The Desert and The Sown by Mary Hallock Foote
XII. The Blood-Wite
A few hours seemed days, after the great disclosure. Both men had recoiled from it and were feeling the strain of the new relation. Three times since their first meeting the elder had adjusted himself quietly to a change in the younger's manner to him. First there had been respectful curiosity in the presence of a new type, combined with the deference due a leader and an expert in strange fields. Then indignant partisanship, pity, and the slight condescension of the nurse. This had hurt the packer, but he took it as he accepted his physical downfall. The last change was hardest to bear; for now the time was short, and, as Paul himself had said, they were in the presence of the final unveiling.
So when Paul made artificial remarks to break the pauses, avoiding his father's eye and giving him neither name nor title, the latter became silent and lay staring at the logs and picking at his hands.
"If I was hunting up a father," he said to himself aloud one day, "I'd try to find a better lookin' one. I wouldn't pa'm off on myself no such old warped stick as I be." The remark seemed a tentative one.
"I had the choice, to take or leave you," Paul responded. "You were an unconscious witness. Why should I have opened the subject at all?"
Both knew that this answer was an evasion. By forcing the tie they had merely marked the want of ease and confidence between them. As "Packer John" Paul could have enjoyed, nay, loved this man; as his father, the sum and finality of his filial dreams, the supplanter of that imaginary husband of his mother's youth, the thing was impossible. And the father knew it and did not resent it in the least, only pitied the boy for his needless struggle. He was curious about him, too. He wanted to understand him and the life he had come out of: his roundabout way of reaching the simplest conclusions; his courage in argument, and his personal shying away from the truth when found. More than all he longed for a little plain talk, the exile's hunger for news from home. It pleased him when Paul, rousing at this deliberate challenge, spoke up with animation, as if he had come to some conclusion in his own mind. It could not be expected he would express it simply. The packer had become used to his oddly elaborate way of putting things.
"If we had food enough and time, we might afford to waste them discussing each other's personal appearance. I propose we talk to some purpose."
"Talking sure burns up the food." The packer waited.
"I wish I knew what my father was doing with himself, all those years when his family were giving him the honors of the dead."
"I warned ye about this pumping out old shafts. You can't tell what you'll find in the bottom. I suppose you know there are things in this world, Boy, a good deal worse than death?"
"Desertion is worse. It is not my father's death I want explained, it is his life, your life, in secret, these twenty years! Can you explain that?"
The packer doubled his bony fist and brought it down on the bunk-side. "Now you talk like a man! I been waiting to hear you say that. Yes, I can answer that question, if you ain't afeard of the answer!"
"I am keeping alive to hear it!" said Paul in a guarded voice.
"You might say you're keeping me alive to tell it. It's a good thing to git off of one's mind; but it's a poor thing to hand over to a son. All I've got to leave ye, though: the truth if you can stand it! Where do you want I should begin?"
"At the night when you came back to One Man Station."
"How'd you know I come back?"
"You were back there in your fever, living over something that happened in that place. There was a wind blowing and the door wouldn't shut. And something had to be lifted,"--the old man's eyes, fixed upon his son, took a look of awful comprehensions,--"something heavy."
"Yes; great Lord, it was heavy! And I been carrying it ever since!" His chest rose as if the weight of that load lay on it still, and his breath expired with a hoarse "haugh." "I got out of the way because it was my load. I didn't want no help from them." He paused and sat picking at his hands. "It's a dreadful ugly story. I'd most as soon live it over again as have to tell it in cold blood. I feel sometimes it can't be!"
"You need not go back beyond that night. I know how my mother was left, and what sort of a man you were forced to leave her with. Was it--the keeper?"
"That's what it was. That was the hard knot in my thread. Nothing wouldn't go past that. Some, when they git things in a tangle, they just reach for the shears an' cut the thread. I wa'n't brought up that way. I was taught to leave the shears alone. So I went on stringin' one year after another. But they wouldn't join on to them that went before. There was the knot."
"It was between you and him--and the law?" said Paul.
"You've got it! I was there alone with it,--witness an' judge an' jury; I worked up my own case. Manslaughter with extenuatin' circumstances, I made it--though he was more beast than man. I give myself the outside penalty,--imprisonment for life. And I been working out my sentence ever since. The Western country wa'n't home to me then--more like a big prison. It's been my prison these twenty-odd years, while your mother was enjoying what belonged to her, and making a splendid job of your education. If I had let things alone I might have finished my time out: but I didn't, and now the rest of it's commuted--for the life of my son!"
"Don't put it that way! I am no lamb of sacrifice. Why, how can we let things alone in this world! Should I have stood off from this secret and never asked my father for his defense?"
"Do you mean to say a boy like you can take hold of this thing and understand it?"
"I can," said Paul. "I could almost tell the story myself."
"Put it up then!" said the packer. The fascination of confession was strong upon him.
"You had been out in the mountains--how long?"
"Two days and three nights, just as I left camp."
"You were crazed with anxiety for us. You came back to find your camp empty, the wife and baby gone. You had reason to distrust the keeper. Not for what he did--for what you knew he meant to do."
"For what he meant and tried to do. I seen it in his eye. The devil that wanted him incited him to play with me and tell me lies about my wife. She scorned the brute and he took his mean revenge. He kep' back her letter, and he says to me, leerin' at me out of his wicked eyes, 'Your livestock seems to be the strayin' kind. The man she went off with give me that,'--he lugged a gold piece out of his clothes and showed me,--'give me that,' he says, 'to keep it quiet.' He kep' it quiet! Half starved and sick's I was, the strength was in me. But vengeance in the hand of a man, it cuts both ways, my son! His bunk had a sharp edge to it like this. He fell acrost it with my weight on top of him and he never raised up again. There wasn't a mark on him. His back was broke. He died slow, his eyes mocking me.
"'You fool,' he says. 'Go look in that coat hangin' on the wall.' I found her letter there inside of one from Granger. He watched me read it and he laughed. 'Now, go tell her you've killed a man!' He knew I didn't come of a killin' breed. There was four hours to think it over. Four hours! I thought hard, I tell you! 'T was six of one and half a dozen of t' other 'twixt him and me, but I worked it back 'n' forth a good long while about her. First, taking her away from her father, an old man whose bread I'd eat. She was like a child of my own raising. I always had felt mean about that. We'd had bad luck from the start,--my luck,--and now disgrace to cap it all. Whether I hid it or told her and stood my trial, I'd never be a free man again. There he lay! And a sin done in secret, it's like a drop of nitric acid: it's going to eat its way out--and in!
"I knew she'd have friends enough, once she was quit of me. That was the case between us. The thing that hurt me most was to put her letter back where I found it, and leave it, there with him. Her little cry to me--and I couldn't come! I read the words over and over, I've said 'em to myself ever since. I've lived on them. But I had to leave the letter there to show I'd never come back. I put it back after he was dead.
"The sins of the parents shall be visited,--when it's in the blood! But I declare to the Almighty, murder wa'n't in my blood! It come on me like a stroke of lightning hits a tree, and I had a clear show to fall alone.
"That's the answer. Maybe I didn't see all sides of it, but there never was no opening to do different, after that night. Now, you've had an education. I should be glad to hear your way of looking at it?"
"I should think you might stand your trial, now, before any judge or jury, in this world or the next," Paul answered.
"There is only one Judge." The packer smiled a beautiful quiet smile that covered a world of meanings. "What a man re'ly wants, if he'd own up it, is a leetle shade of partiality. Maybe that's what we're all going to need, before we git through."
Paul was glad to be saved the necessity of speech, and he felt the swift discernment with which the packer resumed his usual manner. "Got any more of that stuff you call soup? Divide even! I won't be made no baby of."
"We might as well finish it up. It's hardly worth making two bites of a cherry."
"Call this 'cherry'! It's been a good while on the bough. What's it mostly made of?"
"Rind of bacon, snow water,--plenty of water,--and a tablespoonful of rice."
"Good work! Hungry folks can live on what the full bellies throw away."
"Oh, I can save. But there comes a time when you can't live by saving what you haven't got."
"That's right! Well, let's talk, then, before the bacon-rind fades out of us."
The packer's face and voice, his whole manner, showed the joy of a soul that has found relief. Paul was not trying now to behave dutifully; they were man to man once more. The quaint, subdued humor asserted itself, and the narrator's speech flowed on in the homely dialect which expressed the man.
"I stayed out all that winter, workin' towards the coast. One day, along in March, I fetched a charcoal burner's camp, and the critter took me in and nursed my frost-bites and didn't ask no questions, nor I of him. We struck up a trade, my drivin' stock, mostly skin and bone, for a show in his business. He wa'n't gettin' rich at it, that was as plain as the hip bones on my mules. I kep' in the woods, cuttin' timber and tendin' kiln, and he hauled and did the sellin'. Next year he went below to Portland and brought home smallpox with him. It broke out on him on the road. He was a terrible sick man. I buried him, and waited for my turn. It didn't come. I seemed kind o' insured. I've been in lots of trouble since then, but nothing ever touched me till now. I banked on it too strong, though. I sure did! My pardner was just such another lone bird like me. If he had any folks of his own he kep' still about them. So I took his name--whether it was his name there's no knowing. Guess I've took full as good care of it as he would. 'Hagar?' folk would say, sort o' lookin' me over. 'You ain't Jim Hagar.' No, but I was John, and they let it go at that.
"I heard of your mother that summer, from a prospector who came up past my camp. He'd wintered in Mountain Home. He told me my own story, the way they had it down there, and what straits your mother was in. I had scraped up quite a few dollars by then, and was thinking how I'd shove it into a bank like an old debt coming to Adam Bogardus. I was studying how I was going to rig it. There wasn't any one who knew me down there, so I felt safe to ventur' a few inquiries. What I heard was that she'd gone home to her folks and was as well off as anybody need be. That broke me all up at first. I must have had a sneakin' notion that maybe some day I could see my way to go back to her, but that let me out completely. I quit then, and I've stayed quit. The only break I made was showin' up here at the 'leventh hour, thinking I could be some use to my son!"
"It was to be," said Paul. "For years our lives have been shaping towards this meeting. There were a thousand chances against it. Yet here we are!"
"Here we are!" the packer repeated soberly. "But don't think that I lay any of my foolishness on the Almighty! Maybe it was meant my son should close my eyes, but it's too dear at the price. Anybody would say so, I don't care who."
"But aside from the 'price,' is it something to you?"
"More--more than I've got words to say. And yet it grinds me, every breath I take! Not that I wish you'd done different--you couldn't and be a man. I knew it even when I was kickin' against it. Oh, well! It ain't no use to kick. I thought I'd learned something, but I ain't--learned--a thing!"