"Well, here's your clean-up, old prospector. Don't swallow any, is all. let's weigh it out, Cash, and see how much it is, just for a josh."
Lovin Child had nuggets to play with there on the bed, and told the world many unintelligible things about it. Cash and Bud dumped all the gold into a pan, and weighed it out on the little scales Cash had for his tests. It was not a fortune, as fortunes go. It was probably all the gold Nelson had panned out in a couple of years, working alone and with crude devices. A little over twenty-three hundred dollars it amounted to, not counting the nuggets which Lovin Child had on the bunk with him.
"Well, it's a start for the kid, anyway," Bud said, leaning back and regarding the heap with eyes shining. "I helped him find it, and I kinda feel as if I'm square with him now for not giving him my half the claim. Twenty-three hundred would be a good price for a half interest, as the claims stand, don't yuh think, Cash?"
"Yeah—well, I dunno's I'd sell for that. But on the showing we've got so far—yes, five thousand, say, for the claims would be good money."
"Pretty good haul for a kid, anyway. He's got a couple of hundred dollars in nuggets, right there on the bunk. Let's see, Lovins. Let Bud have 'em for a minute."
Then it was that Lovin Child revealed a primitive human trait. He would not give up the gold. He held fast to one big nugget, spread his fat legs over the remaining heap of them, and fought Bud's hand away with the other fist.
"No, no, no! Tell a worl' no, no, no!" he remonstrated vehemently, until Bud whooped with laughter.
"All right—all right! Keep your gold, durn it. You're like all the rest—minute you get your paws on to some of the real stuff, you go hog-wild over it."
Cash was pouring the fine gold back into the buck skin bag and the baking-powder cans.
"Let the kid play with it," he said. "Getting used to gold when he's little will maybe save him from a lot of foolishness over it when he gets big. I dunno, but it looks reasonable to me. Let him have a few nuggets if he wants. Familiarity breeds contempt, they say; maybe he won't get to thinkin' too much of it if he's got it around under his nose all the time. Same as everything else. It's the finding that hits a feller hardest, Bud—the hunting for it and dreaming about it and not finding it. What say we go up to the claim for an hour or so? Take the kid along. It won't hurt him if he's bundled up good. It ain't cold to-day, anyhow."
That night they discussed soberly the prospects of the claim and their responsibilities in the matter of Lovin Child's windfall. They would quietly investigate the history of old Nelson, who had died a pauper in the eyes of the community, with all his gleanings of gold hidden away. They agreed that Lovin Child should not start off with one grain of gold that rightfully belonged to some one else—but they agreed the more cheerfully because neither man believed they would find any close relatives; a wife or children they decided upon as rightful heirs. Brothers, sisters, cousins, and aunts did not count. They were presumably able to look after themselves just as old Nelson had done. Their ethics were simple enough, surely.
Barring, then, the discovery of rightful heirs, their plan was to take the gold to Sacramento in the spring, and deposit it there in a savings bank for one Lovins Markham Moore. They would let the interest "ride" with the principal, and they would—though neither openly confessed it to the other—from time to time add a little from their own earnings. Bud especially looked forward to that as a compromise with his duty to his own child. He intended to save every cent he could, and to start a savings account in the same bank, for his own baby, Robert Edward Moore—named for Bud. He could not start off with as large a sum as Lovins would have, and for that Bud was honestly sorry. But Robert Edward Moore would have Bud's share in the claims, which would do a little toward evening things up.
Having settled these things to the satisfaction of their desires and their consciences, they went to bed well pleased with the day.
CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE. MARIE'S SIDE OF IT
We all realize keenly, one time or another, the abject poverty of language. To attempt putting some emotions into words is like trying to play Ave Maria on a toy piano. There are heights and depths utterly beyond the limitation of instrument and speech alike.
Marie's agonized experience in Alpine—and afterward—was of that kind. She went there under the lure of her loneliness, her heart-hunger for Bud. Drunk or sober, loving her still or turning away in anger, she had to see him; had to hear him speak; had to tell him a little of what she felt of penitence and longing, for that is what she believed she had to do. Once she had started, she could not turn back. Come what might, she would hunt until she found him. She had to, or go crazy, she told herself over and over. She could not imagine any circumstance that would turn her back from that quest.
Yet she did turn back—and with scarce a thought of Bud. She could not imagine the thing happening that did happen, which is the way life has of keeping us all on the anxious seat most of the time. She could not—at least she did not—dream that Lovin Child, at once her comfort and her strongest argument for a new chance at happiness, would in ten minutes or so wipe out all thought of Bud and leave only a dumb, dreadful agony that hounded her day and night.
She had reached Alpine early in the forenoon, and had gone to the one little hotel, to rest and gather up her courage for the search which she felt was only beginning. She had been too careful of her money to spend any for a sleeper, foregoing even a berth in the tourist car. She could make Lovin Child comfortable with a full seat in the day coach for his little bed, and for herself it did not matter. She could not sleep anyway. So she sat up all night and thought, and worried over the future which was foolish, since the future held nothing at all that she pictured in it.
She was tired when she reached the hotel, carrying Lovin Child and her suit case too—porters being unheard of in small villages, and the one hotel being too sure of its patronage to bother about getting guests from depot to hall bedroom. A deaf old fellow with white whiskers and poor eyesight fumbled two or three keys on a nail, chose one and led the way down a little dark hall to a little, stuffy room with another door opening directly on the sidewalk. Marie had not registered on her arrival, because there was no ink in the inkwell, and the pen had only half a point; but she was rather relieved to find that she was not obliged to write her name down—for Bud, perhaps, to see before she had a chance to see him.
Lovin Child was in his most romping, rambunctious mood, and Marie's head ached so badly that she was not quite so watchful of his movements as usual. She gave him a cracker and left him alone to investigate the tiny room while she laid down for just a minute on the bed, grateful because the sun shone in warmly through the window and she did not feel the absence of a fire. She had no intention whatever of going to sleep—she did not believe that she could sleep if she had wanted to. Fall asleep she did, however, and she must have slept for at least half an hour, perhaps longer.
When she sat up with that startled sensation that follows unexpected, undesired slumber, the door was open, and Lovin Child was gone. She had not believed that he could open the door, but she discovered that its latch had a very precarious hold upon the worn facing, and that a slight twist of the knob was all it needed to swing the door open. She rushed out, of course, to look for him, though, unaware of how long she had slept, she was not greatly disturbed. Marie had run after Lovin Child too often to be alarmed at a little thing like that.
I don't know when fear first took hold of her, or when fear was swept away by the keen agony of loss. She went the whole length of the one little street, and looked in all the open doorways, and traversed the one short alley that led behind the hotel. Facing the street was the railroad, with the station farther up at the edge of the timber. Across the railroad was the little, rushing river, swollen now with rains that had been snow on the higher slopes of the mountain behind the town.
Marie did not go near the river at first. Some instinct of dread made her shun even the possibility that Lovin Child had headed that way. But a man told her, when she broke down her diffidence and inquired, that he had seen a little tot in a red suit and cap going off that way. He had not thought anything of it. He was a stranger himself, he said, and he supposed the kid belonged there, maybe.
Marie flew to the river, the man running beside her, and three or four others coming out of buildings to see what was the matter. She did not find Lovin Child, but she did find half of the cracker she had given him. It was lying so close to a deep, swirly place under the bank that Marie gave a scream when she saw it, and the man caught her by the arm for fear she meant to jump in.
Thereafter, the whole of Alpine turned out and searched the river bank as far down as they could get into the box canyon through which it roared to the sage-covered hills beyond. No one doubted that Lovin Child had been swept away in that tearing, rock-churned current. No one had any hope of finding his body, though they searched just as diligently as if they were certain.
Marie walked the bank all that day, calling and crying and fighting off despair. She walked the floor of her little room all night, the door locked against sympathy that seemed to her nothing but a prying curiosity over her torment, fighting back the hysterical cries that kept struggling for outlet.
The next day she was too exhausted to do anything more than climb up the steps of the train when it stopped there. Towns and ranches on the river below had been warned by wire and telephone and a dozen officious citizens of Alpine assured her over and over that she would be notified at once if anything was discovered; meaning, of course, the body of her child. She did not talk. Beyond telling the station agent her name, and that she was going to stay in Sacramento until she heard something, she shrank behind her silence and would reveal nothing of her errand there in Alpine, nothing whatever concerning herself. Mrs. Marie Moore, General Delivery, Sacramento, was all that Alpine learned of her.
It is not surprising then, that the subject was talked out long before Bud or Cash came down into the town more than two months later. It is not surprising, either, that no one thought to look up-stream for the baby, or that they failed to consider any possible fate for him save drowning. That nibbled piece of cracker on the very edge of the river threw them all off in their reasoning. They took it for granted that the baby had fallen into the river at the place where they found the cracker. If he had done so, he would have been swept away instantly. No one could look at the river and doubt that—therefore no one did doubt it. That a squaw should find him sitting down where he had fallen, two hundred yards above the town and in the edge of the thick timber, never entered their minds at all. That she should pick him up with the intention at first of stopping his crying, and should yield to the temptingness of him just as Bud bad yielded, would have seemed to Alpine still more unlikely; because no Indian had ever kidnapped a white child in that neighborhood. So much for the habit of thinking along grooves established by precedent
Marie went to Sacramento merely because that was the closest town of any size, where she could wait for the news she dreaded to receive yet must receive before she could even begin to face her tragedy. She did not want to find Bud now. She shrank from any thought of him. Only for him, she would still have her Lovin Child. Illogically she blamed Bud for what had happened. He had caused her one more great heartache, and she hoped never to see him again or to hear his name spoken.
Dully she settled down in a cheap, semi-private boarding house to wait. In a day or two she pulled herself together and went out to look for work, because she must have money to live on. Go home to her mother she would not. Nor did she write to her. There, too, her great hurt had flung some of the blame. If her mother had not interfered and found fault all the time with Bud, they would be living together now—happy. It was her mother who had really brought about their separation. Her mother would nag at her now for going after Bud, would say that she deserved to lose her baby as a punishment for letting go her pride and self-respect. No, she certainly did not want to see her mother, or any one else she had ever known. Bud least of all.
She found work without much trouble, for she was neat and efficient looking, of the type that seems to belong in a well-ordered office, behind a typewriter desk near a window where the sun shines in. The place did not require much concentration—a dentist's office, where her chief duties consisted of opening the daily budget of circulars, sending out monthly bills, and telling pained-looking callers that the doctor was out just then. Her salary just about paid her board, with a dollar or two left over for headache tablets and a vaudeville show now and then. She did not need much spending money, for her evenings were spent mostly in crying over certain small garments and a canton-flannel dog called "Wooh-wooh."
For three months she stayed, too apathetic to seek a better position. Then the dentist's creditors became suddenly impatient, and the dentist could not pay his office rent, much less his office girl. Wherefore Marie found herself looking for work again, just when spring was opening all the fruit blossoms and merchants were smilingly telling one another that business was picking up.
Weinstock-Lubin's big department store gave her desk space in the mail-order department. Marie's duty it was to open the mail, check up the orders, and see that enough money was sent, and start the wheels moving to fill each order—to the satisfaction of the customer if possible.
At first the work worried her a little. But she became accustomed to it, and settled into the routine of passing the orders along the proper channels with as little individual thought given to each one as was compatible with efficiency. She became acquainted with some of the girls, and changed to a better boarding house. She still cried over the wooh-wooh and the little garments, but she did not cry so often, nor did she buy so many headache tablets. She was learning the futility of grief and the wisdom of turning her back upon sorrow when she could. The sight of a two-year-old baby boy would still bring tears to her eyes, and she could not sit through a picture show that had scenes of children and happy married couples, but she fought the pain of it as a weakness which she must overcome. Her Lovin Child was gone; she had given up everything but the sweet, poignant memory of how pretty he had been and how endearing.
Then, one morning in early June, her practiced fingers were going through the pile of mail orders and they singled out one that carried the postmark of Alpine. Marie bit her lips, but her fingers did not falter in their task. Cheap table linen, cheap collars, cheap suits or cheap something-or-other was wanted, she had no doubt. She took out the paper with the blue money order folded inside, speared the money order on the hook with others, drew her order pad closer, and began to go through the list of articles wanted.
This was the list:—
XL 94, 3 Dig in the mud suits, 3 yr at 59c $1.77 XL 14 1 Buddy tucker suit 3 yr 2.00 KL 6 1 Bunny pumps infant 5 1.25 KL 54 1 Fat Ankle shoe infant 5 .98 HL 389 4 Rubens vests, 3 yr at 90c 2.70 SL 418 3 Pajamas 3 yr. at 59c 1.77 OL 823 1 Express wagon, 15x32 in. 4.25 — $14.22
For which money order is enclosed. Please ship at once.
Very truly, R. E. MOORE, Alpine, Calif.
Mechanically she copied the order on a slip of paper which she put into her pocket, left her desk and her work and the store, and hurried to her boarding house.
Not until she was in her own room with the door locked did she dare let herself think. She sat down with the copy spread open before her, her slim fingers pressing against her temples. Something amazing had been revealed to her—something so amazing that she could scarcely comprehend its full significance. Bud—never for a minute did she doubt that it was Bud, for she knew his handwriting too well to be mistaken—Bud was sending for clothes for a baby boy!
"3 Dig in the mud suits, 3 yr—" it sounded, to the hungry mother soul of her, exactly like her Lovin Child. She could see so vividly just how he would look in them. And the size—she certainly would buy than three-year size, if she were buying for Lovin Child. And the little "Buddy tucker" suit—that, too, sounded like Lovin Child. He must—Bud certainly must have him up there with him! Then Lovin Child was not drowned at all, but alive and needing dig-in-the-muds.
"Bud's got him! Oh, Bud has got him, I know he's got him!" she whispered over and over to herself in an ecstasy of hope. "My little Lovin Man! He's up there right now with his Daddy Bud—"
A vague anger stirred faintly, flared, died almost, flared again and burned steadily within her. Bud had her Lovin Child! How did he come to have him, then, unless he stole him? Stole him away, and let her suffer all this while, believing her baby was dead in the river!
"You devil!" she muttered, gritting her teeth when that thought formed clearly in her mind. "Oh, you devil, you! If you think you can get away with a thing like that—You devil!"
CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO. THE CURE COMPLETE
In Nelson Flat the lupines were like spilled bluing in great, acre-wide blots upon the meadow grass. Between cabin and creek bank a little plot had been spaded and raked smooth, and already the peas and lettuce and radishes were up and growing as if they knew how short would be the season, and meant to take advantage of every minute of the warm days. Here and there certain plants were lifting themselves all awry from where they had been pressed flat by two small feet that had strutted heedlessly down the rows.
The cabin yard was clean, and the two small windows were curtained with cheap, white scrim. All before the door and on the path to the creek small footprints were scattered thick. It was these that Marie pulled up her hired saddle horse to study in hot resentment.
"The big brute!" she gritted, and got off and went to the cabin door, walking straight-backed and every mental and physical fiber of her braced for the coming struggle. She even regretted not having a gun; rather, she wished that she was not more afraid of a gun than of any possible need of one. She felt, at that minute, as though she could shoot Bud Moore with no more compunction that she would feel in swatting a fly.
That the cabin was empty and unlocked only made her blood boil the hotter. She went in and looked around at the crude furnishings and the small personal belongings of those who lived there. She saw the table all set ready for the next meal, with the extremely rustic high-chair that had DYNAMITE painted boldly on the side of the box seat. Fastened to a nail at one side of the box was a belt, evidently kept there for the purpose of strapping a particularly wriggly young person into the chair. That smacked strongly of Lovin Child, sure enough. Marie remembered the various devices by which she had kept him in his go cart.
She went closer and inspected the belt indignantly. Just as she expected—it was Bud's belt; his old belt that she bought for him just after they were married. She supposed that box beside the queer high chair was where he would sit at table and stuff her baby with all kinds of things he shouldn't eat. Where was her baby? A fresh spasm of longing for Lovin Child drove her from the cabin. Find him she would, and that no matter how cunningly Bud had hidden him away.
On a rope stretched between a young cottonwood tree in full leaf and a scaly, red-barked cedar, clothes that had been washed were flapping lazily in the little breeze. Marie stopped and looked at them. A man's shirt and drawers, two towels gray for want of bluing, a little shirt and a nightgown and pair of stockings—and, directly in front of Marie, a small pair of blue overalls trimmed with red bands, the blue showing white fiber where the color had been scrubbed out of the cloth, the two knees flaunting patches sewed with long irregular stitches such as a man would take.
Bud and Lovin Child. As in the cabin, so here she felt the individuality in their belongings. Last night she had been tormented with the fear that there might be a wife as well as a baby boy in Bud's household. Even the evidence of the mail order, that held nothing for a woman and that was written by Bud's hand, could scarcely reassure her. Now she knew beyond all doubt that she had no woman to reckon with, and the knowledge brought relief of a sort.
She went up and touched the little overalls wistfully, laid her cheek against one little patch, ducked under the line, and followed a crooked little path that led up the creek. She forgot all about her horse, which looked after her as long as she was in sight, and then turned and trotted back the way it had come, wondering, no doubt, at the foolish faith this rider had in him.
The path led up along the side of the flat, through tall grass and all the brilliant blossoms of a mountain meadow in June. Great, graceful mountain lilies nodded from little shady tangles in the bushes. Harebells and lupines, wild-pea vines and columbines, tiny, gnome-faced pansies, violets, and the daintier flowering grasses lined the way with odorous loveliness. Birds called happily from the tree tops. Away up next the clouds an eagle sailed serene, alone, a tiny boat breasting the currents of the sky ocean.
Marie's rage cooled a little on that walk. It was so beautiful for Lovin Child, up here in this little valley among the snow-topped mountains; so sheltered. Yesterday's grind in that beehive of a department store seemed more remote than South Africa. Unconsciously her first nervous pace slackened. She found herself taking long breaths of this clean air, sweetened with the scent of growing things. Why couldn't the world be happy, since it was so beautiful? It made her think of those three weeks in Big Basin, and the never-forgettable wonder of their love—hers and Bud's.
She was crying with the pain and the beauty of it when she heard the first high, chirpy notes of a baby—her baby. Lovin Child was picketed to a young cedar near the mouth of the Blind ledge tunnel, and he was throwing rocks at a chipmunk that kept coming toward him in little rushes, hoping with each rush to get a crumb of the bread and butter that Lovin Child had flung down. Lovin Child was squealing and jabbering, with now and then a real word that he had learned from Bud and Cash. Not particularly nice words—"Doggone" was one and several times he called the chipmunk a "sunny-gun." And of course he frequently announced that he would "Tell a worl'" something. His head was bare and shone in the sun like the gold for which Cash and his Daddy Bud were digging, away back in the dark hole. He had on a pair of faded overalls trimmed with red, mates of the ones on the rope line, and he threw rocks impartially with first his right hand and then his left, and sometimes with both at once; which did not greatly distress the chipmunk, who knew Lovin Child of old and had learned how wide the rocks always went of their mark.
Upon this scene Marie came, still crying. She had always been an impulsive young woman, and now she forgot that Lovin Child had not seen her for six months or so, and that baby memories are short. She rushed in and snatched him off the ground and kissed him and squeezed him and cried aloud upon her God and her baby, and buried her wet face against his fat little neck.
Cash, trundling a wheelbarrow of ore out to the tunnel's mouth, heard a howl and broke into a run with his load, bursting out into the sunlight with a clatter and upsetting the barrow ten feet short of the regular dumping place. Marie was frantically trying to untie the rope, and was having trouble because Lovin Child was in one of his worst kicking-and-squirming tantrums. Cash rushed in and snatched the child from her.
"Here! What you doing to that kid? You're scaring him to death—and you've got no right!"
"I have got a right! I have too got a right!" Marie was clawing like a wildcat at Cash's grimy hands. "He's my baby! He's mine! You ought to be hung for stealing him away from me. Let go—he's mine, I tell you. Lovin! Lovin Child! Don't you know Marie? Marie's sweet, pitty man, he is! Come to Marie, boy baby!"
"Tell a worl' no, no, no!" yelled Lovin Child, clinging to Cash.
"Aw—come to Marie, sweetheart! Marie's own lovin' little man baby! You let him go, or I'll—I'll kill you. You big brute!"
Cash let go, but it was not because she commanded. He let go and stared hard at Marie, lifting his eyebrows comically as he stepped back, his hand going unconsciously up to smooth his beard.
"Marie?" he repeated stupidly. "Marie?" He reached out and laid a hand compellingly on her shoulder. "Ain't your name Marie Markham, young lady? Don't you know your own dad?"
Marie lifted her face from kissing Lovin Child very much against his will, and stared round-eyed at Cash. She did not say anything.
"You're my Marie, all right You ain't changed so much I can't recognize yuh. I should think you'd remember your own father—but I guess maybe the beard kinda changes my looks. Is this true, that this kid belongs to you?"
Marie gasped. "Why—father? Why—why, father!" She leaned herself and Lovin Child into his arms. "Why, I can't believe it! Why—" She closed her eyes and shivered, going suddenly weak, and relaxed in his arms. "I-I-I can't—"
Cash slid Lovin Child to the ground, where that young gentleman picked himself up indignantly and ran as far as his picket rope would let him, whereupon he turned and screamed "Sunny-gun! sunny-gun!" at the two like an enraged bluejay. Cash did not pay any attention to him. He was busy seeking out a soft, shady spot that was free of rocks, where he might lay Marie down. He leaned over her and fanned her violently with his hat, his lips and his eyebrows working with the complexity of his emotions. Then suddenly he turned and ducked into the tunnel, after Bud.
Bud heard him coming and turned from his work. Cash was not trundling the empty barrow, which in itself was proof enough that something had happened, even if Cash had not been running. Bud dropped his pick and started on a run to meet him.
"What's wrong? Is the kid—?"
"Kid's all right" Cash stopped abruptly, blocking Bud's way. "It's something else. Bud, his mother's come after him. She's out there now—laid out in a faint."
"Lemme go." Bud's voice had a grimness in it that spelled trouble for the lady laid out in a faint "She can be his mother a thousand times—"
"Yeah. Hold on a minute, Bud. You ain't going out there and raise no hell with that poor girl. Lovins belongs to her, and she's going to have him.... Now, just keep your shirt on a second. I've got something more to say. He's her kid, and she wants him back, and she's going to have him back. If you git him away from her, it'll be over my carcass. Now, now, hold on! H-o-l-d on! You're goin' up against Cash Markham now, remember! That girl is my girl! My girl that I ain't seen since she was a kid in short dresses. It's her father you've got to deal with now—her father and the kid's grandfather. You get that? You be reasonable, Bud, and there won't be no trouble at all. But my girl ain't goin' to be robbed of her baby—not whilst I'm around. You get that settled in your mind before you go out there, or—you don't go out whilst I'm here to stop you."
"You go to hell," Bud stated evenly, and thrust Cash aside with one sweep of his arm, and went down the tunnel. Cash, his eyebrows lifted with worry and alarm, was at his heels all the way.
"Now, Bud, be calm!" he adjured as he ran. "Don't go and make a dang fool of yourself! She's my girl, remember. You want to hold on to yourself, Bud, and be reasonable. Don't go and let your temper—"
"Shut your damn mouth!" Bud commanded him savagely, and went on running.
At the tunnel mouth he stopped and blinked, blinded for a moment by the strong sunlight in his face. Cash stumbled and lost ten seconds or so, picking himself up. Behind him Bud heard Cash panting, "Now, Bud, don't go and make—a dang fool—" Bud snorted contemptuously and leaped the dirt pile, landing close to Marie, who was just then raising herself dizzily to an elbow.
"Now, Bud," Cash called tardily when he had caught up with him, "you leave that girl alone! Don't you lay a finger on her! That's my—"
Bud lifted his lips away from Marie's and spoke over his shoulder, his arms tightening in their hold upon Marie's trembling, yielding body.
"Shut up, Cash. She's my wife—now where do you get off at?"
(That, o course, lacked a little of being the exact truth. Lacked a few hours, in fact, because they did not reach Alpine and the railroad until that afternoon, and were not remarried until seven o'clock that evening.)
"No, no, no!" cried Lovin Child from a safe distance. "Tell a worl' no, no!"
"I'll tell the world yes, yes!" Bud retorted ecstatically, lifting his face again. "Come here, you little scallywag, and love your mamma Marie. Cash, you old donkey, don't you get it yet? We've got 'em both for keeps, you and me."
"Yeah—I get it, all right." Cash came and stood awkwardly over them. "I get it—found my girl one minute, and lost her again the next! But I'll tell yeh one thing, Bud Moore. The kid's' goin' to call me grampaw, er I'll know the reason why!"