The Fatal Wedding

In which the break-up of a bachelor's Eden demonstrates that four’s company when three’s none

R. E. BREACH January 15 1930

The Fatal Wedding

In which the break-up of a bachelor's Eden demonstrates that four’s company when three’s none

R. E. BREACH January 15 1930

The Fatal Wedding

In which the break-up of a bachelor's Eden demonstrates that four’s company when three’s none

R. E. BREACH

MR. JAKE COTTRELL rummaged among the clutter of pans on the shelf in search of an iron skillet. He shook the heavy utensil to clear it of dust, then banged it down upon the rusty cookstove. When it emitted the correct shade of blue smoke, he threw into it thick slices of bacon, and into the resulting oily liquid dumped the contents of a large can of baked beans. While these were frying, he shoved back from one end of the table an accumulation of newspapers, tools and odds and ends of clothing, and on the cleared space set down two tin plates, two ditto cups, and a miscellaneous collection of knives, forks and spoons. He flanked them with a jug of milk, a fly-specked sugarbowl, a carton of soda crackers and a five-pound pail of raspberry-and-apple jam. He rescued the smoking beans, dumped a handful of tea into the pot and set it on to boil. Then, his housewifely duties completed, he stepped to the back door and yanked lustily at the rope of the cracked dinner bell.

In response to this summons a man shortly appeared in the barnyard, driving a four-horse team. This was Jake’s partner, Reuben Spinners, big, blond, and gentle, in contrast to his fellow, who was a wizened, dark little man of sixty, but looking ten years older by reason of a general toothlessness, not only of his jaws but of his whole appearance. Jake regarded his partner with snapping black eyes and a general air of irascibility, as if about to explode at any moment. But the big man moved imperturbably, feeding and bedding his tired horses. A procession of fowls, pigs and caL followed expectantly at his heels.

Reuben plodded into the house and began to wash his face and hands in a battered tin basin. Jake paid little attention to these cleanly rites, until the younger man began on the third basinful of soap and water.

“Don’t you know that rain-water’s gettin’ scarce?”

The big man sputtered apologetically through the soapsuds.

“Ain’t seen you wash so careful behind the ears for ten years.”

“Goin’ to town,” mumbled Reuben.

“Huh! Spendin’ your time on the road. Third time this week. What’s the idee?”

“Got business, Jake,” replied Reuben good-humoredly. “Shove up the supper. What do you want from town?”

Jake made no reply, but ladled the beans into the tin plates. He began to wolf the food into his toothless jaws. But Reuben, after a few forkfuls of the greasy mess, shoved his plate aside.

“Any tomatoes in the house?” he enquired.

“What’s the matter now?” demanded the cook. “Ain’t my vittles suitin’ you?”

“Cookin’s first-rate,” said Reuben mildly, “but I don’t feel for beans tonight. Hot weather always puts me off my feed. Tomatoes is coolin’.”

Jake brought a tin of tomatoes, and Reuben broke soda crackers into the juice and made his meal of them.

DUT after supper the strange propen^ sity of Reuben for soap and water continued. He began a thorough ablution of his whole body in a wash tub of hot suds, scrubbing himself unashamedly before his indignant partner now washing the greasy dishes in a scant quart of lukewarm water. Then he put on clean underwear, fresh from the Chinaman’s laundry in Richvale, smelling of washingsoda and brown paper; then drew forth his blue Sunday serge and yellow shoes. He contemplated his wrinkled trousers, then enquired for an iron.

“Fire’s out,” snapped Jake.

Reuben sighed, then put his trousers under the mattress of his bunk.

“You’re beginnin’ to wash as often as a bloomin’ Mohammedan,” said Jake. “Turnin’ heathen, are ye?” “Dusty in the fields.”

“Third shirt this week,” continued the critic. “D’ye think I’ve got nothing to do but wash shirts?”

“I aim to have the Chink do the b’iled shirts, Jake.” “I s'pose I don’t wash to suit ye.”

“Sure you do, Jake. But if I want to wear three clean shirts a week, there ain’t no call for you to wash 'em.” “Ye changed that underwear last week.”

“Well, cleanliness is next to godliness, partner, so I’ve heard. And a great sight easier to get. I’m goin’ to milk the cow.”

“High time ye did. She’s been bellerin’ for the last hour, while ye were swillin’ water on yer hide.”

Reuben put his clean legs into his overalls and went out to do the chores, leaving Jake much perplexed and troubled. Something had happened to his big, easygoing partner. For years their bachelor establishment had been a model of its kind. Three hundred and twenty rich acres, half belonging to each man, stretched about their shack. It contained one fourteen-by-fourteen room, with low loft above, and in that small space was all the gear necessary to the well-being of man when unhampered by the presence of woman. Curtains, carpets and knick-knacks had never adorned it. Two wooden bunks against the walls, with mattresses and woollen blankets, two broken down armchairs for lounging, two upright ones for the business of eating, a home-made table, a rusty stove, a cream separator, and an uncurtained cupboard for dishes and packages of food. An opened sack of flour lay in a rusty wash-boiler; a heap of potatoes tumbled in a corner. Pipes, catalogues, and bottles of Jake’s cough mixture filled every windowledge. Through the open door sailed squadrons of flies, and marched platoons of chickens. Three cats slept under the stove, and a fresco of hounds couchant lay about the walls. It was the home of freedom and peace, if not of comfort. What matter if neighboring farmers’ wives turned up their noses at it and talked of the sanitary inspector? Reuben and Jake had been happy and had prospered in it for fifteen years. They had everything heart of bachelor could wish. They worked through the summer, banked a good competence every fall, and read and dozed through the winter.

T3UT now the snake had entered their Eden. Its crawling presence had been first revealed to Jake by a trail of soap—silly little rolls of shaving soap, pink and green bath soap, and even a whole dozen of laundry soap at once. Soap—more soap than a man could use in a lifetime. Jake threw most of it at the marauding cats. One cake of soap lasted him a month. Take women, now . . . they would put a whole cake in a washing of clothes.

Then shirts. Reuben already had a shirt that had done duty as “best” for live years. True, it was a little frayed about the cuffs and neckband, but one shirt would have replaced it. Why five? And suddenly one morning there had waved upon the air of the shack a gaudy streamer of blue and black and orange—a necktie! And yellow shoes that called for polishing every time they were worn, gleamed like suns from under Reuben’s bunk!

Every Saturday night they had had supper early, and then primed and coaxed and cranked the crazy old car, and rattled into Richvale. They bought their weekly stint of canned goods, baker’s stale loaves and bologna and bacon; received an armful of newspapers at the office; and, big man and little man, strolled along Main Street to gossip and joke and argue with other bachelors; staying apart from the married men with their flocks of children, their portly wives and polished motor cars. They knew themselves set apart, men of a vanishing breed, survivors of a womanless age, free souls who had escaped the noose, the shackles, the cradle song.

Every Sunday they slept luxuriously late, smoked and yarned over their breakfast. Sometimes other bachelors drove up to their hospitable door. Then Reuben hastened to wring the necks of skinny fowls, while Jake opened numerous cans. The men ate, smoked, talked, played cards all day. Or else they, too, went visiting in turn, coming back at dusk to another week of leisurely labor and unchallenged peace.

Those were the good old days !

And now here comes the new day, when Reuben must bathe himself and put on clean clothes every Saturday night; when he no longer had appetite for he-man’s food of bacon and beans; when he must press his trousers between mattress and plank like any city feller. Town three times a week, and Sat’day nights sneaking off on some fool’s errand like being out of tobacco, when the} had two fresh cans in the grub box that very minute!

The old partner shook his tousled head as he watchec Reuben’s progress about the barn. When he came in Jake pretended to read a newspaper, but watched fron behind its pages his partner’s progress into the mattress valeted trousers, fresh shirt and striped tie. Reuben picked up a mud-flecked raincoat and started for the door.

“Well. . . so long, Jake. Want anything from town?” “Happen I might want to fetch it myself if I did.”

“I didn’t know you wanted to go tonight. Come along. I’ll wait for you.”

“No, thankee. Once a week’s enough for all the business I need to do.”

“Don’t wait up for me, then, Jake.”

“I see myself waitin’ up for anybody,” was Jake’s reply, hurled with the viciousness of slingshots, at his partner’s broad back.

BUT he waited up for him. In fact he went to town without acknowledging to himself why he did so. For an hour after Reuben had gone, he muttered and fumed about the house; then suddenly he was astride the fat pony and jogging bareback along the road to Richvale. His sharp elbows flapped up and down like a scarecrow’s in the wind.

In the town, he made an excuse of needing tobacco, and enquired in the People’s Store, in Proctor’s, at the Chinese restaurant, for a brand he knew they did not carry. Reuben was not in any of these rendezvous, nor after careful examination did he see the car parked on any of the principal streets. He looked in the hotel, poked his head into the blacksmith’s shop, inspected poolroom and livery barn. Then at last, sadly and with reluctant feet, he turned his way to where he knew he would find Reuben—after hoping against hope that he would come upon him elsewhere.

It was a quiet, dark street, where houses stood far apart. His stumbling old feet brought him, willy-nilly, to the last house of all, a tiny white box of a place. It smelled like a handkerchief, he thought, being set in a carpet of mignonette and hedged with larkspur and hollyhock. But Jake didn’t notice the beauties of the little house; he was intent on the lighted square of the window.

Inside, he saw the big figure of Reuben, his soaped countenance ashine with a fond light, his yellow shoes resting on a floor as colorful as themselves. From his chest downward he was hidden behind a sweep of snowy linen, decorated at very frequent intervals with chinaware of brilliant colors, piled high with delectable edibles. Jake recognized the sugary doughnut and the iced layer-cake; palisades of cheese-buns and baking-powder biscuit; bowls of brightly tinted preserves and jellies; platters of baked meats, and dozens of other messes of pottage for which Reuben was selling his birthright. The old man’s blurry eyes travelled across that alimentary expanse to where a second figure rose above the snowy linen; a figure veiled in a cloud of coffee steam, like an idol behind incense.

Mrs. Lily Baumgarten was fair, fat and forty. Her stoutness she could not help, any more than can any other able exponent of the exquisite art of cookery; neither could she help the forty years which come upon all men and especially upon women. But her fairness was not altogether the result of a blond complexion; rather was it the outward expression of an innate kindliness and patience toward all her fellowcreatures.

But Jake did not see her in that light. She was the blond enchantress who lured men with shining floors and starched linens and delectable foods. For such comforts men exchanged freedom, like a foolish colt caught with oats; gave such hostages to fortune as could never be redeemed. And here was poor Reuben, simpering over an arc of pumpkin pie, opening his mouth for the bit, and bending his neck for the yoke. Jake had known it—he had felt it in his bones—ever since that soap had begun to come into the shack. Soap, the trail that the woman leaves whereever she goes. How many good men have slipped up on it !

If was an old and weary man who turned away from the window. He was angry with the soft-hearted Reuben; perhaps that was why his fingers trembled on the window-sill; why the wind suddenly blew chilly, and his bones ached. He woke the fat pony in the livery barn and jogged off home. The warmth of the beast between his knees warmed his chilled blood.

What would he do without Reuben? Their partnership, which had lasted fifteen years without one word of anger or reproach, now was about to dissolve. Jolting through the night, past the railway station, he saw himself and Reuben jumping off the freight on which they had been riding, and Reuben saying: “This looks like a good country, Jake. Let’s stay.” And they had stayed. The acres they had brushed, the stumps they had pulled, the herculean labors they had performed, before the land was tamed! He remembered the winter when Reuben had been helpless with rheumatism, and he had nursed him like a mother. He thought of the day when the red bull had trampled him, and Reuben had stood astride of his battered body and beaten off the mad brute. The lean years and the fat years marched before his tired eyes. And now when things were easy with them; comes this stout woman with a talent for making folks comfortable—and Reuben slips away from him.

What could he do to save Reuben? This woman would go into his house and make it so comfortable that a plain man could not live in it. Reuben would get soft and fat, eating cake and preserves and baked meats and potatoes, instead of hard crackers and bacon and beans. He would not be able to go to town on Saturday nights and walk up and down the street and smoke and argue. He would have to go into the stores and carry out his wife’s parcels. But not for Jake. He would go his own way. He would keep his hard-earned freedom.

"DEUBEN slept very late next morning. He was not ^ used either to late suppers or late hours. But he woke to something unusual in his surroundings. He seemed to be choking in a dense fog; and there was a sound of swishing and brushing about him, mingled with the mournful wails of hounds routed from their accustomed ease. Reuben sneezed violently three times and sat upright.

“What’s the celebration, Jake? First of July?”

“No—it’s Crissmuss. Stay right where ye are. I’m havin’ a reddin’-up day.”

“You haven’t had a reddin’-up day for two years.”

“All the more reason why we had ought to have one today. Lift up them boots, if ye don’t want ’em filled with soap an’ water.”

Reuben rescued his boots, and surveyed the scene from the refuge of his bunk. The cats were marooned on cupboard and table; the mournful hounds wept at a respectful distance. Dust and scraps and papers, that formerly had been strewn evenly about the floor now floated on the swelling flood that was agitated by the manipulation of a worn broom in Jake’s hands. When the swishing ceased, the flood ebbed, and the dirt was left high and dry in islands and archipelagos. The cats came down from their perches and the hounds ventured in again. Jake sat down and wiped his brow. If Reuben was so heart-set on bein’ clean, he’d show him that he could clean up as well as any widdy woman. And if bein’ tired of bacon and beans was what ailed him, he’d give him a change. He’d stir up a mess of flapjacks.

But the leathery cakes and the burned porridge showed not that they were labors of love. Reuben ate them patiently, without comment. Jake sighed. What oblations could he offer that would compare with that table he had seen last night? Reuben did not notice that his old partner scarcely touched a morsel.

“I brought home some parcels last night, Jake. Where are they?”

“Is that them?” responded the old man, pointing to the cream separator.

Reuben opened them, and displayed a pie, a home-

made loaf and a box of sugared doughnuts.

“Bakeshop stuff?”

“Naw,” grinned Reuben, sheepishly. “This is real, genuine home cookin’. And it’s a present to you, besides.”

“I don’t hold with sweet stuffs.”

“Take the will for the deed, then,” begged Reuben.

“Don’t know who I ought to be thankin’.” Reuben saw that the old partner was not going to help him, so he leaped boldly in.

“I . . . I’m thinkin’ of gettin’ spliced, Jake.” “And who is the unfort’nit female?”

“Aw, Jake, don’t be sore about it. I wouldn’t think of bringin’ any woman in here that you wouldn’t like.”

“Here !” shrieked Jake, with sudden energy. “Do you mean to tell me that you’re aimin’ to bring a woman in here?”

“Ain’t it needin’ a woman?” demanded Reuben. Then he could have bitten out his tongue, for the irascible Jake became suddenly, pitifully quiescent.

“I reckon you think it does, Reuben,” he said. “I been noticin’ your pink soap and yeller shoes and biled shirts, and I could see you was beginnin’ to tire of your rough old pardner. Fifteen year we’ve lived here together, and never a wrong word between us. We’ve made good, pardner, you with your work and me with my bit of cookin’ and washin’.”

“You’ve worked hard, too, Jake. You’ve pulled level trace with me. I ain’t denying it.”

“It don’t matter anyway, Reuben. I done my best, and so did you, accordin’ to our lights and our strength o’ body. It turned out well. But that has nothing to do with the present question. You’re a young man, twenty years younger than me. You want a woman to worrit you into your grave. Go ahead an’ have her. But I didn’t think you’d turn your old pardner out in his old age.”

“Why, Jake, I’m not turnin’ you out . why, old pardner . . ”

“Turnin’ me out of the house I helped build. I didn’t think it of you, Reuben Spinners.”

“Jake, I would no more turn you out than I would my own mother. What put that darn fool idee into your head? Ain’t half of everything yours? Half the farm, half the house, the stock, our bank account? I couldn’t turn you out if I wanted to.”

“And do you think I’m a-goin’ to live in the house with a woman?”

“Man, she won’t bite you. She’ll make things easier for you. You’ll have a clean bed to sleep in and a clean bite to eat. You won’t have to work so hard; you can sit in the sun all day.”

“Am I as old as that?” said Jake tremulously. “Set me aside like an old grandpap, would you, to sit in an armchair till I die? I know I can’t work in the field like I used to, and I know I make extra expense, havin’ to hire help in the busy seasons. But let me tell you, I aim to do my stint until my last day. And I’m goin’ to do it in my own house.”

“That’s wha - she said. It’s your house, and she didn’t want you to feel in the way. She’d do for you like she would for me . . .”

“Not if I knows it, she won’t!” shrieked Jake. “And you can tell Lily Baumgarten for me that she can come in here and take everything, but I go across the fence on to my own land, and build me a shack for myself.”

“Jake, don’t take on so.”

“You got a right to have a wife, if you want one,” continued Jake, “but you ain’t goin’ to marry her to me, too. You go your ways and I’ll go mine.”

“That ain’t no way for old pardners to talk.”

“We ain’t pardners no more. I’m a useless old grandpap, and you’re going to be a married man.”

“Now see here, Jake, let’s look at this thing fair and square. We can’t divide the land and stock. I owe a lot to you, and I’ll do anything in reason for you; but there’s something coming to me as well. I owe something to Lily, too. Ain’t I been sittin’ in her house and at her table and walkin’ out with her? I can’t drop off now.”

“You can drop off later—like her first man,” sneered Jake. “Then she’ll get your money. I know widdies.”

“Her first man was a lunger, and she took care of him and earned the living for two, until he died. Lily’s a good woman, Jake, and there’s no call for you to be insultin’.”

“I ain’t askin’ you to do anything but what’s right, Reuben. Get married if you want to. But I get over the fence.”

“We don’t want to turn you out. But how can I work the land, and live anywhere else?”

“You ain’t turnin’ me out. I’m going of my own free will.”

“I’ll buy your half of the shack, then, and help you with a new one.”

“You kin have my half for a weddin’ present. And I ain’t too old to put up a roof over my own head.”

“And everything else goes on as before?” “There ain’t no reason for it to be otherwise.”

Reuben accepted the terms, and tendered a peace offering.

“Have one of these doughnuts, Jake. They’re prime.”

“No, thankee. Flapjacks sit on my stummick better.”

'THUS was the famous Cottrell-Spinners partnership dissolved. In its material ways, its ploughing and reaping and threshing, it went on as before, but the soul, the sublime essence of that comradely union, had vanished. The greatest of the bachelor strongholds was no more. Its fall resounded throughout the country like the fall of the walls of Jericho. Bachelors, still holding out, felt their battlements crumbling and the noose tightening about their collars. Only Lily Baumgarten looked grave when Reuben told her about it. But she said nothing, sitting twirling the little pearl ring that Reuben had chosen for her from the mailorder catalogue. She was a kind and patient woman.

So passed the winter months, and spring once more smiled upon the land. She smiled upon Jake’s little tumbledown shack, set across the wire fence from Reuben and Lily’s neat home. What a change in that erstwhile bachelor abode! Fences had been mended, barnyard litter, tin cans and rubbish were rigidly excluded. The one room of the shack had been expanded into four, its walls and floors painted and varnished. But in spite of Jake’s dismal prediction there was no litter of women’s gear. Lily Spinners, lately Baumgarten, was too wise a woman for that. She knew that a man who had lived long alone had no liking for frills and furbelows on the implements of living. So she contented herself with neatness and cleanliness, embellished by that nameless something which makes a home.

Jake had never entered the house. He had never crossed the fence into its neat yard. When farm business called him across to Reuben’s acreage, he went by way of the barnyard. But he watched his neighbor’s doings with intense interest. Yet he remained adamant against all the blandishments of Reuben and his wife. Even Christmas brought no relenting. Reuben came over early to his partner’s shack and brought a cordial invitation. Surely he would not refuse them on this day of days. Lily herself came to the fence and begged him. Jake thanked them, but remained firm. He had promised to spend the day with his Old friend, Cal Sumner, one of the few survivors of the old bachelor brigade. He must keep his word. He always remembered old friends, he said. With him, it was not off with the old and on with the new, like some he could mention. And he would be sure to spill gravy on the tablecloth, or use the wrong fork to stir his coffee, and what then?

“But we won’t have a linen cloth,” protested Lily. “We’re just plain working folks like yourself. A nice white oilcloth, and there’s turkey, and pudding ...”

“Thankee kindly, ma’am, but I’ll be goin’ my'own way.”

Once Lily tried bribery. Hearing that the old partner was sick, she sent over a tempting dinner on a tray. She never knew how nearly she succeeded. The savory meal made Jake’s mouth water, but with a great effort he abstained. One mouthful, he knew, and he would be caught., He aimed to die a free man. Reuben, coming for the tray an hour later, found the food untouched. Jake thanked them kindly, but he had no appetite.

Reuben was deeply hurt, and somewhat angry with the obstinate old man.

“ ’Twouldn’t hurt him to eat a meal’s vittles with us,” he complained to his wife. “We ain’t interferin’ with him.”

“Leave him be,” advised that kind and patient woman. “Old folks don’t like to be hurried or changed. He’ll come round.”

“ ’Tain’t right. You’re all I expected of you, Lily, and more, but there’s a sore spot in my heart because old Jake won’t be friends with us.”

“He is friends with us, Reuben. Just his stubborn pride that won’t let him give in. Don’t you believe but he would like to come in here and sleep in that nice warm room we fixed for him, and have decent food and whole clothes.”

“He likes his own ways, does Jake.”

“He can have his own ways and he knows it. But no man likes to admit that he’s been a bit of a goose. Let him alone, Reuben. He’ll come over in time.”

T3UT the spring months passed into full summer, and still Jake kept to his own side of the fence. He looked with scorn at the changes in Reuben’s shack; sniffed at the vegetable garden and Lily’s flowers. He shut his eyes to the fact that order and good management in the house made the routine of the farm doubly efficient, and a man could certainly plow farther in a day, Reuben boasted, when he had whole socks to stand in. There were several cows in the pasture now, and frequent fat cheques for cream. Household bills fell, for no mice now roamed through the flour and sugar, and the voracious hounds had been succeeded by an efficient collie.

But old Jake, tormented by flies and mice, still held out. Only his freedom flourished. He was free to go and eat canned beans and fried eggs with Cal Sumner; to throw his socks and shirt on the floor; to wash his hands once a day or once a week as it pleased him. No woman ever told him what to do, or when to do it. No one, in fact, ever told him anything, and a man can’t argue with himself.

Sometimes the smell of Lily’s pansies and mignonette made him uneasy. They stirred long-dead memories in his heart. So he complained to Reuben about that stinkin’ stuff in the front garden. Hadn’t the ground better be used for tryin’ out them new seed potatoes?

But Reuben only shook his head at these complaints, and tried in vain to reconcile his partner. And as the summer went on, he ceased to try to win over the old man. He seemed anxious and careworn, and Jake chuckled as he watched him. He knew it— something had gone wrong in Reuben’s household. He’d find out that married life wasn’t all sunshine. Then even Lily kept out of his sight, and it irritated him. He’d got used to seeing her among the flowers in the morning. Sulkin’ inside, you bet. He rode over to Cal Sumner’s on Sunday to ask if he had heard anything.

But Cal knew nothing and cared less, and the two old bachelors spent the day commiserating Reuben and congratulating themselves. Cal promised to come over the following Sunday and they’d investigate. But something had gone wrong with the weekly can of beans, and the two old men had miseries of their own to occupy them for the next few days.

'T'HEN one fine morning Jake crawled out into the sunshine, and looked over toward Reuben’s. Then he rubbed his eyes. Reuben and Lily were walking in the garden. Lily, usually so brisk and energetic, walked slowly; and Reuben, soft fool, put his arm about her waist, supporting her. They walked under the trees toward the pasture, and Lily’s yellow hair made a halo about her pale face.

Jake came over to the fence to see better, leaning his aching midriff across it. As he did so, a queer sound reached his ears, a little bleating sound, like a young lamb caught in the wire.

“Huh!” said Jake. “Reuben’s bees buyin’ sheep, like I always advised him to. They’d do fine in that stony pasture by the the crick.”

The lamb bleated again, and Jake, always merciful to an animal in distress, forgot that he was on enemy territory, and crossed the fence in the direction of the sound. It led him to the kitchen door, through which he peeked cautiously. He found that the sound originated in a clothes basket standing by the stove.

“Huh! She let him bring it into the kitchen anyways. Reuben knows how to take care of young lambs. No use losing it when putting it warm and dry by the fire will save you a fine sheep. S’pose the mother’s dead. Wonder if it’s one o’ them Southdowns. I’ll take a look and see if it’s all right.”

He ventured inside. Reuben and Lily were out of sight. He would look at the lambkin and then be back across the fence before they returned.

But the basket evidently contained only a mass of white stuff, soft and warm.

“Now where the heck is that lamb?” demanded Jake, crossly. “It’ll be smothered under all that gear.”

He rummaged through the warm covers, and the lamb stirred and bleated, and then caught the old man’s thumb in five rosy fingers.

JAKE stood rigid, while the heavens rent in twain and the fragments fell about him. Sweat stood upon his brow; his knees shook. With an effort he controlled himself. He must get away; he mustn’t let Reuben and Lily see him like this. He tugged gently.

But the lamb’s tiny fingers were strong; so strong that unless they relaxed voluntarily he could never get away. He looked down at them, and was astonished to see how gnarled and dirty were his own fingers. Searching further, he saw a pair of round brown eyes regarding him steadily from the basket.

Jake had never thought of this. Here was something that transcended pride of sex or love of freedom. It was all right, he thought, for a man to be independent when he was alone, but when there was a boy to be considered . . . sure, it was a boy. Wasn’t that what he’d been wanting all these years, so that there would. be someone to look after the place when he was through with it? Reuben had left him for a woman, but this here boy now, he’d stick around, he’d look after things right, and not go runnin’ about after the women . . . leastways, not while old

Uncle Jake was above the sod.

He looked about him. The parents were still absent. He became very angry. Didn’t they know nothin’, leavin’ a baby like that? He might fall out of the basket; he might have a fit or somethin’. Was this the way to bring up a young one, leavin’ it crying in a basket by the kitchen stove? He’d stay right here and see that nothing touched it . . . until they came back.

Maybe he’d stay longer than that. Reuben and Lily’d be pretty busy now. They wouldn’t be able to get along without him.

Did his lonely old heart welcome this new son in place of the one of whom Lily had bereft him? Or was it merely an excuse to his own pride and self-will, to come back to the hearth he had loved? What did it matter?

The baby fingers relaxed, as if they knew now that they held him captive forever. He tiptoed to the wash bench, and began to scrub his dirty fingers.

So Reuben and Lily found him, sitting with clean hands beside the infant.