The Claim Jumpers by Stewart Edward White
Chapter IX. The Heavens Opened
Bennington awoke early the next morning, a pleased glow of anticipation warming his heart, and almost before his eyes were opened he had raised himself to leap out of the bunk. Then with a disappointed sigh he sank back. On the roof fell the heavy patter of raindrops.
After a time he arose and pulled aside the curtains of a window. The nearer world was dripping; the farther world was hidden or obscured by long veils of rain, driven in ragged clouds before a west wind. Yesterday the leaves had waved lightly, the undergrowth of shrubs had uplifted in feathery airiness of texture, the ground beneath had been crisp and aromatic with pine needles. Now everything bore a drooping, sodden aspect which spoke rather of decay than of the life of spring. Even the chickens had wisely remained indoors, with the exception of a single bedraggled old rooster, whose melancholy appearance added another shade of gloom to the dismal outlook. The wind twisted his long tail feathers from side to side so energetically that, even as Bennington looked, the poor fowl, perforce, had to scud, careened from one side to the other, like a heavily-laden craft, into the shelter of his coop. The wind, left to its own devices, skittered across cold-looking little pools of water, and tried in vain to induce the soaked leaves of the autumn before to essay an aerial flight.
The rain hit the roof now in heavy gusts as though some one had dashed it from a pail. The wind whistled through a loosened shingle and rattled around an ill-made joint. Within the house itself some slight sounds of preparation for breakfast sounded the clearer against the turmoil outside. And then Bennington became conscious that for some time he had felt another sound underneath all the rest. It was grand and organlike in tone, resembling the roar of surf on a sand beach as much as anything else. He looked out again, and saw that it was the wind in the trees. The same conditions that had before touched the harp murmur of a stiller day now struck out a rush and roar almost awe-inspiring in its volume. Bennington impulsively threw open the window and leaned out.
The great hill back of the camp was so steep that the pines growing on its slope offered to the breeze an almost perpendicular screen of branches. Instead of one, or at most a dozen trees, the wind here passed through a thousand at once. As a consequence, the stir of air that in a level woodland would arouse but a faint whisper, here would pass with a rustling murmur; a murmur would be magnified into a noise as of the mellow falling of waters; and now that the storm had awakened, the hill caught up its cry with a howl so awful and sustained that, as the open window let in the full volume of its blast, Bennington involuntarily drew back. He closed the sash and turned to dress.
After the first disappointment, strange to say, Bennington became quite resigned. He had felt, a little illogically, that this giving of a whole day to the picnic was not quite the thing. His Puritan conscience impressed him with the sacredness of work. He settled down to the fact of the rainstorm with a pleasant recognition of its inevitability, and a resolve to improve his time.
To that end, after breakfast, he drew on a pair of fleece-lined slippers, donned a sweater, occupied two chairs in the well-known fashion, and attacked with energy the pages of Le Conte's Geology. This book, as you very well know, discourses at first with great interest concerning erosions. Among other things it convinces you that a current of water, being doubled in swiftness, can transport a mass sixty-four times as heavy as when it ran half as fast. This astounding proposition is abstrusely proved. As Bennington had resolved not to make his reading mere recreation, he drew diagrams conscientiously until he understood it. Then he passed on to an earnest consideration of why the revolution of the globe and the resistance of continents cause oceanic currents of a particular direction and velocity. Besides this, there was much easier reading concerning alluvial deposits. So interested did he grow that Old Mizzou, coming in, muddy-hoofed and glistening from a round of the stock, found him quite unapproachable on the subject of cribbage. The patriarch then stumped over to Arthur's cabin.
After dinner, Bennington picked up the book again, but found that his brain had reached the limit of spontaneous mental effort. He looked for Old Mizzou and the cribbage game. The miner had gone to visit Arthur again. Bennington wandered about disconsolately.
For a time he drummed idly on the window pane. Then he took out his revolver and tried to practise through the open doorway. The smoke from the discharges hung heavy in the damp air, filling the room in a most disagreeable fashion. Bennington's trips to see the effect of his shots proved to him the fiendish propensity of everything he touched, were it never so lightly, to sprinkle him with cold water. Above all, his skill with the weapon was not great enough as yet to make it much fun. He abandoned pistol shooting and yawned extensively, wishing it were time to go to bed.
In the evening he played cribbage with Old Mizzou. After a time Arthur and his wife came in and they had a dreary game of "cinch," the man speaking but little, the woman not at all. Old Mizzou smoked incessantly on a corncob pipe charged with a peculiarly pungent variety of tobacco, which filled the air with a blue vapour, and penetrated unpleasantly into Bennington's mucous membranes.
The next morning it was still raining.
Bennington became very impatient indeed, but he tackled Le Conte industriously, and did well enough until he tried to get it into his head why various things happen to glaciers. Then viscosity, the lines of swiftest motion, relegation, and directions of pressure came forth from the printed pages and mocked him. He arose in his might and went forth into the open air.
Before going out he had put on his canvas shooting coat and a pair of hobnailed leather hunting boots, laced for a little distance at the front and sides. He visited the horses, standing disconsolate under an open shed in the corral; he slopped, with constantly accruing masses of sticky earth at his feet, to the chicken coop, into which he cast an eye; he even took the kitchen pails and tramped down to the spring and back. In the gulch he did not see or hear a living thing. A newly-born and dirty little stream was trickling destructively through all manner of shivering grasses and flowers. The water from Bennington's sleeves ran down over the harsh canvas cuffs and turned his hands purple with the cold. He returned to the cabin and changed his clothes.
The short walk had refreshed him, but it had spurred his impatience. Outside, the world seemed to have changed. His experience with the Hills, up to now, had always been in one phase of their beauty--that of clear, bright sunshine and soft skies. Now it was as a different country. He could not get rid of the feeling, foolish as it was, that it was in reality different; and that the whole episode of the girl and the rock was as a vision which had passed. It grew indistinct in the presence of this iron reality of cold and wet. He could not assure himself he had not imagined it all. Thus, belated, he came to thinking of her again, and having now nothing else to do, he fell into daydreams that had no other effect than to reveal to him the impatience which had been, from the first, the real cause of his restlessness under the temporary confinement. Now the impatience grew in intensity. He resolved that if the morrow did not end the storm, he would tramp down the gulch to make a call. All this time Aliris lay quite untouched.
The next day dawned darker than ever. After breakfast Old Mizzou, as usual, went out to feed the horses, and Bennington, through sheer idleness, accompanied him. They distributed the oats and hay, and then stood, sheltered from the direct rain, conversing idly.
Suddenly the wind died and the rain ceased. In the place of the gloom succeeded a strange sulphur-yellow glare which lay on the spirit with almost physical oppression. Old Mizzou shouted something, and scrambled excitedly to the house. Bennington looked about him bewildered.
Over back of the hill, dimly discernible through the trees, loomed the black irregular shape of a cloud, in dismal contrast to the yellow glare which now filled all the sky. The horses, frightened, crowded up close to Bennington, trying to push their noses over his shoulder. A number of jays and finches rushed down through the woods and darted rapidly, each with its peculiar flight, toward a clump of trees and bushes standing on a ridge across the valley.
From the cabin Old Mizzou was shouting to him. He turned to follow the old man. Back of him something vast and awful roared out, and then all at once he felt himself struggling with a rush of waters. He was jammed violently against the posts of the corral. There he worked to his feet.
The whole side of the hill was one vast spread of shallow tossing water, as though a lake had been let fall on the summit of the ridge. The smaller bushes were uprooted and swept along, but the trees and saplings held their own.
In a moment the stones and ridgelets began to show. It was over. Not a drop of rain had fallen.
Bennington climbed the corral fence and walked slowly to the house. The blacksmith shop was filled to the window, and Arthur's cabin was not much better. He entered the kitchen. The floor there was some two inches submerged, but the water was slowly escaping through the down-hill door by which Bennington had come in. Across the dining-room door Mrs. Arthur had laid a folded rug. In front of the barrier stood the lady herself, vigorously sweeping back the threatening water from her only glorious apartment.
Bennington took the broom from her and swept until the cessation of the flood made it no longer necessary. Mrs. Arthur commenced to mop the floor. The young man stepped outside. There he was joined a moment later by the other two.
They offered no explanation of their whereabouts during the trouble, but Bennington surmised shrewdly that they had hunted a dry place.
"Glory!" cried Old Mizzou. "Lucky she misses us!"
"What was it? Where'd it come from?" inquired Bennington, shaking the surface drops from his shoulders. He was wet through.
"Cloud-burst," replied the miner. "She hit up th' ridge a ways. If she'd ever burst yere, sonny, ye'd never know what drownded ye. Look at that gulch!"
The water had now drained from the hill entirely. It could be seen that most of the surface earth had been washed away, leaving the skeleton of the mountain bare. Some of the more slightly rooted trees had fallen, or clung precariously to the earth with bony fingers. But the gulch itself was terrible. The mountain laurel, the elders, the sarvis bushes, the wild roses which, a few days before, had been fragrant and beautiful with blossom and leaf and musical with birds, had disappeared. In their stead rolled an angry brown flood whirling in almost unbroken surface from bank to bank. Several oaks, submerged to their branches, raised their arms helplessly. As Bennington looked, one of these bent slowly and sank from sight. A moment later it shot with great suddenness half its length into the air, was seized by the eager waters, and whisked away as lightly as though it had been a tree of straw. Dark objects began to come down with the stream. They seemed to be trying to preserve a semblance of dignity in their stately bobbing up and down, but apparently found the attempt difficult. The roar was almost deafening, but even above it a strangely deliberate grinding noise was audible. Old Mizzou said it was the grating of boulders as they were rolled along the bed of the stream. The yellow glow had disappeared from the air, and the gloom of rain had taken its place.
A fine mist began to fall. Bennington for the first time realized he was wet and shivering, and so he turned inside to change his clothes.
"It'll all be over in a few hours," remarked Arthur. "I reckon them Spanish Gulch people'll wish they lived up-stream."
Bennington paused at the doorway.
"That's so," he commented. "How about Spanish Gulch? Will it all be drowned out?"
"No, I reckon not," replied Arthur. "They'll get wet down a lot, and have wet blankets to sleep in to-night, that's all. You see the gulch spraddles out down there, an' then too all this timber'll jam down this gulch a-ways. That'll back up th' water some, and so she won't come all of a rush."
"I see," said Bennington.
The afternoon was well enough occupied in repairing to some extent the ravages of the brief storm. A length of the corral had succumbed to the flood, many valuable tools in the blacksmith shop were in danger of rust from the dampness, and Arthur and his wife had been completely washed out. All three men worked hard setting things to rights. The twilight caught them before their work was done.
Bennington found himself too weary to attempt an unknown, debris-covered road by dark. He played cribbage with Old Mizzou and won.
About half past nine he pushed back his chair and went outside. The stars had come out by the thousand, and a solitary cricket, which had in some way escaped the deluge, was chirping in the middle distance. With a sudden uplift of the heart he realized that he would see "her" on the morrow. He learned that no matter how philosophically we may have borne a separation, the prospect of its near end shows us how strong the repression has been; the lifting of the bonds makes evident how much they have galled.