FICTION

The Hard way

Facing a killer’s gun, Ed learned there’s no use planning for the future . . . unless you act in the present

FRANK BENNETT April 15 1947
FICTION

The Hard way

Facing a killer’s gun, Ed learned there’s no use planning for the future . . . unless you act in the present

FRANK BENNETT April 15 1947

The Hard way

FICTION

FRANK BENNETT

So HE did things the hard way. So what! He was getting them done, wasn't he? He wasn't sitting around the house, hugging a fire and complaining and wanting the impossible. Ed Hicks snapped off a frosty ear of corn and slammed it viciously against the wagon box. And then he stood staring into the gathering dusk and

the swirling snow, feeling a sharp edge of fright move up under his anger.

Something had gone wrong between him and May these last few weeks, and when he wasn’t angry about, it, it scared him. May had been different lately. He’d felt it in just being around her, heard it in her voice, segn it in her eyes.

Maybe the change in her had been caused by her sickness, or by the doctor telling her to take it easy, or by the baby. And again it might be that

May’s love for him was beginning to wear thin. It was this last possibility that frightened Ed.

Thinking back, he guessed he’d loved May without knowing it ever since he had been a kid. He still could feel the heart-thumping shock, that first time he realized he really loved her from the top of her shining golden head clear to the soles of her small shoes. He’d taken her to a pie social at the schoolhouse that night, but he had no memory of the taste of the pie. All he could remember was the way the lights had tangled in her fine soft hair, and the deep blue of her eyes when they’d look at him. And the throaty little laugh that had caught at his heart and made it. beat wildly.

Sometimes he thought it was her laugh that he missed most now. She seemed to have forgotten how to laugh lately. And her soft voice had grown an edge to it when she talked to him.

“You can go on doing things the hard way,” she’d said only this noon, “but as for me, Ed Hicks, I’ll take the new and easier ways!”

Of course, he knew what she meant. She meant electricity from the new highline and running water and a furnace in the basement.

“Things like that cost a lot of money,” he argued. “We’ve got to look ahead. We’ve got to be ready for the lean years when—”

“A person lives only once,” she interrupted sharply.

“That’s right,” Ed agreed, feeling a rising anger sharpen his own voice. “But a person might live a long time to regret some darned foolishness!”

May had turned her straight, slender back on him and walked into another room. He had gone out into the snow, letting the kitchen door slam.

Sharp words and little disagreements had been popping up a lot these last few weeks. Any one of them taken by itself didn’t mean much. But put them all together and you had something that couldn’t be laughed off. And remembering them, lie had a lost, helpless feeling that made his fingers all thumbs as he twisted at the ears of corn.

The snow dusted against his lean brown face, slid past his stubborn chin and sifted under the collar of his heavy sheepskin coat. Unconsciously his big gloved hands reached for another ear on a sagging stalk. Maybe May was right, he thought, feeling a surge of bitterness come over him. Maybe he did do things the hard way, but as long as he got them done—

The crunch of footsteps on frozen cornstalks broke into his thinking, making him look up.

A man emerged from the blur of snow, a small man walking with a limp and carrying a shotgun in the crook of his arm. He wore a tan cap with earflaps pulled down over his ears, and the collar of his shabby overcoat was turned up around his chin, giving his greyish, unshaved face a triangular appearance.

“Hello, there,” the man said.

TTIS voice had a scratchy, sandpaper quality JLJ.that brought a vague feeling of uneasiness to Ed. But the feeling of uneasiness was lost in a surge of irritation. He didn’t like having strangers hunting on his farm. And getting a better look at the triangle of pasty, oldish face and the close-set cold, faded-blue eyes above a thin nose didn’t make him feel any more friendly toward the intruder.

“I like to have people ask me before they hunt on my place,” he said flatly.

The little man shaped hisj thin, bluish lips into what was supposed to pass for a smile.

“I ain’t huntin’ on your place, mister,” he said in his gritty voice. “This snowstorm has got me all mixed up. I’m lost. I heard you over here, so thought I’d come over and find out where I am.”

“You got a gun,” Ed pointed out half-apologetically. “I just naturally figured you were hunting.”

“I’m looking for Tom Bartlett’s place,” the man said.

“You’re close,” Ed told him. “Just a half mile on down the road. But he’s not home. Saw him drive toward town about an hour ago. Haven’t heard no car go back the other way.”

“That’s too bad,” the man said. “Kinda wanted to see him.”

“Friend of Tom’s?” Ed asked casually.

The little man chuckled softly. “That’s right. A friend of Tom’s.”

He turned and went limping back toward the road and was lost in the swirling snow and standing cornstalks before he reached tbe fence. Ed could hear him climbing through the wires, hear his feet crunch on the frozen gravel of the road when he leaped the shallow roadside ditch. Then all was silence except for the rattle of the peppering snow on dry corn leaves.

Funny, Ed thought. Tom Bartlett, a bachelor, lived pretty much to himself. He was a sour, taciturn old man, not given to making friends.

Then Ed recalled the gravelly hoarse voice. Some place—some time—he’d heard a voice like that. Sometime in the dim past. But he soon forgot the little man as his mind turned to May and the aggravating little differences that were rising between them.

Maybe, he told himself, it’s mostly my imagination. Maybe it’s nothing—just her being tired and not very strong since the baby’s come.

But that evening as he and May ate supper, he again felt that something that stood like a wall between them. A wall that he could feel but couldn’t see or quite understand.

He watched her narrowly as she sat across from him, the light from the oil lamp giving her thin face an oldish look that a woman of 25 should not have. Her hair, he thought, didn’t seem to have its old golden lustre, and she kept her eyes on her plate as if she were hiding something from him. She didn’t eat very much. But she hadn’t been well, he remembered, and she slept poorly at night unless she took a little of the sleeping powder the doctor had given her.

She got up from the table once for a cup of hot water, and stood by the cupboard, a slender, tired-looking girlish figure, pouring some medicine out of a bottle into the steaming cup.

“The pump froze up again,” she said tonelessly. He put down his fork. “May,” he asked, “do you always have to be taking medicine?”

She didn’t answer him.

“If you got out once in a while,” he went on, “and got a little exercise and fresh air, you’d feel better.”

She smiled thinly. “I got some exercise today with that old pump.”

“I thought I had enough water pumped to do for the day,” Ed said. He got up and went over to her and took hold of her hands. They felt cold. “Look, May,” he said, “nobody wants nice things around the place any more than I do. But we’ve got to look ahead. Suppose I’d get sick, or—”

“I know,” she said listlessly. She pulled her hands away from him. “It’s just that—” She didn’t finish. She glanced at the clock and added, “We’re missing the news.”

She crossed over to the old battery radio and switched it on.

“It’s just that,” she went on where she’d broken off, “that we could have things easier if we would. We always seem to do things—”

“—the hard way!” he finished for her. A flush of anger rose in his cheeks. “If you had your way,” he went on, “you’d spend every dime we’ve saved !”

“—the man is small, about five feet five or six,” the radio announcer interrupted, his voice sounding twangy through the old-fashioned radio speaker. “He is armed with the shotgun he stole at the hardware store. He walks with a slight limp and is dressed—”

The voice was lost in a little squeal as May turned the dial.

“Perhaps we can get the national news—”

“Tune that station back in!” Ed said tightly. “Why?”

“Tune it in!”

She brought the station hack with a slow careful turn of her wrist.

“—colder tomorrow and clear,” the announcer said. “This is your news reporter, John—”

“We missed it!” Ed said harshly.

“Missed what?” May asked without interest.

Facing a killer’s gun, Ed learned there’s no use planning for the future . . . unless you act in the present

“About the man,” Ed told her. “I saw a man like that today. Came to where I was snapping corn. Asked the way to Tom Bartlett’s. He limped and was carrying a shotgun. Skinny old fellow. Not very tall.”

“Tom Bartlett drove by toward home while you were milking,” May said.

“This fellow talked funny—hoarse, scratchy, I didn’t like his looks.”

THE baby whimpered, and May bent over the crib. She put her hand on the baby’s forehead. “I don’t think she has any fever with her cold,” she said worriedly. Then she came back to the table and stood looking at Ed, her small hands fooling with a fold in her faded blue and white dress. “It wouldn’t likely be the same man who stole the gun.”

“Wish we’d heard all that description,” Ed muttered. “Kinda worries me. Old Tom all alone, and—”

He went over to the window and stood looking into the early blackness of the night and hearing the soft scratch of the snow along the length of the glass. The wind seemed to be rising. He could hear it clawing at the bushes outside.

May said nothing. Lately she seemed never to have much to say to him, unless it were something to aggravate him.

“Maybe I ought to run over and have a look in on Tom,” Ed said more to make talk than anything. “If we had a phone ” May began.

A telephone was one of those things she’d been wanting lately.

“We don’t need a phone,” Ed said gruffly. “I’ve got two legs. I can—”

He stopped. May’s lips were curling at the corners, and he knew what she was thinking. She was thinking that he always did things the hard way. He suddenly felt a touch of anger. It was the anger that decided him more than his worry for Tom.

“I’ll cut across the pasture to Tom’s,” he said, and begun to fight his way into his heavy sheepskin.

“Why don’t you take the car?” May asked sweetly. “You could go in half the time. Or would that be loo easy?”

“I like to do things the hard way!” he said harshly.

He pulled his cap over his ears, kicked his heels down solidly in his four-buckle overshoes and shoved out into the storm. The door slammed behind him. The sharp noise jerked him around. He hadn’t meant for it to slam quite that hard.

The snow melted against his hot face, and the cold drops slid down

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his cheeks and over his square stubborn chin. There it was again, deep inside him—that lost, helpless feeling. A feeling that May’s love for him was wearing thin. Perhaps if he’d fix the house as she wanted it, she would be her old self again. Perhaps she’d remember how to laugh.

His hand reached for the knob. He almost went back to tell her how much she meant to him, that they’d begin right away to make plans for remodelling the old house, that she could have all those things she’d been wanting. But he didn’t.

To turn back would be to show a weakness that was not in him. His words, he knew, would sound forced. They would fall flat. They wouldn’t tear down that barrier between May and him. This thing that had come between them was beyond the reach of words from him alone.

He bowed his head into the wind and snow and clomped toward the pasture.

The moment to turn back had been lost, and his mind had again slipped into its old channel of stubborn cautiousness. Farming, he reasoned, was a pretty hazardous business, and when a man had a little ahead he’d better hang onto it. Perhaps, in another five or 10 years—

He stumbled against the pasture gate, swung it open, put his back squarely to the kitchen light and headed straight across the field.

The cold bit into him, and the wind caught up handfuls of snow and flung it against his face. A shiver went through his lean, hard body. He held a gloved hand over his nose for warmth and pulled his chin down into the fur collar.

Halfway across the pasture, he had a notion to turn back. The more he thought of it, the less likely it seemed that the little man in the cornfield and the one described over the radio were the same. Even if they were the same, wasn’t he sort of sticking his nose into something that wasn’t any of his business? After all, he had troubles of his own.

But Ed Hicks seldom went into reverse. Usually when he started to do something, he did it. Like falling in love with May and marrying her a month later. Or like snapping a load of corn in spite of snow and freezing cold.

He lost sight of the kitchen light when he crossed the low place in the pasture, but when he came up on the other side, there it was, winking in a friendly manner. The snowfall had begun to thin, and above he saw the first faint glow from a new moon. The weather report had been right. It was going to stop snowing and it would get colder. He shivered again and hurried on.

Tom Bartlett’s low house loomed up, a black blot against the snow blanket. A yellow light came through one window and fell in an irregular patch on a drift at the side of the house. Ed, seeing that light, breathed easier. Old Tom was evidently all right, but Ed went on up to the house, anyway. He’d warm his nose and fingers before returning home.

The porch steps creaked under his weight, and the porch itself was slick where the snow had blown across it and frozen. The door was solid and as black as the night, except where the light from the lamp outlined the lower edge.

Ed rapped on the door, his knock sounding hollow against the stillness inside. He knocked twice more before he moved over to the window and looked.

Tom Bartlett used this one room for kitchen, dining room, living room and bedroom. The light came from a bracket lamp. A cot with a brown blanket thrown over it stood against the far wall. An old-fashioned clock on a shelf above pointed at 8.15. The small table set against the left wall held an assortment of dishes and pans and half a loaf of bread in its wrapper. A straight chair had been shoved away from the table as if someone had leaped suddenly to his feet. And back of the round iron stove lay Tom Bartlett!

ED’S EYES widened in horror. Tom lay with his grey head twisted oddly and with his left side toward the window. His left arm lay in a pool of his own blood. The blood had come from a gaping gunshot wound in his side.

The man was dead, Ed had no doubt about that. And he didn’t go in to make sure. Right at the moment, nothing in the world could have made him enter that room. He turned from the window, his feet almost going out from under him on the slick porch. He caught himself against the window ledge, and stood staring into the darkness, wide-eyed and panting and terrified.

At first, Ed Hicks thought only of one thing. The little man with the shotgun might still be around. Right now, he might be standing out there in the darkness, watching Ed and deciding whether or not to cover his first murder with a second.

A fine sweat covered Ed’s face, and the wind striking it turned it icy cold. He flattened himself against the house, listening for the crunch of feet on snow, searching for a movement in the darkness. He saw and heard nothing, and his terror began to subside.

The murderer, he reasoned, wouldn’t be apt to hang around. He would be putting miles between himself and his crime. And then Ed asked himself why would anyone want to murder old Tom, and the answer seemed to come with the question.

He remembered back to the crowded old courtroom in the county courthouse. He’d been a boy of 12 then,

standing in the back of the room, straining to see and hear the mysterious proceedings of justice at this, his first visit in court. Tom Bartlett had been in the witness chair, and his voice, clear and firm, carried to all parts of the room.

“I seen him,” Tom had said. “Seen him come out with that tin money box under his arm!”

And Tom’s voice had gone on, tightening a web of guilt about the accused man.

Suddenly a little man had leaped to his feet. He’d rushed toward the witness, his fists flailing the empty air.

“Tom Bartlett,” he’d said, his voice scratchy, “someday I’ll get you for this!”

The little man had been Mike Corby. He’d been sentenced to 15 years for attempted murder and theft. And Ed knew now it had been Mike Corby who had come into the cornfield to ask the direction to Tom Bartlett’s place after 15 years of prison life. After 15 years of hating. And tonight Mike Corby had had his revenge.

The scratchy voice, that had been the thing that had stuck in Ed’s memory. That was the reason he had had a vague feeling of uneasiness when he’d first heard the man talk this afternoon. Perhaps, if he hadn’t been worrying so much about the trouble between himself and May, he would have remembered it this afternoon. Perhaps he could have saved old Tom’s life.

A sound out of the darkness drove whatever regret he had from his mind and sent the blood pounding through his head. He held his breath, listened. Again he heard it, the crunch of feet in the snow. The noise seemed to be coming from the barn lot.

Crouching low to avoid the yellow globe of light from the window, Ed moved along the porch and let himself to the ground without touching the squeaky steps. Quickly he moved around the side of the house, putting it between himself and the barn.

He didn’t try to fool himself about not being afraid. He was scared. Scared plenty. The slugging of his heart, his quick intake of breath, the cold fingers of fear playing up and down his spine all told him of his terror. He stumbled wildly through the yard, climbed over the fence, lost his footing and rolled headlong into the ditch at the side of the road. Leaping to his feet, he crossed the road and slid between the pasture fence wires.

Once on his own land, a measure of reassurance came to him, and he stopped and looked back. The yellow light burned unwaveringly. Overhead, the stars were bright in the north. Across the pasture, his own kitchen light twinkled cheerfully. Everything was very quiet and peaceful. Even the wind had died down. He called himself a childish fool for being so terrified. The footsteps, no doubt, had been made by one of Tom’s cows or a horse.

He turned away from the Bartlett place and struck out toward home, walking fast but not running, and thinking what he must do. The sheriff must be notified immedidtely. 'That meant he’d have to drive to the nearest telephone, which was about four miles toward town. He couldn’t leave May and the baby alone while he was gone, not with a murderer on the loose. So they’d have to bundle up the baby even if she did have a cold—

Maybe May was right. Maybe they did need a telephone. Maybe if they had a furnace in the old house, the baby wouldn’t have a cold.

He came to the low place in the pasture, and the light from the kitchen window was lost from sight. He suddenly felt very much alone. A buckle

on his right overshoe worked loose, and he stopped to refasten it. He straightened with a little jerk. He thought he’d heard a noise like someone kicking a boot toe against a frozen clod. It was then that he had a sudden and horrifying conviction that he was being followed.

He stumbled up the slope, turned and looked back. He thought he saw a shadow move against the snow, but he didn’t wait to make sure. He ran, his feet heavy and awkward in the fourbuckle overshoes. His breath pumped in and out, freezing cold in his throat, burning like live coals in his lungs. His hammering heart became a sharp, tearing pain in his chest. One thought was uppermost in his mind—to get May and the baby in the car and get away before Mike Corby caught up with them.

Someplace he’d read that when a man killed once, he felt no compunction about killing again and again to cover up his first crime. Mike Corby would be like that. Mike Corby, who had spent the 15 best years of his life behind prison bars, had had plenty of time to develop a hate complex. One that would include any person or persons who crossed the path of his revenge and stood in the way of his freedom.

ED HICKS ran through the pasture gate into the barnyard, his feet spanking against the frozen ground. He circled the load of picked corn, followed the cleared stone path to the kitchen door and pushed inside.

He closed his eyes against the bright light, leaned on the door frame and fought for enough breath to talk.

“May,” he gasped, “we’ve got to get out of here! Mike Corby’s—killed old Tom! He’s following me! He’s—” May’s hoarse cry cut him short. He had his eyes open now and could see her hanging onto a chair for support. Her face was as white as the dishtowels that hung on the line back of the kitchen range.

And then he saw something else and knew that his imagination had played him false out there in the pasture. Mike Corby was sitting in the corner of the kitchen behind the old breakfast table, and eyeing him with a thin smile. His white fingers were wrapped about the bright blue steel of a double-barreled shotgun.

“Sit down,” Mike Corby said in his scratchy voice. “Hope you don’t mind me droppin’ in like this?”

Ed sank down on the nearest chair. It was by a small worktable in front of the cupboard. All the strength had gone out of him, and he leaned against the table for support.

He saw now that May had the coffee pot on the stove and that eggs were frying in the skillet. He saw the old blue and white dress that was a little too large for her now. Vaguely he wondered how long it had been since she’d had a new dress. He didn’t know. He turned back toward Corby. The little man’s faded eyes were fixed on his face. Calculating, soulless eyes. Eyes of a madman.

The man lifted one hand from the gun barrel and rubbed the point of his thin nose.

“Saw your light,” he went on. “Got mixed up on my directions again. Thought I’d ask the way to Centerville. Hungry too.”

Ed said nothing. The eggs sizzled in the skillet, and the coffee began to perk.

“Smells good,” the little man sniffed. Then he looked hard at Ed. “I seen you before. You was shuckin’ corn this afternoon. So you know about Tom? You know too much. An’ the missus knows too much. Reckon if I

let you go, you’d have the sheriff on my trail ’fore I’d have a half a chance to catch the night train out of Centerville. Glad I didn’t hide the gun like I almost did.”

There was no mistaking the man’s intention. Ed felt his mouth turn dry. The long moment of shocked, horrifying silence was shattered by a metallic clatter. May had dropped the egg lifter.

She picked it up with clumsy fingers. The light caught on the waves of her golden hair, and for a moment Ed was carried back to that night, of the pie social. But the moment passed, and he felt a siekish feeling working up through him.

He watched May. She turned toward him. Her blue eyes wide and fearfilled. And some way he suddenly knew that her fear was not for herself as much as it was for him. And in that blinding second of realization, he knew that her love had never worn thin. Would never wear thin. That she wanted those things to make life easier and more enjoyable not only for herself, but for him and the baby as well. It had been his own stubborn, unreasonable caution that had sharpened May’s voice and silenced her laughter.

Ed wanted to touch her. To put his arms about her. To protect her from the insane little killer. To crush the pasty-faced old man in his big hands. He gripped the edge of the table and started to his feet.

The little man moved. He brought the shotgun up over the top of the table and turned the two black muzzles toward Ed.

“Careful!” he said scratchily.

Ed settled back in his chair. He put his hands under the small worktable. The wooden top would afford some protection against buckshot. He turned his hands over slowly and brought his finger tips up against the bottom side of the top. He would heave the table above his head and charge the little man, taking a chance on the thin top warding off enough of the shot to leave him the strength and will to beat the killer into insensibility. Anything to save May. As for himself, it didn’t matter.

He drew his feet up to make the lunge and took one last look at May.

She seemed to grasp his intention, and what little color had seeped back into her cheeks drained away again. With the quickness of a cat, she moved. She put herself between Ed and Mike Corby, stepped around Ed and up to the cupboard and began to rattle the dishes. Ed’s hands dropped away from the table. He dared not make a move, not with May standing in the line of fire.

“My husband,” May said, her voice sounding sharp, “is always doing things the hard way.”

Ed shot a quick startled glance at her.

She dug out a plate, cup and saucer.

“Sugar?” she asked the little man.

He nodded, his faded eyes moving from Ed to May and back again.

May worked with her back to them. Ed could hear a spoon rattle against the sugar bowl, could hear her tearing away the bread wrapper.

‘"Take me,” she went on, her voice edgy, “I do things the easy way. Like putting the sugar in a cup before the coffee. Saves stirring.”

“Sensible,” the little man agreed.

May turned from the cupboard, her hands full of dishes and bread. She walked by where Ed sat and set a cup in front of him. She went on to the breakfast table and put a cup, saucer and plate in front of the little man. All the time, she kept herself in a position that made it impossible for Ed to make

his attack without endangering her.

She reached for the skillet and slid the eggs out on the plate. She picked up the bubbling coffee pot and filled the little man’s cup, then stepped across to the worktable and filled Ed’s cup.

“The easy way is best,” she said quietly. “Always.”

The little man cooled his coffee in his saucer, drank noisily and set the cup back in the saucer.

“You’re right, lady,” he said, his eyes fixing on May as she stood beside Ed. “The easy way is best. That’s why I stole a shotgun. More’n one way to kill a man—but nothin’ beats a shotgun for close work!”

Ed felt a shiver go through him. May’s hand dropped to his shoulder, gave it a little squeeze. He put his big hand over hers and squeezed back.

He knew now, after it was too late and time had about run out on them, that May had always been right. A person lived but once, and he owed it to himself and to others to make the most of this one time. At best, the future was full of unforeseen possibilities—like having a murderer walk into your life. Only the past and present were sure. And it was only the present that one lived, a second at a time; and forever to sacrifice the present for a future that might never come was foolish, even wasteful. These were the things that May had been trying to tell him, and he had been too dull to understand. He gave her hand another little squeeze. A small hand, rough from unnecessary drudgery like thawing out a frozen pump.

The little man ate noisily. When he poured coffee into his saucer for the third time, he spilled a little on the white cloth. The cloth that May had washed spotlessly clean by hand.

Ed felt a deep, futile anger. This little tramp must not kill May. May must rest and grow strong and live many years. And laugh again. He hunched forward against the worktable and May’s fingers dug into his shoulder.

The little man finished eating. He’d spilled a dribble of egg yellow on his unshaven chin and shirt front. Sighing a little, he shoved his plate to one side

and laid the shotgun on the table with the muzzle pointing toward Ed and May. With one hand, he fumbled about in his pockets.

He found cigarettes, but seemed to have trouble getting one out of the crumpled pack.

“After cornin’ in out of that cold, an’ eatin’,” he said, “I feel kinda sleepy.”

He put a cigarette between his thin lips and yawned, and the cigarette rolled across the table. He reached for it and missed it. He looked a little silly. He laughed and tried again. Then his shoulders suddenly sagged, and his head dropped forward on the table.

“Awful—sleepy,” he mumbled and closed his eyes.

Ed looked up at May. Her blue eyes were very wide, her face chalk white.

“The easy way!” she whispered huskily. “I put all my sleeping powder in his coffee cup along with the sugar.”

The little man had begun to snore. Now that the danger was past, the strength went out of May. She swayed, and Ed caught her and lowered her gently into the chair. She began to sob, and he dropped to his knees and put his arms about her.

“Everything’s all right, May,” he whispered. “Everything’s always going to be right. We’ll fix up the house like you want it. We’ll do things the easy—”

“All that matters is that we have each other!” she said. “It doesn’t matter about the old house!”

Ed found that he was able to chuckle. “You’re right about us,” he said, pressing his lips against her golden hair. “But you’re wrong about the house. We’ll start tomorrow—”

“But, Ed, we’ve got to think about—”

“Don’t argue, darling,” he said. “That’s doing it the hard way, and the hard way isn’t always best.”

She snuggled against him and laughed softly. It was her old throaty laugh that he’d missed so much lately. It was a lovely wonderful laugh, and it went tingling through him, telling him better than anything May could have said that now everything was all right between them. ^