One night in late March a sullen, faraway roar awakened Thurston in his bunk. He turned over and listened, wondering what on earth was the matter. More than anything it sounded like a hurrying freight train only the railroad lay many miles to the north, and trains do not run at large over the prairie. Gene snored peacefully an arm's length away. Outside the snow lay deep on the levels, while in the hollows were great, white drifts that at bedtime had glittered frostily in the moonlight. On the hill-tops the gray wolves howled across coulees to their neighbors, and slinking coyotes yapped foolishly at the moon.
Thurston drew the blanket up over his ears, for the fire had died to a heap of whitening embers and the cold of the cabin made the nose of him tingle. The roar grew louder and nearer-then the cabin shivered and creaked in the suddenness of the blast that struck it. A clod of dirt plumbed down upon his shoulder, bringing with it a shower of finer particles. "Another blizzard!" he groaned, "and the worst we've had yet, by the sound."
The wind shrieked down the chimney and sought the places where the chinking was loose. It howled up the coulees, putting the wolves themselves to shame. Gene flopped over like a newly landed fish, grunted some unintelligible words and slept again.
For an hour Thurston lay and listened to the blast and selfishly thanked heaven it was his turn at the cooking. If the storm kept up like that, he told himself, he was glad he did not have to chop the wood. He lifted the blanket and sniffed tentatively, then cuddled back into cover swearing that a thermometer would register zero at that very moment on his pillow.
The storm came in gusts as the worst blizzards do at times. It made him think of the nursery story about the fifth little pig who built a cabin of rocks, and how the wolf threatened: "I'll huff and I'll puff, and I'll blow your house down!" It was as if he himself were the fifth little pig, and as if the wind were the wolf. The wolf-wind would stop for whole minutes, gather his great lungs full of air and then without warning would "huff and puff" his hardest. But though the cabin was not built of rocks, it was nevertheless a staunch little shelter and sturdily withstood the shocks.
He pitied the poor cattle still fighting famine and frost as only range-bred stock can fight. He pictured them drifting miserably before the fury of the wind or crowding for shelter under some friendly cutback, their tails to the storm, waiting stolidly for the dawn that would bring no relief. Then, with the roar and rattle in his ears, he fell asleep.
In that particular line-camp on the Missouri the cook's duties began with building a fire in the morning. Thurston waked reluctantly, shivered in anticipation under the blankets, gathered together his fortitude and crept out of his bunk. While he was dressing his teeth chattered like castanets in a minstrel show. He lighted the fire hurriedly and stood backed close before it, listening to the rage of the wind. He was growing very tired of the monotony of winter; he could no longer see any beauty in the high-turreted, snow-clad hills, nor the bare, red faces of the cliffs frowning down upon him.
"I don't suppose you could see to the river bank," he mused, "and Gene will certainly tear the third commandment to shreds before he gets the water-hole open."
He went over to the window, meaning to scratch a peep-hole in the frost, just as he had done every day for the past three months; lifted a hand, then stopped bewildered. For instead of frost there was only steam with ridges of ice yet clinging to the sash and dripping water in a tiny rivulet. He wiped the steam hastily away with his palm and looked out.
"Good heavens, Gene!" he shouted in a voice to wake the Seven Sleepers. "The world's gone mad overnight. Are you dead, man? Get up and look out. The whole damn country is running water, and the hills are bare as this floor!"
"Uh-huh!" Gene knuckled his eyes and sat up. "Chinook struck us in the night. Didn't yuh hear it?"
Thurston pulled open the door and stood face to face with the miracle of the West. He had seen Mother Nature in many a changeful mood, but never like this. The wind blew warm from the southwest and carried hints of green things growing and the song of birds; he breathed it gratefully into his lungs and let it riot in his hair. The sky was purplish and soft, with heavy, drifting clouds high-piled like a summer storm. It looked like rain, he thought.
The bare hills were sodden with snow-water, and the drifts in the coulees were dirt-grimed and forbidding. The great river lay, a gray stretch of water-soaked snow over the ice, with little, clear pools reflecting the drab clouds above. A crow flapped lazily across the foreground and perched like a blot of fresh-spilled ink on the top of a dead cottonwood and cawed raucous greeting to the spring.
The wonder of it dazed Thurston and made him do unusual things that morning. All winter he had been puffed with pride over his cooking, but now he scorched the oatmeal, let the coffee boil over, and blackened the bacon, and committed divers other grievous sins against Gene's clamoring appetite. Nor did he feel the shame that he should have felt. He simply could not stay in the cabin five minutes at a time, and for it he had no apology.
After breakfast he left the dishes un-washed upon the table and went out and made merry with nature. He could scarce believe that yesterday he had frosted his left ear while he brought a bucket of water up from the river, and that it had made his lungs ache to breathe the chill air. Now the path to the river was black and dry and steamed with warmth. Across the water cattle were feeding greedily upon the brown grasses that only a few hours before had been locked away under a crust of frozen snow.
"They won't starve now," he exulted, pointing them out to Gene.
"No, you bet not!" Gene answered. "If this don't freeze up on us the wagons 'll be starting in a month or so. I guess we can be thinking about hitting the trail for home pretty soon now. The river'll break up if this keeps going a week. Say, this is out uh sight! It's warmer out uh doors than it is in the house. Darn the old shack, anyway! I'm plumb sick uh the sight of it. It looked all right to me in a blizzard, but now—it's me for the range, m'son." He went off to the stable with long, swinging strides that matched all nature for gladness, singing cheerily:
"So polish up your saddles, oil your slickers and your guns,
For we're hound for Lonesome Prairie when the green grass comes."