,” she countered presently. “You said yourself we could expect a storm. It isn't right to leave me here alone. Surely I’m as important as your father.”
He glanced up uneasily, then drinking off his coffee tried to reassure her. “But there’s nothing to be afraid of - even if it does start to storm. You won’t need to go near the stable. Everything’s fed and watered now to last till night. I’ll be back at the latest by seven or eight.”
She went on blowing against the frosted pane, carefully elongating the clear place until it was oval-shaped and symmetrical. He watched her a moment or two longer, then more insistently repeated, “I say you won’t need to go near the stable.
Everything’s fed and watered, and I’ll see that there’s plenty of wood in. That will be all right, won’t it?”
“Yes - of course - I heard you - “ It was a curiously cold voice now, as if the words were chilled by their contact with the frosted pane. “Plenty to eat - plenty of wood to keep me warm - what more could a woman ask for?”
“But he’s an old man - living there all alone. What is it, Ann? You’re not like yourself this morning.”
She shook her head without turning. “Pay no attention to me. Seven years a farmer’s wife - it’s time I was used to staying alone.”
Slowly the clear place on the glass enlarged: oval, then round, then oval again.
The sun was risen above the frost mists now, so keen and hard a glitter on the snow that instead of warmth its rays seemed shedding cold. One of the two-year-old colts that had cantered away when John turned the horses out for water stood covered with rime at the stable door again, head down and body hunched, each breath a little plume of steam against the frosty air. She shivered, but did not turn. In the clear, bitter light the long white miles of prairie landscape seemed a region strangely alien to life.
Even the distant farmsteads she could see served only to intensify a sense of isolation. Scattered across the face of so vast and bleak a wilderness it was difficult to conceive them as a testimony of human hardihood and endurance. Rather they seemed futile, lost. Rather they seemed to cower before the implacability of snowswept earth and clear pale sun-chilled sky.
And when at last she turned from the window there was a brooding stillness in her face as if she had recognized this mastery of snow and cold. It troubled John. “If you’re really afraid,” he yielded, “I won’t go today. Lately it’s been so cold, that’s all. I just wanted to make sure he’s all right in case we do have a storm.”
“I know - I’m not really afraid.” She was putting in a fire now, and he could no longer see her face. “Pay no attention to me. It’s ten miles there and back, so you’d better get started.”
“You ought to know by now I wouldn’t stay away,” he tried to brighten her. “No matter how it stormed. Twice a week before we were married I never missed - and there were bad blizzards that winter too.”
He was a slow, unambitious man, content with his farm and cattle, naively proud of Ann. He had been bewildered by it once, her caring for a dull-witted fellow like him; then assured at…