The Desert and The Sown by Mary Hallock Foote
XI. A Searching of Hearts
Fine, dry snowflakes were drifting past the upper square of a window set in a wall of logs. The lower half was obscured by a white bulk that shouldered up against the sash in the likeness of a muffled figure stooping to peer in.
Lying in his bunk against the wall, the packer watched this sentinel snowdrift grow and become human and bold and familiar. His deep-lined visage was reduced to its bony structure. The hand was a claw with which he plucked at the ancient fever-crust shredding from his lips: an occupation at once so absorbing and so exhausting that often the hand would drop and the blankets rise upon the arch of the chest in a sigh of retarded respiration. The sigh would be followed by a cough, controlled, as in dread of the shock to a sore and shattered frame. The snow came faster and faster until the dim, wintry pane was a blur. Millions of atoms crossed the watcher's weary vision, whirling, wavering, driven with an aimless persistence, unable to pause or to stop. And the blind white snowdrift climbed, fed, like human circumstance, from disconnected atoms impelled by a common law.
There were sounds in the cabin: wet wood sweating on hot coals; a step that went to and fro. Outside, a snow-weighted bough let go its load and sprang up, scraping against the logs. Some heavy soft thing slid off the roof and dropped with a chug. Then the door, that hung awry like a drooping eyelid, gave a disreputable wink, and the whole front gable of the cabin loomed a giant countenance with a silly forehead and an evil leer. Now it seemed that a hand was hurling snow against the door, as a sower scatters grain,--snow that lay like beach sand on the floor, or melted into a crawling pool--red in the firelight, red as blood!
These and other phantasms had now for an unmeasured time been tenants of the packer's brain, sharing and often overpowering the reality of the human step that went to and fro. To-day the shapes and relations of things were more natural, and the step aroused a querulous curiosity.
"Who's there?" the sick man imagined himself to have said. A croaking sound in his throat, which was all he could do by way of speech, brought the step to his bedside. A young face, lightly bearded, and gaunt almost as his own, bent over him. Large, black eyes rested on his; a hand with womanish nails placed its fingers on his wrist.
"You are better to-day. Your pulse is down. I wouldn't try to talk."
"There is no one outside," Paul answered, following the direction of his patient's eyes. "That? That is only a snowdrift. It grows faster than I can shovel it away."
The packer had forgotten his own question. He dozed off, and presently roused again as suddenly as he had slept. His utterance was clearer, but not his meaning.
"What--you want to fetch me back for?"
"Back?" Paul repeated.
"I was most gone, wa'n't I?"
"Back to life, you mean? You came back of yourself. I hadn't much to do with it."
"What's been the matter--gen'ly speaking?"
"You were hurt, don't you remember? Something like wound fever set in. The altitude is bad for fevers. You have had a pretty close call."
"Been here all the time?"
"Have I been here?--yes."
"With you. How is your chest? Does it hurt you still when you breathe?"
The sick man filled his lungs experimentally. "Something busted inside, I guess," he panted. "'Tain't no killing matter, though."
Nourishment, in a tin cup, warm from the fire was offered him, refused with a gesture, and firmly urged upon him. This necessitated another rest. It was long before he spoke again--out of some remoter train of thought apparently.
"Family all in New York?"
"My family? They were at Bisuka when I left them."
"You don't live West!"
"No. I was born in the West, though. Idaho is my native state."
The patient fell to whimpering suddenly like a hurt child. He drew up the blanket to cover his face. Paul, interpreting this as a signal for more nourishment, brought the sad decoction,--rinds of dried beef cooked with rice in snow water.
"Guess that'll do, thank ye. My tongue feels like an old buckskin glove."
"When I was a little fellow," said the nurse, beguiling the patient while he tucked the spoonfuls down, "I was like you: I wouldn't take what the doctor ordered, and they used to pretend I must take it for the others of the family,--a kind of vicarious milk diet, or gruel, or whatever it was. 'Here's a spoonful for mother, poor mother,' they would say; and of course it couldn't be refused when mother needed it so much. 'And now one for Chrissy'"--
"My sister, Christine. And then I'd take one for 'uncle' and one for each of the servants; and the cupful would go down to the health of the household, and I the dupe of my sympathies! Now you are taking this for me, because it's nicer to be shut up here with a live man than a dead one; and we haven't the conveniences for a first-class funeral."
"You never took a spoonful for 'father,'--eh?"
Paul answered the question with gravity. "No. We never used that name in common."
"Dead was he?"
"I will tell you some time. Better try to sleep now."
Paul returned the saucepan to the fire, after piecing out its contents with water, and retired out of his patient's sight.
Again came a murmur, chiefly unintelligible, from the bunk.
"Did you ask for anything?"
The sick man heaved a worried sigh. "See what a mis'rable presumptuous piece of work!" he muttered, addressing the logs overhead. "But that Clauson--he wa'n't no more fit to guide ye than to go to heaven! Couldn't 'a' done much worse than this, though!"
"He has done worse!" Paul came over to the bunk-side to reason on this matter. "They started back from here, four strong men with all the animals and all the food they needed for a six weeks' trip. We came in in one. If they got through at all, where is the help they were to send us?"
"Help!" The packer roused. "They helped themselves, and pretty frequent. I said to them more than once--they didn't like it any too well: 'We can't drink up here like they do down to the coast. The air is too light. What a man would take with his dinner down there would fit him out with a first-class jag up here, 'leven thousand above the sea!'"
"It's a waste of breath to talk about them--breath burns up food and we haven't much to spare. We rushed into this trouble and we dragged you in after us. We have hurt you a good deal more than you have us."
The sick man groaned. He flung one hand back against the logs, dislodging ancient dust that fell upon his corpse-like forehead. It was carefully wiped away. Helpless tears stole down the rigid face.
"John," said Paul with animation, "your general appearance just now reminds me of those worked-out placer claims we passed in Ruby Gulch, the first day out. The fever and my cooking have ground-sluiced you to the bone."
John smiled faintly. "Don't look very fat yourself. Where'd you git all that baird on your face?"
"We have been here some time, you know--or you don't know; you have been living in places far away from here. I used to envy you sometimes. And other times I didn't."
"You mean I was off my head?"
"At times. But more of the time you were dreaming and talking in your dreams; seeing things out loud by the flash-light of fever."
"Talking, was I? Guess there wa'n't much sense in any of it?" The hazard was a question.
"A kind of sense,--out of focus, distorted. Some of it was opium. Didn't you coax a little of his favorite medicine out of the cook?"
Packer John apologized sheepishly, "I cal'lated I was going to be left. You put it up on me--making out you were off with the rest. That was all right. But I wa'n't going to suffer it out; why should I? A gunshot would have cured me quicker, perhaps. Then some critter might 'a' found me and called it murder. A word like that set going can hang a man. No, I just took a little to deaden the pain."
"The whole discussion was rather nasty, right before the man we were talking about," said Paul. "I wanted to get them off and out of hearing. Then we had a few words."
At intervals during that day and the next, Paul's patient expended his strength in questions, apparently trivial. His eyes, whenever they were open, followed his nurse with a shrinking intelligence. Paul was on his guard.
"What day of the month do you make it out to be?"
"The second of December."
"December!" The packer lay still considering. "Game all gone down?"
"I am not much of a pot-hunter," said Paul. "There may be game, but I can't seem to get it. The snow is pretty deep."
"Wouldn't bear a man on snowshoes?"
"He would go out of sight."
"Snowing a little every day?"
"Right along, quietly, for I don't know how many days! I think the sky is packed with it a mile deep."
"How much grub have we got?"
Paul gave a flattering estimate of their resources. The patient was not deceived.
"Where's it all gone to? You ain't eat anything."
"I've eaten a good deal more than you have."
"I was livin' on fever."
"You can't live on fever any longer. The fever has left you, and you'll go with it if you don't obey your doctor."
"But where's all the stuff gone to?"
"There were four of them, and they allowed for some delay in getting out," Paul explained, with a sickly smile.
"Well, they was hogs! I knew how they'd pan out! That was why"--He wearied of speech and left the point unfinished.
On the evening following, when the two could no longer see each other's faces in the dusk, Paul spoke, controlling his voice:--
"I need not ask you, John, what you think of our chances?"
"I guess they ain't much worth thinking about." The fire hissed and crackled; the soft subsidence of the snow could be heard outside.
"We are 'free among the dead,' how does it go? 'Like unto them that are wounded and lie in the grave.' What we say to each other here will stop here with our breath. Let us put our memories in order for the last reckoning. I think, John, you must, at some time in your life, have known my father, Adam Bogardus? He was lost on the Snake River plains, twenty-one years ago this autumn."
Receiving no answer, the pale young inquisitor went on, choosing his words with intense deliberation as one feeling his way in the dark.
"Most of us believe in some form of communication that we can't explain, between those who are separated in body, in this world, but closely united in thought. Do I make myself clear?"
There was a sound of deep breathing from the bunk; it produced a similar conscious excitement in the speaker. He halted, recovered himself, and continued:--
"After my father's disappearance, my mother had a distinct presentiment--it haunted her for years--that something had happened to him at a place called One Man Station. Did you ever know the place?"
"I might have." The words came huskily.
"Father had left her at this place, and to her knowledge he never came back. But she had this intimation--and suffered from it--that he did come back and was foully dealt with there--wronged in body or mind. The place had most evil associations for her; it was not strange she should have connected it with the great disaster of her life. As you lay talking to yourself in your fever, you took me back on that lost trail that ended, as we thought, in the grave. But we might have been mistaken. Is there anything it would not be safe for you and me to speak of now? Do you know any tie between men that should be closer than the tie between us? Any safer place where a man could lay off the secret burdens of his life and be himself for a little while--before the end answers all? I know you have a secret. I believe that a share of it belongs to me."
"We are better off sometimes if we don't get all that belongs to us," said John gratingly.
"It doesn't seem to be a matter of choice, does it? If you were not meant to tell me--what you have partly told me already--where is there any meaning in our being here at all? Let us have some excuse for this senseless accident. Do you believe much in accidents? How foolish"--Paul sighed--"for you and me to be afraid of each other! Two men who have parted with everything but the privilege of speaking the truth!"
The packer raised himself in his bunk slowly, like one in pain. He looked long at the listless figure crouching by the fire; then he sank back again with a low groan. "What was it you heared me say? Come!"
"I can't give you the exact words. The words were nothing. Haven't you watched the sparks blow up, at night, when the wind goes searching over the ashes of an old camp-fire? It was the fever made you talk, and your words were the sparks that showed where there had been fire once. Perhaps I had no right to track you by your own words when you lay helpless, but I couldn't always leave you. Now I'd like to have my share of that--whatever it was--that hurt you so, at One Man Station."
"You ought to been a lawyer," said the packer, releasing his breath. There was less strain in his voice. It broke with feeling. "You put up a mighty strong case for your way of looking at it. I don't say it's best. There, if you will have it! Sonny--my son! It--it's like startin' a snow-slide."
The sick man broke down and sobbed childishly.
"Take it quietly! Oh, take it quietly!" Paul shivered. "I have known it a long time."
Hours later they were still awake, the packer in his bunk, Paul in his blankets by the winking brands. The pines were moving, and in pauses of the wind they could hear the incessant soft crowding of the snow.
"When they find us here in the spring," said the packer humbly, "it won't matter much which on us was 'Mister' and which was 'John.'"
"Are you thinking of that!" Paul answered with nervous irritation. "I thought you had lived in the woods long enough to have got rid of all that nonsense!"
"I guess there was some of it where you've been living."
"We are done with all that now. Go to sleep,--Father." He pronounced the word conscientiously to punish himself for dreading it. The darkness seemed to ring with it and give it back to him ironically. "Father!" muttered the pines outside, and the snow, listening, let fall the word in elfin whispers. Paul turned over desperately in his blankets. "Father!" he repeated out loud. "Do you believe it? Does it do you any good?"
"I wouldn't distress myself, one way or t' other, if it don't come natural," the packer spoke, out of his corner in the darkness. "Wait till you can feel to say it. The word ain't nothing."
"But do you feel it? Is it any comfort to you at all?"
"I ain't in any hurry to feel it. We'll get there. Don't worry. And s'pose we don't! We're men. Man to man is good enough for me."
Paul spent some wakeful hours after that, trying not to think of Moya, of his mother and Christine. They were of another world,--a world that dies hard at twenty-four. Towards morning he slept, but not without dreams.
He was in the pent-road at Stone Ridge. It was sunset and long shadows striped the lane. A man stood, back towards him, leaning both arms on the stone fence that bounds the lane to the eastward,--a plain farmer figure, gazing down across the misty fields as he might have stood a hundred times in that place at that hour. Paul could not see his face, but something told him who it must be. His heart stood still, for he saw his mother coming up the lane. She carried something in her hand covered with a napkin, and she smiled, walking carefully as if carrying a treat to a sick child. She passed the man at the fence, not appearing to have seen him.
"Won't you speak to him, mother? Won't you speak to"--He could not utter the name. She looked at him bewildered. "Speak? who shall I speak to?" The man at the fence had turned and he watched her, or so Paul imagined. He felt himself choking, faint, with the effort to speak that one word. Too late! The moment passed. The man whom he knew was his father, the solemn, quiet figure, moved away up the road unquestioned. He never looked back. Paul grew dizzy with the lines of shadow; they stretched on and on, they became the ties of a railroad--interminable. He awoke, very faint and tired, with a lost feeling and the sense upon him of some great catastrophe. The old man was sleeping deeply in his bunk, a ray of white sunlight falling on his yellow features. He looked like one who would never wake again. But as Paul gazed at him he smiled, and sighed heavily. His lips formed a name; and all the blood in Paul's body dyed his face crimson. The name was his mother's.