The Root-House

The story that won one of the $125 prizes in MacLean's short story contest

LESLIE MCFARLANE November 1 1927

The Root-House

The story that won one of the $125 prizes in MacLean's short story contest

LESLIE MCFARLANE November 1 1927

The Root-House

The story that won one of the $125 prizes in MacLean's short story contest

LESLIE MCFARLANE

SMOKE hung about the little farm all morning, drifting down from the blaze in the slash. An acrid gray cloud hung over the whole land; it was bush fire season, and for many miles across the wide reaches of forest country and farm lands the billowing white columns towered to the autumn sky as though from the scattered camps of an invading army.

The slatternly, sharp-featured woman stood in the back doorway of the farmhouse, peering through the haze that almost obscured the dark wall of the evergreen bush. The slash fire had been burning for two days because the weather had been calm, but the wind had risen shortly after dawn and now vagrant flickers of flame licked their w'ay through the veil of smoke.

The woman’s face was hard with anxiety. Her eyes were red-rimmed and smarting. The smoke that had curled and drifted lazily about the farmhouse for two days was now driving down from the slash in heavy gusts and puffs. Sparks fluttered through the cloud. Light black flakes of charred bark settled softly down about the doorsteps.

Once in a while she could see the dark form of her husband through the shifting screen. His arms rose and fell fantastically. He was toiling at the outskirts of the slash, the remnant of a bush already depleted of merchantable timber, trying to beat out flying sparks and embers that were constantly settling beyond the allotted boundaries of destruction.

It was a good farm, as Northern Ontario farms go, but they needed more land; hence the fire, which Joe Trent had started in the slash to raze the waste bush acres. It was out of season and he had no permit but the weather had been so calm that there was no hint of danger. Now, with the rising wind the flames were working their way around into the green bush.

The woman glanced at her little boy, who played with his dog in the yard. Then, as a sudden shower of sparks swirled by in the smoke she called to the child, ordering him to come into the house.

She seized a shovel that leaned beside the kitchen door, and trudged out across the yard, over the back fence, up to the borders of the slash.

Her husband was beating at the smouldering ground with a shovel wrapped in wet sacking. He turned a grubby, sweat-stained face toward her.

“ ’Bout time you were lendin’ a hand,” he growled. “The wind’s gettin’ worse.”

He was tired; his ragged overalls were smudged with grime; his moist face was streaked with dirt; his eyes were like narrow flecks of blood.

“Time you were askin’ me to lend a hand,” she snapped, bitterly. “Leave me dowm there wonderin’ if you was never cornin’. Like as not we’ll all burn now.” Her voice was high-pitched and unnatural. She was unnerved, but her shrewishness had become a habit. She began to beat fiercely at the flames in the grass.

They labored in the choking smoke, but the wind rose higher and the sky grewr dark. The afternoon sun hung like a blood-smeared plate in the gloom. The hot blast of the advancing fire became unbearable, and they were beaten back before the blazing embers. The fire had entered the green bush, and the flames were mantling the tall trees with a hollow roar.

The man and the woman flailed the creeping scarlet fingers of the flames in the silence of desperation, but the

embers flew past them on the wings of the gale and the red rain of sparks danced in the smoke. The sharp snapping and crackling of blazing trees sounded above the deep rushing of the wind and the fire.

The slash acreage was a roaring fury and the green bush was swiftly becoming a flaring wall: the farmhouse was doomed; little tongues of flame licked their way along the wooden fences; a blazing ember settled in a pile of hay outside the stable; the hay flared up brightly.

They fought the fire until it became apparent that it was useless to fight longer; until the smoke and the heat became so intense that they had to turn and flee stumbling through the smoke toward the house.

“Tommy! Tommy!” shrieked the woman.

The dog barked. The child huddled in the doorway, crying with fear. As she rushed up and clutched the boy in her arms and soothed him, the dog began to whimper and crawled groveling at the foot of the steps. The man staggered up, swaying with exhaustion : his unshaven face was black with dirt, streaked with sweat, and his scant, wet hair was tousled.

“What’ll we do? What’ll we do?” the woman was moaning in a voice that quavered with terror. The wind

had risen to a hurricane; the fire was rearing down upon them in billows of black and crimson; their nearest neighbor was two miles away.

'Get to the root-house!" he shouted impatiently. “We can't save the place now. What’re you waitin’ for? Get to the root-hou3*d’’

His tones were so wearily contemptuous that he might have been addressing one of his own horses. They stumbled across the yard toward the root-house, a cave

built into the hillside. The woman whimpered with fright, and the child, w ho lost the dog for a moment in the smoke began to cry The man cursed a* he hurried after them. The farmhouse was obliterated by the dense smoke before they had gone five yards; their figures were dim and uncertain in the heavy cloud; he could see the burning fences through the murk and the high flames of the roaring bush. The wind shrieked; flaming embers drifting down tike huge, red snowftakes; the heat was terrific.

It was almost impossible to breathe.

At the tow entrance to the root-house he paused for a moment to took back at the farmhouse, at the barn and stable, at all that he had built in the past years now lying in the path of the flames. They were merely gloomy and uncertain shadows now. Even yet he could scarcely realize that bush fire, the monster that had haunted his dreams ever since he had come to the North, had at last befallen them.

"Joe! Hurry up! We’ll all be burnt. Hurry up, I tell you!

Don't be so slow!”

The terrified tones of the woman, haif-sobbing in the root-house, summoned him.

He crouched and entered by the narrowdoorway. A foolish refuge, the root-house. But what eise could they do? They could not wait in the house to be burned to death. They could not run away, for the whole countryside was now-

ablaze. His siash fire had but merged with the fire set out by another settler, and there were doubtless others down

the road.

“All right. All right,” he grow-led, as he lurched into the cavern. "Don't yell at me like that. There’s no hurry. We're all here, ain't we?” He tried to close the door, but the w oman had fallen in the way and he pushed her aside, impatiently. “Come on—get back or this placel! get full of smoke. How can I close the door, with you blubbering there in the road?”

The door thudded heavily. The root-house was plunged into darkness.

"It's black as hell in here!” he complained in exasperation. "Black as hell! Ain't you got a match or somethin’ —a light? Have we got to die in the dark?”

He groped in the pockets of his torn overalls but there were no matches.

“Where are you anyway?” he demanded, testily.

Mary! Ain't you got any matches around here? Don’t you ever have anything handy?”

"Give me time, will you?” she snapped back at him from the darkness. “I've got matches here, and part of a candle, too, if I can lay my hands on them. I’ve always kept 'em here in case somethin’ like this would happen—” Unreasonably, the man sneered at her.

“That’s just like a woman! Always figgerin’ for the worst.” He waited for a while, listening to the dull sounds of her movements in the profound blackness of their prison. Then he broke out again, impatiently;

"Light up, then! Light your candle! Don’t keep me in the dark here. What’s keepin’ you?”

“Don’t be in such a rush!” she snapped, harshly. “I’m lookin' for the matches. Come and hunt for ’em yourself, if it's so easy. Ah—I’ve got them.”

She scratched the match clumsily on one of the beams, but the wood was soft and a phosphorescent streak was tri only result at first. The child began to whimper. He lut teen silent up to that time but now he was frightened by a.l the formidable accumulation of horrors that had ended in this impenetrable gioorn.

“What's the matter, ma?” he asked, whining. “What’s the matter? Why did we come in here? I want my dog. He’ll get burnt up out in all that fire. Pa,” he appealed,”

“can I call my dog?” Hopefully, he began to call out, in shri.ll tones, “Here, Rover, Rover, Rover—” 1

A sudden, ill-tempered growl silenced him.

“Shut up, you young whelp,” commanded the father. “Your dog’s gone. It’s burnt up. You’ll never see the damned pup again, and good riddance, too. Lay off that racket, yelling for the brute.” He subsided into a aggrieved muttering. “Everythin’ burning up all around and you have to start howlin’ for your miserable dog.”

The child whimpered quietly, and the man directed his benevolent attentions toward the woman again. She was still vainly trying to light the candle. The root-house was joisted by heavy wooden beams, but the wood was soft and damp and the matches would not light.

“Hey!” he rasped, indignantly. “Haven’t got that candle lit yet? I could have fifty of ’em lit in the time it takes you to strike a match. Don’t be so damn slow. Give us a light, for God’s sake. It’s dark in here.” He said it as though she were somehow personally to blame for the circumstance of darkness. “Here! Lemme have them matches—”

“Oh, keep quiet,” she snapped. “I’m doin’ this.” As she spoke, a match flared and she applied it to the'candle, which flickered weakly and cast gigantic shadows on the earthy walls of the cave.

The woman sank back dispiritedly, against a sack of potatoes. “There! Now start jawin’ at me because we ain’t got electric lights in here,” she said, with shrewish sarcasm.

“Well, the candle’s better than nothin’,” the man conceded. He was squatting on the mouldy floor, and the shadows and the small proportions of the cave tended to exaggerate his size until he gave an impression of ominous, lowering bulk; the light shone on his grimy, sweaty face, with its black mask of beard about the jowls.

“It’s lucky we got a root-house to come to,” he rumbled. “We’d have been burnt to a cinder by now, the way them flames was cornin’ down.” he wagged his heavy head, reminiscently. “God, but that fire come on us quick! I never seen anything like it. It was the wind. The damned wind! If it hadn’t turned, we’d have been all right. But it got worse and worse, and then swept her right down from the bush before I knew what was happenin’. It’s always the way. The cursed wind had to go and turn on us and down she come a’whoopin’.”

His wife, huddled against the wall of the cave, in the shadow of one of the beams, drew the child closer to her. The woman’s thin face was hidden but her features could not have expressed the hatred that vibrated in her tones, the tense hatred that one can only feel for those with whom one has been in daily, intimate, monotonously wretched contact for long years.

“Yes,” she shrilled. “If you hadn’t set out that fire in

the slash it wouldn’t never have happened. That’s what started it. You and your slash fire! And everything so dry. There ain’t abeen a drop of rain in weeks, and yet you’d have to go and start a fire in the slash. And now look! Our whole farm’s burnt and all our work’s gone for nothin’. All our work—”

The shrillness died from her tones as she corsidered this, and her voice became suddenly old and despondent, wearily reflective. “All our work. And we worked so

our work. And we worked so .

hard. All these years. All through you, just because you had to go and start that fool fire in the slash.” The full realization of the disaster that had befallen them was just beginning to dawn, and her bitterness increased again. “The wind turned! It’s just like you to blame it on the wind! What harm would the wind have done if your slash fire hadn’t been burnin’ there in the first place? And now everythin’s gone.”

“Aw shut up,” he replied heavily. He was uneasily conscious that she was right, that there had indeed been folly in setting out a fire in such dry weather, but this could not, of course be admitted. “How was I to know the wind would come up? There hasn’t been a high wind in weeks. A man’s got to burn slash.”

rT'HEY huddled in their gloomy little hole in the ground and wrangled, while outside the fire raged across their farm and across the farms of their neighbors. Fields were being blackened, trees were tumbling to the earth in flurries of flame and smoke and dust, all the country was wrapped in an impenetrable haze. They might have been in a separate world;, they crouched in this narrow cave, apart from the ruin above and without. An acrid odor was the only reminder of the fire, for smoke was seeping gradually through crannies in the heavy door. They wrangled on.

heavy They wrangled on.

“The fire ranger told you not to set out the fire. But, no, you would not listen to him. You know it all. You won’t listen to nobody, you won’t, and then you go ahead and burn the whole place up and mebbe burn us all to death yet for all we know—and blame it on the wind.”

“What does the fire ranger know about it? Everybody else was burnin’ slash. The weather was good. I wouldn’t listen to him. Not for a holy minute. I’ll do as I blame well please.”

“Yes, you’ve done as you pleased this time. And look what’s happened. The wind changed on you. If you hadn’t been so smart, if you hadn’t known it all and hadn’t set that fire—”

“Oh, shut up, I tell you,” he raged suddenly. Then he mimicked her shrewish voice—“If you hadn’t set that fire—” His tones grew sullen. “It’s done, ain’t it? We can’t help it now. It’s done, and the farm’s burnt and all the stock’s likely gone by now, and we’re lucky if we’re not just all smothered to death right in this root-house before long. The smoke lies low on the ground and it’ll keep cornin’ in here till we’re choked. It’s cornin’ in right now—”

He heard the terrified catch of her breath.

“Yes, it’s cornin’ in right now,” he repeated. “I can smell it. Don’t you think we got enough worries of our own without you harpin’ on that ‘You set the fire’ stuff. You’ve nagged at me for years, and you keep naggin’ at me, and you’d find somethin’ to nag at me about if we, was on our deathbed. And we’re mighty near it now, let me tell you.”

His overbearing tones, his insolent gesture of contempt, infuriated the woman, and she wagged a thin and trembling finger at him in her indignation. “I’d nag at you!” she shrilled. “Ain’t I got reason to nag at you? Look what you’ve done. All our work’s gone for nothin’ and our farm’s burnt and it’s all your fault. All your fault, every bit of it! If you’d let well enough alone and hadn’t been in such a hurry to burn the slash till next-year, or if you’d burnt it before the dry spell this wouldn’t never have happened. And you call that naggin’! Just tellin’ you—”

“Listen! Listen to that talk!” he jeered. “Who wanted me to burn the slash in the first place? Who did? You! It was you! Always at me to get more land cleared! Never

satisfied with gettin’ on with what we had. Always at me to clear more land so’s we'd make more money. Whose fault was it if I burnt that slash too soon? Yours! And well you know it! I’d never have burnt it at all if it hadn’t been for you.”

“No. You’d have been too lazy. But it’s burnt now and we’re goin’ to die in here and you’re to blame. We’re goin’ to die here. I know it. The smoke’s gettin’ worse and if we open the door it’ll smother us. The flames will come in.”

'T'HE man glanced about him uneasily and sniffed.

It was a fact, the smoke was getting worse. In the candle light, indeed, he could see the wreathing gray curls. This was alarming. It would be a long time before they could risk opening the door. Unless the wind changed, the smoke would lie heavily near the ground for hours after the fire passed. And the root-house was stuffy as it was. The limited supply of air would be exhausted soon enough without the added danger of suffocation from incoming smoke.

The child became restless and whimpered again. “My dog’ll be all burnt up, ma. Open the door till I get my dog.”

It was a relief to the man to have some excuse for anger. He turned to the boy. “Shut up, you! Keep quiet about that dog,” he snapped. “We’ve got enough to worry about. Keep quiet now, or I’ll give you a thrashing.”

The woman rocked to and fro in despair, moaning to herself. “I wisht I’d never come to this north country with you at all. If it ain’t one thing it’s another. Cold and snow all winter long, and bush fires the rest of the year. And all the time, puttin’ up with a lazy, shiftless lout like you. I wisht I’d never come. It’s no country for a woman anyway.”

“Snivellin’ again,” he rasped. “I wisht you’d never come neither,” he told her, heartily. “A hell of a lot of help you’ve been to me up here. A hell of a lot! You’ve done nothin’ but nag at me, day and night ever since we come.”

He gazed moodily at the earthen wall.

“I’ve worked like a dog tryin’ to satisfy your whims, and still you’re never satisfied. You didn’t like the log house we had at first so I scraped and worked till I built you a better one. And then nothin’ would do but we had to have another horse, more cattle, then more land. Always at me! Never leavin’ me alone.

Jaw, jaw, jaw, jaw, day in and day out. That temper of yours would drive a man crazy. Always chewin’ the rag about somethin’.

And me workin’ like a fool for you.”

She thrust her head forward from the shadows, her thin face distorted with resentment and fury.

“And ain’t I worked?” she screamed. “Ain’t I? Ain’t I worked like a slave to keep us all livin’?”

She stumbled over the words in the eagerness of her own pathetic defence. His injustice had been like a whip. “Washin’ clothes and scrubbin’ and ironin’ and mendin’ and makin’ bread—even workin’ in the fields with you! Never gettin’ out to town but onctortwictayear! Buried back in this place. You don’t think of that, do you? No, you’re a man.

You never think of that.

I’ve been out on this farm for sixteen years, sixteen long, miserable years. And look what they’ve made of me!”

“Yeh—look!” 1

“D’you wonder I ain’t sweet-tempered? Never once have I got out to see my people down south since I was married.

Never once. It cost too much. Too far away. Did you hear me complainin’?

No. I’ve worked myself half to death, just so’s we could get ahead. You’d

never get anywhere if I didn’t keep at you. You’re so shiftless we wouldn’t have been any farther ahead than the day we first came here, if I hadn’t made you keep workin’. And this is what I get for it. To die in a hole in the ground—like an animal, and have you say I ain’t been no help to you and you wisht I’d never come north!”

His words had cut deeply. She laughed.

It was hysteric. “And die in a hole in the

ground, like an animal,” she repeated. “But it’s fittin’. It’s fittin’ all right, for I’ve had to live like an animal up here and I might as well die like one—and you say I ain’t been no help to you!”

Sobs, deep and bitter, shook her thin body. The man, somewhat shamefaced, looked at the ground. The child clung closer to his mother, trying to soothe her. “Ma, what’re you cryin’ about?” he asked. “Don’t cry.” Then, as she clutched him convulsively by the sleeve he began to plead. “Ma, will you open the door and let me get my dog? He’s locked out there. I think I hear him scratchin’. Listen ma, I think I hear him scratchin’ at the door.”

The man mopped his face with a red handkerchief. “God, it’s gettin’ hot in here,” he said, hoarsely. “Smoky, too.”

The woman said nothing. Words would have reassured him. Her silence made him nervous.

“Ma, I’m hot. I can’t get my breath,” complained the boy.

“You’re just right, it’s hot,” the man agreed, this time, surprisingly enough, failing to become angered by the interruption. “And that smoke! That rotten smoke! It’s seepin’ in everywhere. It’s gettin’ worse every minute. Gettin’ worse.” He became alarmed, a little panic-stricken. “By cripes, we’ll be smothered in here yet if we don’t do somethin’. It’s the door.”

He crawled over to the entrance and examined the door in the gloom, running his nervous fingers over the thick boards. It’s seepin’ in here somewhere. Around the sides. Say, gimme somethin’ to put around it. There’s cracks where the smoke’s cornin’ in.”

“There’s nothing here,” she said dully.

“No old sacks? No old clothes or nothin’?”

The woman glanced about, dispiritedly, for a moment.“Not that I can find.”

“This is a fine mess,” he grumbled, in frightened disgust. “Smoke just pourin’ in here. Why didn’t you see that there were sacks and things like that around? You’re always braggin’ about being so careful. What’s the use of havin’ a root-house if the smoke’s going to pour in and smother us all? Just when we need an old sack or an old coat or somethin’ to put around the door, there’s nothin’ here.”

“Oh, yes. It’s my fault. It’s always my fault.” The injustice of his complaint stung her frayed nerves. “Why didn’t you look after it yourself?” With a quick movement she began to tear at her worn waist. “Here, then—this’ll have to do.” Hastily she stripped it off and flung it over him, then crouched beside the candle again, the feeble light shining on her bare arms and shoulders. He looked at the waist, dubiously.

“Well, it ain’t much, but it’s better than nothin’.” He stuffed the cloth about the chinks of the door, and moved back a little to survey the result. “It helps,” he announced, grudgingly. “But the smoke’s still cornin’ in."

The women coughed. It sent a faint thrill of terror through them. She became desperately frightened.

“We’ll all be smothered here. I know it. I know' we’ll never get out alive. We’re goin’ to die,” she quavered in a rush of words. Another cough racked her body. “Oh, why did you ever set that fire in the slash? It’s so hot and smoky here I can’t breathe. If you hadn't set that fire—” “For God’s sake, keep quiet about that fire in the slash," he roared. “Let up on it, will you? It's done, ain't it, and it can’t be helped now. Quit grouchin' at me about it. All we've got to do now is wait for the fire to go over.”

This made him reflect. “It should be pretty near over by now, at that,” he muttered. “Seems like we've been in this here furnace for hours."

The maddening feature of the situation was that although they w'ere slowly smothering to death within the root-house, gradually exhausting the limited supply of air, it was quite possible that the fire had passed over, that the wand had changed and driven off the smoke outside. Whether the wind changed or not, there was bound to be a certain amount of smoke lingering close to the ground and this would seep into the roothouse for hours, although it might be quite safe for them to go outside. They could not last much longer in that stuffy cavern, he knew. The air was becoming foul. But they could not risk leaving the place until the last

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moment, because the wind might not have changed after all, the fire might not have passed over, and if they opened the door they might be engulfed in billows of smoke and sheets of flame in which they would perish swiftly.

“The air’s gettin’ bad,” he said, as though hoping for contradiction.

The candle guttered. Smoke could be very plainly seen, wreathing about in the yellow light. The woman was seized by another paroxysm of coughing.

“What’re you coughing about?” he demanded, fiercely. “Don’t start your chokin’ and gaspin’ now. We’ve got a damn long time to wait yet, so you may as well make up your mind to get used to it.”

“It’s the smoke,” she gasped. “I can’t help it if I cough. I can’t stand this much longer. The smoke’s worse.”

“Aw, it ain’t so bad,” he replied, in a kindlier tone. Then, he, too, was forced to cough. “Damn the smoke,” he muttered, wiping his eyes. “It is gettin’ worse.”

“Don’t you think we can open the door now?” she choked. “Mebbe it’s passed over—”

“Open the door? Take a chance like that? You’re crazy! We’d be burnt to a cinder. Or smothered in a second. No, we got to stay here. We can’t risk it. Mebbe everythin’s all right and mebbe it ain’t.” He coughed again and began to

stuff the cloth more securely into the crannies at the sidq of the door.

“We’ll die here. I know it.” Her voice rose, tremulous, terrified. “Dear God, we’ll die here! We’ll smother! I can’t get my breath.”

“Don’t get in a panic,” he ordered, gruffly. “Mebbe it’ll clear up.”

She was past reassurance.

“It won’t go over. I know it won’t. The smoke’s worse now. Joe, do you think we’re goin’ to die? Do you, Joe? It’s so hot in here. I’m chokin’.”

“Don’t make such a row,” he ordered, angrily. “Here—I’ll open the door if you want.”

He scrambled over to the entrance. “I’ll open it! You’ll find it a damn sight hotter then. We wouldn’t live a minute. You’re lucky to be able to breathe at all. But I’ll open the door if you ain’t satisfied. I’ll open it!”

Fear of the unknown, fear of the quick death that might pounce on them if he opened the door, seized her. “No, Joe— don’t open it!” she shrieked. “We’ll be burnt, sure. We’ll be smothered! Don’t! Don’t open it!”

He moved back, forbiddingly. “Well, then, cut out this squawkin’.”

The child began to cough and would have complained, but his^mother, fearful of her husband’s anger, silenced him sibilantly.

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Cip~ci front page 44

"That smoke’s awful,” muttered the man, after a long period of quiet. “It’s into my eyes and my throat. A man can’t breathe, hardly. And it ain’t gettin’ any better.” There was no reply, and he went on, thoughtfully. “Mebbe we will smother in here.” The silence unnerved him. "Why don’t you say somethin’?” he demanded. She did not reply. The candle was fluttering, almost out, and he peered anxiously through the darkening haze. "Mary! Are you all right?”

Her voice came, weakly. "I'm all right, Joe. But the smoke! It’s smotherin’ me—■”

He sank back, relieved. “You give me a scare. I thought you was gone under.” "I'll be gone under soon enough,” she whispered, with difficulty. “The smoke’s so thick. A body can’t live much longer in here.”

She coughed again and again. She no longer crouched against the wall, hut lay quivering and exhausted on the earthen floor.

"It is had, and that’s a fact,” he admitted. conscious of a constriction in his chest. “Worse’n I thought it’d be. God! Supposin’ we should all be smothered in here.” The idea of death as applied to himself seemed to strike him for the first time. He became suddenly solicitous. “Tommy?” he said, anxiously. “How’re you cornin’ along, kiddo? Are you all right?”

“I want to go out, papa,” said the child. “It's too dark and hot and smoky inhere. I can’t breathe. I want my dog.” “You can’t go out, Tommy—not just yet,” he answered, mildly. The man paused for a while, then went on, as though talking to himself. “This’d be a rotten way to die. A rotten way! Don’t dare open that door ... if the fire ain’t gone we’d be finished . . . and it can’t be gone yet . . . wind might have changed . . . can’t risk it . .

He looked about the dim cavern with the futile restlessness of an animal in a cage. “Simply stiflin’ in here . . . hard to breathe . . . chokin’!”

SWEAT streamed down his face. His smarting eyes were fixed on the inscrutable door. “What’s a man to do?” he muttered. “Nothin’ but wait. Who’d ever think we’d die like this—us!” A mouthful of smoke gagged him. His head was swimming. He crawled on hands and knees over to the doorway again and crouched there on all-fours, staring at the heavy barrier as though seeking the answer to its riddle. “Smoke! Agh! We will die! We will die! It ain’t right. We can’t.” He coughed, wretchedly. “This rotten smoke! Worse and worse—”

“I don’t want to die, Joe. I don’t want to die,” gasped the woman.

“Who’s talkin’ of dyin’?” he asked, thickly, turning around as though only then conscious of her presence. Then, in gentler tones: “Don’t be scared, Mary. The smoke’ll be clearin’ up soon.”

Sympathy born of an immense pity for himself had stirred in his heart, sympathy for the frail form lying in the candle light.

“It won’t clear up. I know,” she gasped, pitifully. “I’m not scared. I’m not scared of dyin’, Joe, but I’m not ready to die. I don’t want to. I’m not ready.”

Hope had left her.

“None of us ever is ready,” he answered, his words blurred. “How’s the

kid?”

Her voice was deep with a sorrowful consternation as she looked down at the little hoy clutched to her breast. “He’s chokin’. He’s gaspin’ for breath, Joe. We can’t live in here, Joe! We’re not goin’ to really die, are we? Tell me, Joe, d’you think we’ll die?” Her voice rose, pleading for some note of hope.

“No, no,” he gasped. “It’ll clear up. It’ll clear up.” He repeated the assurance doggedly, although he could hardly speak, for bitter smoke was in his throat and every breath tortured him.

He could distinguish her harassed face

raised appealingly toward him in the murky gloom. “I’m not ready,” she sobbed. “Not ready. I ain’t never been to a church in weeks. If I die, I won’t go to heaven. I know I won’t.”

Clumsily, he tried to reassure her. “Yes, you Mill, Mary. You’ll go to heaven all right. Don’t be worryin’. You’re not goin’ to die. The smoke’ll clear up. You’ll go to heaven.”

“No,” she insisted, despairingly. “I’m not ready. Wasn’t at church in weeks—” “What does goin’ to church have to do with it?”

She seized eagerly at this straw. “You know I couldn’t go very often, Joe. There was so much work, ‘n everything; so much work. On Sundays I was always so tired.” She paused and seemed to contemplate in the instant all the long procession of dreary Sundays that marched like shadows across the years; then she returned swiftly to her former mood. “No, I’m not ready. Oh, Joe, I can’t die now. I’m not ready. I haven’t been good. I haven’t been good to you—”

“Aw, don’t talk like that,” he said, awkwardly. Then the smoke got in his throat; he gagged and coughed. “The smoke!” he gasped. “God! It’s thick. We’ll—be—all—right—”

Words tumbled from her, hasty, frightened words of repentance:

“I’ve been mean and cross with you, Joe. I’ve nagged at you all the time. I don’t want to die havin’ you think of me as bein’mean to you. You said I was. A while ago. You said I was always naggin’ at you. It’s true—it’s true—but Joe—” “I didn’t mean that, Mary,” he told her. “Honest, I didn’t mean it. Younever nagged at me—”

“I did. I did,” she interrupted, mournfully. She seemed quite resigned now. “Joe, don’t think I’m scared—but before we go, I want you to know I was never mean and cross to you a’purpose. It was just that I never thought.”

Her pitiful apologies rendered him uncomfortable.

“Never mind that, Mary. I don’t hold nothin’ against you. I wasn’t as sweet with you as I should ‘a’ been, myself.” “I’ve been a hindrance to you,” the woman went on, in her passionate monotone. “You said so. I was to blame for you burnin’ the slash. I know I was. I kept naggin’ at you till you set that fire. I know I was to blame. But you know I didn’t mean to be naggin’ at you all the time. It was just so’s we’d get along. Tryin’ to get the work done. I wasn’t really a hindrance to you, was I Joe—all those years?—”

The pleading voice aroused a deep remorse in him. “No, oh, no, I never meant that, Mary. You’ve been a help. I couldn’t ’a’ got along without you. Oh, God, no, you ain’t been a hindrance. Forget that l ever said it, Mary. I never meant it. It’s me that should be sorry—” “I always cared for you—”

“I know.” He coughed. “The smoke’s worse. Beginnin’ to look bad, old girl. Afraid?”

She was gasping, hoarsely.

“No, I’m not afraid. We can’t last much longer. Oh, it’s horrible. Horrible. Dyin’ like this—.” She began to sob hysterically, but at last she became calmer and lay on the ground taking deep, hollow breaths that sent her into another fit of coughing. At last she raised her head, weakly, and gazed at him with steady, terrified eyes through the gloom. “I’m afraid. So long’s you’re not angry—” “Angry! It’s you that has the call to be angry. The way I’ve treated you, and the kid here. Hardly ever a civil word to you. Blamin’ you for everythin’ that went wrong—”

“I wisht we wasn’t goin’ to die,” she said, sadly. “I wisht we could start all over again. I’d be good to you, Joe. I swear I’d be good to you. Oh, God, don’t let us die.” She prayed fervently, raising her eyes to the rough beams above. “Please don’t let us die in here. God! In the dark, like this. I deserve it, I know,

Continued on page 48

Co.~ti~c'd rUin page 46

God, but I’m not ready. Give me another " chanst—”

"I wisht it'd come quick and get it over with," he interrupted, gruffly. “I got a good mind to open that door. If we gotta die. we'd die quick. There wouldn't be the waitin'.”

The child, who was huddled in a corner, gave a muffled gasp.

"1 guess we're goin’,” whispered the man. "My lungs is full of smoke. The air’s bad. My head's swimmin'.”

"Joe I'm sorry—

"Never mind, Mary. I don’t hold no grudges. Ycu was always a good wife to me. Better’n 1 deserved. I’m sorry I made things so miserable for you. But I never thought. I never thought—”

"It was me. It was me was to blame,” she insisted. "Always findin' fault with you. Never givin' you credit for what you did. But it was the work, Joe. The hard work. And livin’away back here. Nobody to talk to. Always the same, day in and day out."

Some appreciation of what she had endured, struck him then for the first time. "I know,” he muttered. “It’s been hard for you. I made it all the harder—” “Fm goin', Joe. The smoke’s too much—.” She coughed, violently. “I’m smotherin' to death.” Panic swept over her. “Tommy—Tommy—.” The woman clutched the child to her, frantically. "Joe—he don't answer me—Tommy!”

The child opened his eyes weakly.

“Ma. Take me out.” The voice was very drowsy.

"He’s dyin’. Joe, he’s dyin’,” she gasped. “The'poor little chap’ssmotherin to death in my arms. What’ll we do?”

“I’m goin’ to open the door,” came the grim voice of the man. “May as well come now' as later.”

The words fell with the terrific solemnity of phrases in a death warrant.

“Not yet,” she appealed, hurriedly. “Not yet, Joe. I want to pray. Just in case—just for a minute—” She began to mumble indistinguishable words.

“Pray for me, too,” he said, awkwardly, after a moment. “There’s a chance— just a chance for us, yet—but, oh, yes— pray—”

After a while he asked her:

“Ready?”

“Open it, Joe. Open the door,” she said, quietly. “Joe—all the mean things I’ve said—don’t hold ’em against me—”

“I ain’t been good to you, Mary. I’m sorry. But I cared a lot for you. More’n I realized.” He groped his way toward her through the void, and she huddled into his arms. He felt her tear-stained face, and kissed her. In that fleeting second there came to them the memory of another kiss, in a green lane full of shadows on a damp spring evening years ago, so long back that the memory hardly seemed theirs now at all but a memory of people other than themselves.

“Good bye, Mary,” he muttered. Then he kissed the child. “Good bye, Tommy. .Just in case—.” His mind obstinately clung to the fact that they had a slender chance for life.

“Good bye,” said the woman, very tenderly. “Oh, Tommy—my poor, little boy—” She kissed the child passionately again and again.

The man crawled over to the door.

He tugged at the fastening. It gave, suddenly, and the door fell open.

A RECTANGLE of smoky, gray light sprang out of the darkness, and a cloud of smoke rolled through the doorway. The man fell back before it, choking and then he recovered himself; this was only the ground smoke; the wind, he could tell, had changed and the fire had passed over; they had a chance. He dragged the woman to the doorway, out into the air, through the smoke that was pouring into the rootheuse, and she clung to the half conscious child.

The fire had passed over. Smoke still lay close to the ground, but it had thinned out, and when one stood upright it was

easy enough to breathe. They clung i together, gasping, breathing the purer air.

Death was not for them after all.

: After a while they had revived sufficiently to look about them. All the land was gray. The farmhouse was gone; the barn and stable were gone. A haze of smoke hung over everything, down over the flat waste that once had been the slash over the back pasture, far over to where the green bush once had stood. Flames still rose from the charred black ruins of the forest.

"It’s gone,” said the man at last. “Fire’s passed over. God! It’s passed over. The smoke ain’t so much. We can breathe—”

The woman was gazing out at the hole in the ground, now filled with ashes and debris, that had once been the cellar of their home.

“It’s gone. The house is gone.”

“A clean sweep,” he said, dully, beginning to comprehend the loss. “Even the fences went. Look at ’em smoulderin’.” “All our work. Gone for nothin’.” She began to cry, silently. “It’s cruel. It’s cruel. Nothin’ left—all from that awful fire—.” Tears streamed down her thin cheeks.

They could not believe that all their toil had come to this ignoble end—a smoky waste, a grave of ashes.

“It ain’t right,” he said, wildly. “A man works his heart out. And it all goes in a flash. Like this. It ain’t right.”

He paused, as though awaiting some answer from the destiny that had contrived this injustice. But the whole land was in silence. The roaring terror had passed on and only the dull smoke rose sullenly from the feebly flaming ruins. “The house all gone. And my garden—” “All my crops,” he muttered.

“Nothin left. After sixteen years.”

“Got to start all over.”

They thought of the long, dull years that had passed and of the long, dull years that loomed ahead, years of struggling painfully again for nothing more than what they had already struggled painfully to earn. It was bitter.

“All the workin’ and scrapin’ and savin’. All over again.” In spite of herself, the reproach was wrung from her. “Oh, if you hadn’t started that fire in the slash!”

He turned on her, as by old habit. “There! Blame me! I knew it! You told me to start the fire. And now look. Not a roof over our heads. Nothin’ but the clothes we’ve got on us. After the way I’ve worked. Don’t be blamin’ me. You told me to start the fire. You was always at me.”

She was stung to defend herself.

“As if I’m to blame! You lit the fire. You knew the slash was dry. You can’t get over that. Burnt us out of house and home.”

The habits of sixteen years again controlled them. He was as arrogant, as overbearing as he had always been; she was as bitter, as shrewish as before.

“You’d think I’d done it on purpose, to hear you talk!” he snarled. “If you’d kept your mouth shut I’d never have started that fire. But no, you was always at me. Always yappin’ about clearin’ more land. Clear away the slash, you told me. Well, it’s cleared now. You’re satisfied, I hope. Nothin’ left but stumps and ashes. You’ll keep quiet about clearin’ more land after this.”

They trudged slowly over the ashstrewn ground, still warm under their feet, toward the ruins of their home, their harsh voices raised in incessant dispute. The little boy, now recovered from the smoke, trudged wondering at their heels.

“Blame me! Blame me!” she shrilled. “That’s right! Blame me! Start a fire in the dry season and blame me because it burns up everythin’ we’ve got in the world—”

“Aw, quit your damned jawing!”

The child wandered off across the yard, calling weakly, hopefully; “Here, Rover — Rover—Rover ...”