JOHN H. REGAN
Bonds that are strongest when slackened, the forbidden fruit which crumbles to ashes when plucked — such is the theme of this unusual piece of fiction — one of MacLean's “Canadian realism” series.
THE horse tied to the sleigh whinnied sharply, protesting against his loneliness.
Presently, from below, came an answering whinny. From among the trees near the frozen creek appeared a man and horse. The laboring animal made hard work of climbing the hill, although the two logs he drew were not very heavy as logs go. Snow flew from his hoofs, and his wide, red nostrils, as he breasted the slope, sent forth two round puffs of steam into the icy air.
With the easing of the strain, the chain sank into the snow and the horse rested with heaving sides. Pennock took off his cap and wiped the perspiration from his forehead with the back of his mittened hand.
“One too many!” he commented aloud. “One log is enough for a pull of that kind.” He patted the flank of his winded horse. “Didn’t think you was going to make it, did you?” he asked, as if the animal understood. The sinking sun caught his eye and reminded him of the hour. With a quick movement, he replaced his cap; bent and freed the chain from the logs. “Get your wind as you go back,” he said, continuing his conversation with the horse. “It’ll be dark in another half hour.”
By the time the load was gathered Pennock’s clothing was soaked in perspiration, and frost glistened on the back of his woollen sweater. “Going to be good and cold before I get back,” he thought, as he pulled on his heavy mackinaw coat. The temperature was almost down to zero, and the sun had disappeared.
At a word the heavy horses laid into their collars and the loaded sleigh began to move along the deep, parallel ruts in the otherwise unbroken surface of the snow. Now and again the leading runners dipped into a depression and snow piled up before the roller that coupled them together. The sleigh cut almost to the grass; rolled and tipped crazily, but Pennock stood upright, balancing himself with unconscious grace on the icy logs.
The chill from his damp clothes began to strike into him. His hands felt as if they were encased in ice. “Curse these wet mitts!” he muttered. They were hardening as the moisture in them froze. A moment afterward he exclaimed: “A rotten life!”
The cold increased steadily. The horses rubbed their nostrils against the neck-yolk to free them of ice. Pennock held the lines as rigid as two taut wires, helping the animals to keep their feet. Over them rose a cloud of vapor, and their bodies whitened as the frost gathered on their coats.
“A rotten life!”
Presently a change in the note of the runners told Pennock that he had reached the beaten trail. The sleigh rode more steadily, with less protesting of straining
fabrics. The sky had become overcast and the stars had disappeared. Pennock tied the lines to the end of a log and dropped from the rear of the load.
He had been a fool to stick so long, he thought. Two year . Not one good time! He was through! Fed up! As he followed the sleigh the words, “Fed up” accommodated themselves to the rhythm of the thud of the horses’ hoofs. “Fed up—fed up—fed up!”
The team came to a stop outside the barn. Pennock unhitched and went to his shack for a lantern, by the aid of which he fed the horses and the rest of the stock and milked the cow. When he returned to the shack he banged the lantern upon the table so violently that the flame leaped high and threateningly in the glass.
He made a fire in the heater, lit the cook-stove and fried meat and potatoes for his supper. While he ate he planned his course of action. The stock and implements would bring him a little ready cash, and some day the farm would be sold. He would be free! His spirits swung upward at the thought, as if freed from shackles.
The following afternoon he swaggered down the one, almost deserted, street of the town as if he owned it. His heels struck loudly on the boards of the sidewalk; his head was high and his eyes were glowing.
Prohibition was not yet, and there were two saloons in the town. Pennock swung open the door of the first he came to with a clang. The bar was empty. The bartender called to him, but he would not go in; it was not drink he needed, but men.
On his way to the second saloon he passed a candy store. Frost had coated the windows with a witchery of pattern: only a narrow strip of glass at the top of the pane was clear. Through this Pennock caught a momentary glimpse of the interior—two men coming toward the door; a girl with glasses on a tray. He heard a door open behind him and then the loud and raucous voices of the two men.
"Those guv’s hase had more than pop somewhere,” was Pennock’s mental comment. The next moment, the girl’s half smothered cry came to him. Turning, he raced back.
One of the men stood rocking with laughter on the sidewalk. His companion had re-entered the store and aught the girl in his arms. Her body was bent back as far as possible ami her eyes were alight with terror.
Look out!” yelled Pennock, springing through the open door. His heavy fist shot out and landed squarely on the other’s jaw. The force of the blow sent the man sprawling, half dazed for the moment, full length amid the already overturned chairs and tables. The moment she felt herself free, the girl ran to the back of the counter, where she stood trembling and speechless.
Aw, don’t be scared,” said Pennock. “’Tain’t nothing.”
He saw her eyes turn from him in renewed alarm, and -wung himself around just in time to meet the charge of the second man. For a moment he was carried backward, the air appeared to be full of flailing arms and flying fists, then the man whom Pennock had first knocked down, watching his opportunity, swung a chair with all his power against Pennock’s legs and swept him off his feet.
Pennock’s body shot forward and a wave of paralyzing pain darted through him; the man who had hurled the •hair came to his companion's assistance and between ■hem Pennock was smothered beneath a hail of blows. In a trance he heard a cry from the girl, strident and shrill. Then he was sudienly freed; there was a rush of feet, and ■he door banged to.
Pennock sat us, wondering what had ■tappened. The girl was leaning across ■he counter, a revolver wavering in her hand. He stared at the menacing ring if the muzzle as it flickered over him.
That might go off,” he remarked.
The girl looked at the revolver as if -he saw it for the first time, then dropped t upon the counter with a gesture of repugnance. “It isn’t loaded,” she said quietly.
" ’Tain't loaded!” Pennock exclaimed.
He scrambled to his feet and leaned against the counter weakly. “That’s a good one on them,” he panted.
The girl stared at him wonderingly.
Shyness descended upon Pennock like a blanket. He had no idea what to say to -uch a girl as this.
"I’m kind of sorry for the mix-up,” he stammered.
She looked at him as if she thought he had taken leave of his senses. “It was good of you to come,” she said at
" ’Tain't nothing,” replied Pennock, eager to escape from the embarrassment of her thanks by going. He picked up his cap and placing it upon his head, would have left, but for an exclamation from -he girl. “You’re hurt!” she exclaimed.
"There's blood on your hand!”
Pennock raised the injured member and looked at it. He had been unaware of his injury till then. “’Tain’t nothing,” he growled, more embarrassed still.
“But it’s bleeding,” she insisted.
"Let me see. I’ll tie it up for you.”
DENNOCK shuffled uneasily while he waited for her to 1 find some linen. It seemed to him to be a lot of fuss to make over a very minor hurt. As the girl stood bandaging his hand her head was just below the level of his eyes, and there wa3 a subtle fragrance from her hair.
"There, that will keep the dirt out of it.”
"Thanks.” He avoided her eyes. “ ’Tain’t nothing!”
“I was so scared when that man got hold of me,” she said. “It was fine of you to come.”
“Aw, ’tain’t nothing,” repeated Pennock, who could think of nothing else to say. “Those guys outted me all right.”
The girl’s eyes flamed. “The brutes! I thought they’d kill you.”
Her agitation seemed extreme to Pennock. “I’ll go hunt ' ’em up,” he said, as if making a comforting and satisfactory announcement. “They won’t be far. I guess maybe in one of the saloons.”
"Hunt them up!” she repeated, in surprise. “Why?”
"I got to settle with ’em,” Pennock answered simply, surprised that she did not see the necessity of doing that. "They played me a mangy trick. I got to get level.”
“No!" she cried, in dismay. “Goodness knows what those men will do!”
'1 got to get level,” he repeated doggedly, embarrassed that she should be anxious for him, but convinced none the less that he was in the right.
The disarray of the store gave the girl an inspiration. "What a wreck!" she exclaimed, glancing around. “All that mess to straighten up—and someone might come in!” She grasped the nearest table and made a great business of lifting it. "Whatever would people think?”
"Maybe, perhaps, 1 could help,” suggested Pennock.
"Well, you could,” she agreed. “It’s very kind of you.”
The store was soon neat again, and some of Pennock’s shyness having vanished, he presently found himself telling her of his farm and that he was going to put it up for sale.
"Sell it!” she exclaimed. At her tone and look, Pennock was suddenly surprised at himself for having thought of such a thing. "It ain’t no good to me,” he defended himself. "I'm fed up!”
"If 1 had a farm 1 wouldn’t sell it.” Her manner of declaring this made Pennock feel that he was little better than a criminal.
"But you ain’t tried it. You ain’t lived out there alone. The camps are better! There’s the boys, and lots of fun in ’em when the day’s work’s done! And you ain’t tied down. You light out when you’re fed up!”
"1 wouldn’t like the camps,” she declared. “I’d want a place of my own. One that. I could call home. And I’d never, never sell it!”
PENNOCK spent most of the night dreaming of the girl in the candy store, and awoke with a strong desire to see her again, a desire he had not sufficient courage to gratify.
He spent the morning in a Chinese restaurant situated
directly opposite the candy store, but did not see the girl. “What does she care?” he thought gloomily. “Guess she’s forgotten all about me by this time.”
Toward noon Pennock harnessed his horses. He drove by the confectioners, although it lay in the opposite direction from that he should have taken. He still had a lingering hope of Seeing the girl who had caused him so restless a night. Luck was with him. She stood at the open door speaking to two little girls. He brought his team to a stop and wondered what had happened to his throat. A lump rose up in it and threatened to choke
him. The children ran away and the girl stood looking at him. Pennock thought of his cap and pulled it off hastily.
“Did you put your farm up for sale?” she asked.
“Nope!” he ejaculated.
“I’m glad of that. I’m sure you’d be sorry. Are you going home now?”
“Yep,” in a spasmodic jerk.
“You’ll have to call in when you come to town.”
“I will,” he said. “You bet your life!”
“Good-bye, then. I won’t keep you. Your ears will get cold without your cap.”
This couldn’t be the end. He hadn’t said anything! Yet he heard himself saying: “Good-bye,” and she was closing the door. Realizing then that this was indeed the end, he clucked to his team and thought all the way home of the things he should have said.
Pennock did call at the candy store, more and more frequently. At the end of three months Marion and he were married.
T INFO RUN ATELY, however, there is no alchemy in ^ marriage to eradicate the prints life has stamped in a man. When the glamor of his marriage wore off, Pennock found himself dreaming more and more of the old days in the camps. One evening in July, three years after his marriage, he stood on the sidewalk of the own watching the men from the grading camps as they filed by. The railroad was beyond the town now. In addition to the hilarious men back from the camps with money to burn, were those who had drifted into the town with the hope of obtaining work. Riotous gangs strode from one saloon to the other; a heterogeneous crowd; but clothed in the ubiquitous uniform of work-stained overalls. As they marched, they sang snatches of songs, roaring them out to the full capacity of their lungs. The whooping fools fascinated Pennock; he hungered to lock arms and to go whooping with them. He was so engrossed with his thoughts that he did not notice a man come up beside him and stare at him intently.
“If it ain’t Ed!” the newcomer exclaimed.
Pennock turned sharply. There was a swift change in his expression. “Pete!” he cried. “Why, Pete! Where did you drift from?”
Instead of answering, Pete took a line of his own. “I didn’t think it was you. You was standing so quiet I thought it couldn’t be you—and it was, after all. What’s happened? Hitting it out for the grade?”
Pete’s mention of the grade made Pennock thoughtful again. “Nope,” he replied. “No grade for me. I got all the work I want.”
Pete’s curiosity was instantly aroused. His mind, as usual with men of his type, dwelt constantly on the possibility of some day “striking it rich.”
“What you struck?” he asked eagerly, “anything good?”
Pennock’s answer was laconic. “I've got a woman. I’m married!”
Pete unconsciously stepped back a pace in his surprise. “Hell!” he exclaimed.
“She’s all right,” Pennock said loyally. ‘Tm glad I got her.”
Pete said: “Sure,” but a silence fell between them.
“How about a snort?” inquired Pete at last.
“What are we going to do, then?” Pete inquired, almost plaintively.
Pennock changed the subject. “What you been doing?”
“Mostly up North. Blew into Vancouver with quite a stake. Ran into a lively bunch there and lost the roll. Then I got transportation off a lousy agent, and here I am. But I'll only stay around here till freeze-up. Then I'm hitting South. I hear there's quite a bit doing in the oil fields down in Texas. Sorrie guys I met heard of a bunch that made a clean-up down there. Got a lot of leases for nothing and sold ’em for about a million."
“A million!” exclaimed Pennock. He had a swift vision of himself driftingJsouth and taking a gamble in oil.
“I wish you was coming.”
“Aw, quit it!" growled Pennock. “I ain't a bum, now.''
Again the silence. There was only one way they could return to the old footing, and Pennock had refused to take it. Perhaps he was broke? Pete felt relieved that he had thought of that. “I got a coupla dollars,” he said.
Pennock knew what the offer meant; that Pete was ready to go out to work without a nickel in his pockets.
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“I got more money than I ever had,” he returned. He had no idea how to make Fete understand that he appreciated his olfer. “You’d better keep your two bones,” he added.
“You never mind the two bones!” cried Pete. “Ain’t you man enough to take one drink?”
“It ain’t that,” Pennock said, after a pause. He could understand Pete’sleelings and decided to take one drink. “I’ll go you one,” he said at last, “i’ll pay lor it.”
“ ï'ou will!” cried Fete scorniully.
The bar was lilled with men, and the air was heavy with tobacco smoke. A bottle was shoved toward them. They filled their glasses and raised them.
They drained the glasses at one gulp, smacked their lips, and stood looking at each other.
The bartender held the bottle in his hand. “Another?” he inquired.
Pennock could feel Pete’s eyes boring into him. “Nope,” he answered, without meeting his companion’s eyes. “Me for the hay!” He had a curious feeling of aloofness from the men surrounding him. What did he want with this life now?
LEANING against the bar, talking to J a veritable gorilla of a man, Pennock saw a neighbor of his. This neighbor was an Old-Country remittance man engaged in his monthly carousal. Pennock stopped for a moment and caught him by the arm. “Better hit the hay with me, Bill, old boy,” he said.
Bill straightened himself with difficulty. He had already drunk too deeply, and his eyes were bleary. The glass in his hand tilted crazily, so that its contents slopped over as he swayed slowly to and fro on his feet. He did not recognize Pennock at once.
. “A familiar voice,” he said, “and therefore most welcome. But the message is distasteful. Go to! The night is ÿet young, the companionship delightful. Push off!”
“Better beat it, Bill, while the old props’ll carry you,” insisted Pennock.
Bill’s companion eyed Pennock and Pete with disfavor. That a source of free drinks should be so suddenly removed just when his own funds were exhausted did not meet with his approval. But being a man of slow wit and slower speech, he, as yet, found nothing to say.
By this time Bill had recognized Pennock. With punctilious yet ridiculous politeness, he said: “Pardon me. I didn’t recognize you. Old bean’s a trifle hazy. Meet my friend, the champion spikedriver of the C.N.R.! Should have introduced you before. Apologize.”
Bill’s acquaintance swelled under the weight of his title. He was a huge man
with a three days’ growth of hair on his face and a mat of it showing where the collar of his shirt gaped open. Under his shaggy brows his eyes were as vicious as a rat’s. His fist, where it lay on the counter, was like a mallet.
Towering above Bill’s slight figure, the champion spike-driver straightened himself and struck his chest. “That’s me,” he boomed. “Likewise the best rough-house scrapper on the grade! And what the devil are you two buttin’ in here for? This guy’ll go home when he’s good and ready and not before!”
Pete, Pennock’s friend, objected to the spike-driver’s tone. He was in a mood to be easily offended; he felt a grievance against life; things were topsy-turvy and out of joint.
“That so?” he inquired of the spikedriver in a quiet, conversational tone. “Maybe if I was to flatten the front of your face we wouldn’t have to ask your
At first, the spike-driver’s face expressed blank surprise only. Then his lips drew back in a snarl and his muscle tensed for a leap. The drunken remittance man stepped between the two unsteadily and laid a detaining hand on his companion’s arm. “Our guests,” he reminded him. “Let’s have a drink.”
For a moment the brute glared at Bill, then, with a swift motion, he put the heel of his hand beneath Bill’s chin and snapped his head back, flinging his body full length upon the filth of the floor.
FOR an instant Pennock stared at the motionless form. Rage swept through him like a flame; passed, and left him cold. “I’ll smash him!” he thought. Before Pete could move, Pennock’s fist raked across the spike-driver’s face, the iron knuckles ripping like teeth. With the first blow dealt, a kind of calm settled upon Pennock. “Fight! Damn you! Fight!” he gritted between his clenched teeth.
Toward the end, Pennock remembered only that his gorilla-like opponent was gnawing at his ear while his own fingers gripped the other’s throat. He had a dim recollection of a bottle poised above his head; then of seeing it descending. There was a flash before his eyes followed by abysmal darkness.
When he recovered consciousness he was lying in the lane at the back of the saloon. His head ached, his lips were cut, and his ear felt like a lump of raw meat. He sat up and peered through the surrounding gloom. There was not a soul to be seen; no lights were visible in the adjoining buildings. “Wonder how long I’ve been here?” he thought, and as there was no answer, commented: “Some
bunch!” Although it was July, he shivered with the cold. The pain in his body was so great that he flexed his limbs in an endeavor to locate possible broken bones. “Guess I got kicked some,” he decided.
LTnsteadily he got upon his feet. He could hardly stand, and supported himself against an adjacent building. Gradually strength returned to his limbs. He wondered what had happened to Pete and Bill. “Poor old Bill,” he thought. “That was a mangy way to serve him!” He began to walk, and staggered for a few moments like a drunken man. There were no lights at the back of the saloon, and he wondered dully where he could find his late antagonist. Crossing a vacant lot to the sidewalk, Pennock followed it till he came to the front of the saloon, which was closed. He looked up and down the street helplessly. It seemed to him that he was being cheated of his just due. There was no way now of finding the champion spike-driver. “Perhaps I’ll meet up with him some time,” he thought philosophically. “I’ll bust him when I do.”
Pennock went to the livery-barn and retired for the night to a manger in an empty stall.
THE next morning as he went up the path to the house after putting his team away, he tried to frame his lips to whistle; but they were so swollen that the attempt proved abortive. Marion was at the stove when he entered. She had seen him arrive and was busily engaged in preparing breakfast. Without looking up from her frying, she observed: “You were a long time putting the team away. What kept you?”
He hung his hat behind the door, and turned to the bowl to wash his hands. “Nothing,” he replied, nervously. “I see you’ve done all the chores. I wish you
hadn’t. I don’t like you to do all that work.”
He felt that she had turned and was looking in his direction. “Aren’t you glad?” she asked.
“I’m glad enough,” he answered, spluttering as he sluiced his face. “I’m glad enough. It ain’t that. You do too much.” He picked up the towel and turned.
Marion gripped the edge of the table at her back for support. Her face paled and her lips parted, but no words came. Fear and horror and dread came into her eyes. Pennock tried to smile, but realized that the attempt made him more ghastly still.
“It ain’t nothing,” he muttered. “I ain’t hurt. I feel fine.”
She found her voice at last. Her words were in the form of an accusation but were really a question: “You were drunk?”
He shook his head emphatically. “No,”, he declared, glad that here at least he had nothing to be ashamed of. “I was just as sober as I am now. ’Tain’t nothing. Just a bit of a scrap.” He could not meet her round, horror-filled eyes. Reaching out he took one of her hands and turned it awkwardly over and over. “I ain’t been doing nothing to carry on over. Just accident,” he mumbled.
“I met a feller I know and was talking to him and another feller did him a mangy trick and I walloped him. And then he got me by the ear, and while we were a-wrestling, another guy hit me over the head with a bottle and put me out, and that’s all there is to it.”
He was aware of a change in Marion. It was not the fact that he had been fighting that had alarmed her so—but the fear that he had been drunk.
Then she saw his various injuries. “The beasts!” she exclaimed.
Pennock felt that she was not fair. “I guess the other guy got something too,” he objected. “I beteha I mussed him up some. What I got ain’t nothing. I feel fine!”
Twice he had said that. Marion retreated from him and sank into a chair.
“You feel fine, do you?” she asked.
“Yep. 'Dandy! I could eat half a steer.”
“I’m glad you feel like that,” she continued, ironically. “I suppose you feel much better than usual. Contented?”
“That’s it,” he said, looking up in surprise. “How’d you know?”
Her eyes kindled. “How do I know!” she repeated, bitterly. “How do I know! D’you think I’m blind? D’you think I don’t know that you’re always a-hankering after that old life of yours you're always talking about? After the camps? It’s too quiet for you here with me, isn’t it?” she asked. “Too quiet! You want to go a-wandering, like you’ve done ever since you was a little boy!” She swung in her chair and allowed her head to fall forward upon her arms among the plates she had spread for the meal. Her shoulders shook convulsively. “Too quiet for you here with me,” she said again. “You want to go a-wandering. You feel fine because you’ve been among a bunch of men'—been fighting. For a time you feel satisfied, but you’ll want to go again.”
PENNOCK sat like a man in a trance.
The secret was out now\ It did not occur to him to deny the truth of what she said.
“Aw, Mary,” he cried. “Don’t cut up so. Thoughts ain’t nothing.” He twisted and wriggled uncomfortably. “I’ll promise you I won’t think them thoughts again,” he pleaded soothingly.
He saw her head move in negation. “ ’Tain’t no use,” she said. “They’ll come. You can’t help yourself.”
He went behind her and put his heavy wrork-deformed hands upon her shoulders. “Aw, Mary,” he said again. “Don’t cut up so about nothing. I’m through with that bunch. All the way out I was thinking how lucky I was to have you, and those poor stiffs with nobody to give a hang for ’em, and me knowing you’d be thinking about me.”
The convulsive jerking of her shoulders lessened as hope struggled in her mind against conviction. “You feel that way, now,” she said. “You're satisfied for a time.”
“I’m through Mary,” he said, thoroughly believing it himself. “I'm through! No more of that kind of a life for me!” Pennock meant what he said, but found in the course of time that the old dreams and longings would crowd back Continued on page 54
Continued from page 52 upon him, especially when he was tired. One fall evening after supper, in the short interval of rest that comes between the last meal and the milking and feeding for the night, he sat in his chair and wondered where Pete was and what he was doing.
Suddenly he felt that Marion was watching him. She was sitting by the open door and the level rays from the setting sun fell upon her profile. She turned her eyes away when he looked up. . .
“What are you thinking?” he inquired anxiously.
She left her chair and going behind her husband, put her hands upon his shoulders. He felt her cheek upon his hair.
“It’s nice here, isn’t it?” she asked. “You bet!” Then impulsively and because at the moment what he said was true: “I wouldn’t trade with any-
“Wouldn’t you?” dubiously. “I’m glad of that.”
He took her hand. “Don’t you be scared, Mary,” he said. “There ain’t a thing to be scared of.”
Her cheek pressed more tightly against his head. “I’m not scared,” she murmured slowly.
EARLY in December Pennock was taken ill with influenza, though both he and Marion called it a cold. He became so weak that sometimes he was glad to lie on a couch that Marion arranged for him in the kitchen. He would not have gone to bed, but he could use a couch and still persuade himself that he was up and about.
January came. Pennock thought that his cold was getting better. He ached less; but was still weak. “Tired,” he described it.
There had been a week of warmer weather. Now, as if to make up for it, the cold was intense. The bottom of the door was edged with a thick white rime; frost glittered on the nails of the casing and coated the hinges. Occasionally the house cracked loudly. Marion rubbed the ice from a spot on the window and looked out.
The blood-red upper rim of the rising sun appeared just above the horizon. The thaw of the week before had coated the snow with a glittering icy crust. A coyote swung over the snow in an effortless lope. He squatted upon his haunches and pointing his sharp muzzle upward, howled dismally. The sound did not reach Marion at once. She saw the up-pointing muzzle, and waited for the sound to come to her with a vague fear—as if it were a blow that she would ward if she could. She turned away from the window with a shudder.
“What was it?” Pennock asked, astonished at her appearance. He looked out of the window. “Just a coyote a-yelling!” he exclaimed contemptuously. “You ain’t scared of them, are you?”
She hid her face on his shoulder. “I don’t know,” she murmured.
Pennock held her at arm’s length; puzzled and curious. “You ain’t getting sick, are you?” he inquired anxiously. “They always howl that way—the blamed chicken thieves!”
“No,” she denied. “I’m not sick. Don’t let’s keep talking about it,” she added irritably, taking his fur coat from its nail and holding it out for him. “It’s very cold,” she said briskly, as if she had overcome her fancies.
“Well, I ain’t going to do much. Just get a load of hay.”
“I shall be able to see you from the window,” she said; a certain wistfulness in her eyes as if she dreaded his going.
When Pennock arrived at the stack, he unhitched the horses and tied them to the back of the rack so that they were sheltered from the wind which was beginning to rise.
At short intervals Pennock was forced to rest upon his fork. His legs shook with weakness; but he stuck to his task doggedly. Gradually the steely blue of the sky was blotted out. The wind began to come in fitful puffs, each stronger than the one before. Pennock was too occupied, however, in fighting his weakness to heed the change in the weather. When the rack was about half-filled he was so exhausted that he lay down, and his body sank into the loosened hay as if it were a couch. He covered himself withhis fur coat and felt quite warm and comfortable.
PRESENTLY he dreamed that he and Pete were lying under a tree in a semi-tropical land. He was vaguely distressed, however, because Marion kept calling to him faintly. There were intervals when she ceased to call during which he listened intently to catch the sound of her voice again, but Pete would not keep quiet. ,, .,
Suddenly he found himself wide awake, and obsessed by the conviction that Marion was near, The wind was roaring, and the air was filled with driving, stinging snow. He could not see even to the edge of the stack, and dismissed the idea from his mind.
During the fiercest of storms there come momentary lulls. As Pennock slid under the coat again one of these pauses occurred, and he heard his name called weakly: “Ed! . . . Ed!”
Pennock threw the coat to one side and crawled to the edge of the stack. “Mary!” he shouted. “Mary!”
Her answer carne to him faintly. Guided by the sound, he crept along the stack and groped downward. His fingers touched hers and he drew her up till she sank forward at his side. He helped her to the hollow in the hay where his own body had rested, and pulled the coat over them. They lay together without speaking till Pennock had recovered a little froifi his exertions.
“Why did you come?” he asked. He saw her eyelids lift, and the shine of her eyes in the semi-darkness. She answered slowly: “I don’t know.”
“You shouldn’t have come,” he said. “Not as you are; through the deep snow/’ She paused before she replied. “1 know, but I had to. I couldn’t stand it any longer. I could see the storm coming; I woke up this morning with the feeling that something was going to happen. I know how sick you are, and I was sure that you were going to be caught. I wanted to be with you when it happened —whatever it was.”
Pennock put his arms around her and held her. “You might have been lost out there,” he remonstrated gently. “You might have been lost out there,” he said again, as if he could think of nothing else. Marion did not answer. She appeared to be so exhausted that he was afraid to disturb her when she closed her eyes again.
The howl of the wind gradually lessened; but Pennock was unwilling to move for fear of awakening Marion. After a while the wind died away altogether, and the sun came out. Clouds were rolling to the west like smoke from a vast prairie fire.
Marion was strangely quiet on the journey home. To Pennock she seemed to be in a trance. She was asleep as soon as he laid her upon the couch in the kitchen.
HE REPLENISHED the heater and lighted the fire in the cook-stove. The afternoon was drawing to a close, and he knew that Marion had eaten nothing since early morning. He filled the kettle, and peeled potatoes.
He began to wonder if Marion were going to die. That would be a judgment upon him; a punishment, he thought.
“Mary,” he called in a hoarse whisper, “here’s a cup of tea for you.”
There was no answer. At first he thought that she was dead. The shock was so great that a cry sprang to his lips only to be choked back instantly. Then he saw her nostrils expanding and contracting as she breathed, and the scarcely perceptible rise and fall of her breast.
He thought: “I’m scaring myself. She’s just tired. I’ll let her sleep.”
He tried to eat some of the steak and potatoes he had cooked, but the zest had gone from the meal for him. When he had finished he reset the table; so that if Marion should awaken he could pretend that he had not eaten, and so perhaps induce her to eat with him. Dusk began to creep into the room. The single flat flame of the cheap lamp he lighted gave just enough light to make a yellow haze near the table. Marion’s white face was clearly visible when he put the lamp down, and the whiteness of it frightened him. Panic seized him. If only there were a woman near! He could think of only one who might be able to come, and she lived five miles away. It would take him two hours at
least to harness a team and drive there and back. He threw on his heavy coat, and started off to the barn at a run. With the harness in his hands he began to wonder what was happening to Marion. Perhaps she had awakened and was needing him. Suppose she were not sick after all! Her behavior was nothing out of the ordinary for a woman in her condition who had overtaxed her strength. He decided to go back.
He opened the door noiselessly and crept across the room without a sound, his heart pounding heavily from his run. Marion was still asleep. He put his ear to her breast and felt the soft heave of her bosom against his cheek. There was nothing to be scared about, he thought; but at the back of his mind the idea persisted that she might be dying. His hopes and fears swung to and fro like a pendulum.
Suppose she were to die! Ironically the thought came to him that he would be free. Free! He was astonished at the bitterness of the feeling the word awakened in him. What did he want with freedom now? There was nothing he desired so much in all the world as to hear Marion speak to him. He picked up her hand and called: “Mary! Mary!” in a voice that he could not raise above a whisper. But she did not awaken. In sudden fury he cursed soundlessly at his helplessness, then sank into a chair and buried his face in his hands.
WHEN he looked up Marion was awake. He stared at her for a moment, scarcely able to believe his eyes. Even he, with his rudimentary knowledge, could see that there was no sickness in the calm gaze that met his. He thought that she looked surprised. “Better, Mary?” he stammered. “Have I slept long?” she asked. “I’ve had a nice sleep. I was terribly tired. I’m tired yet.”
He knelt down and picked up one of her hands, still hardly able to credit the evidence of his senses.
“I’m glad,” he said, struggling to put his feelings into words and finding only those two.
“What are you glad about?”
He could not tell her of his fears which seemed absurd to him now. “I am,” he replied. “I just am.”
“Have you been afraid?”
He hesitated, then shamefacedly muttered, “Yep.”
“You slept so sound and quiet,” he said, impatient at being forced to describe his fears. “I was plumb scared.”
“And I’ve been scared too.”
He looked at her wide-eyed. “You!”
“I dreamed you left me. It was my fault. I knew you’d been wanting to go —wanting to go, and I’d held you. And then you’d gone, and because I wouldn’t let you go for a little while, you wouldn’t come back at all. I was so glad when I woke up and found you here.”
He gripped her fingers. “I don’t want to go,” he said in a tense voice, “and I ain’t a-going.”
“I’m not afraid,” she said. “I know you’ll come back. If you went now you could be back before—before . . .”
She didnot finish her sentencebut went on with another thought. “I don’t blame you. It’s not your fault. You’ve always been a-wandering—”
“I ain’t a-going,” he repeated stubbornly. “I don’t want to go.”
She paid no attention to his words. “We could get the Johnson’s boy to do the chores. And I could—”
“But I tell you I ain’t a-going!” he cried fiercely.
Still she would not believe him. “I’m not scared,” she continued bravely. “You’re not a bad man. I know you’ll come back. You’ll not like that life now. You think you haven’t changed, but you have.” There was a ring of sad triumph in her voice.
“I ain’t a-going!” he shouted. He was half frantic at his inability to make her understand, and his voice rose higher and higher. “I ain’t a-going! I ain’t a-going,
I tell you! I don’t want to go, and I ain’t a-going!”
She caught his hand and drew herself up to a sitting position, her eyes fixed on his as though she would search his soul. For a few moments they stared wordlessly at each other. Then she put her arms about his neck; her doubts and fears at an end.