"What feller's that, Hank?" the driver twisted his head in his muffled collar.
"Feller that had the lookout on Mount Hough las' summer. He's hidin' out up there somewheres. Him an' the girl used to meet—I know that fer sure. Uh course I ain't sayin' anything—but they's two lost er none, you take it from me."
The driver grunted and seemed to meditate upon the matter. "What did that perfessor wade clear down to Marston through the storm for, and report her lost, if she ain't lost?"
"He come down to see if she'd took the train las' night. That's what he come for. She'd went off somewheres before noon, and didn't show up no more. He didn't think she was lost, till Morton told him she hadn't showed up to take no train. That's when the perfessor got scared and phoned in."
The driver grunted again, and called upon his leaders to shake a leg—they'd have walking enough and plenty when they hit the hill, he said. Again they neared the valley's rim, so that pine trees with every branch sagging under its load of snow, fringed the background. Like a pastel of a storm among hills that she had at home, thought Mrs. Singleton Corey irrelevantly. But was it Jack whom the man called Hank referred to? The thought chilled her.
"What's he hidin' out for, Hank? Funny I never heard anything about it." The driver spoke after another season of cogitation, and Mrs. Singleton Corey was grateful to him for seeking the information she needed.
"Well, I dunno what fur, but it stands to reason he's on the dodge. All summer long he never showed up in Quincy when he was relieved. Stayed out in the hills—and that ain't natural for a young city feller, is it? 'N' then he was ornery as sin. Got so't I wouldn't pack grub up to him no more. I couldn't go 'im, the way he acted when a feller come around. 'N' then when they closed up the station, he made camp up there somewheres around Taylor Rock, and he ain't never showed his nose in town. If I knowed what fur, I might 'a' did something about it. They's a nigger in the woodpile somewheres, you take it from me."
"Well, but that ain't got anything to do with the girl," the driver contested stubbornly. "I know her—she's a mighty fine girl, too; and good-looking as they make 'em. I hauled their stuff up last summer—and them, too. They seem like nice enough folks, all of 'em. And I saw her pretty near every time I hauled tourists up to the lake."
Hank chuckled to himself. "Well, I guess I know 'er, too, mebby a little better'n what you do. I ain't saying anything ag'inst the girl. I say she was in the habit of meeting this feller—Johnny Carew's the name he went by—meetin' him out around different places. They knowed each other, that's what I'm sayin'. And the way I figure, she'd went out to meet him, and either the two of 'em's lost, er else they're both storm-stayed up at his camp. She's mebby home by this time. I look for 'er to be, myself."
"You do, hey?" The driver twisted his head again to look back at Hank. "What yuh going up to help hunt her for, then?"
"Me, I'm just goin' fur the ride," Hank grinned.
They overtook Murphy, plodding along in the horse-trampled, deep snow, with a big, black hat pulled down to his ears, an empty gunny sack over his shoulders like a cape, a quart bottle sticking out of each coat pocket. They took him into the sleigh and went on, through another half mile of lane.
After that they began abruptly to climb through pine forest. In a little they crossed the railroad at the end of a cut through the mountain's great toe. Dismal enough it looked under its heavy blanket of snow that lay smoothly over ties and rails, the telegraph wires sagging, white ropes of snow. Mrs. Singleton Corey glanced down the desolate length of it and shivered.
After that the four horses straightened their backs to steady, laborious climbing up a narrow road arched over with naked oak trees set amongst pines. Here, too, the deep snow was trampled with the passing of horses—the searching party, she knew without being told. The driver spoke to the two behind him, after a ten-minute silence against the heavy background of roaring overhead.
"Know that first turn, up ahead here? If we don't have to shovel through, we'll be lucky."
From the back of the sleigh where he was sitting flat, Murphy spoke suddenly. "A-ah, an' av ye don't have to saw yer trail through a down tree, ye'll be luckier sthill, I dunno. An' it's likely there ain't a saw in the hull outfit!" He spat into the storm and added grimly, "An' how ye're to git the shled around a three-fut tree, I dunno."
"Sure takes you to think up bad luck, Murph," Hank retorted. "We ain't struck any down timber so fur."
"An' ye ain't there yet, neither—not be four mile ye ain't."
Mrs. Singleton Corey, wrapped in her furs, with snow packing full every fold and wrinkle of her clothing left uncovered by the robe, did not hear the aimless argument that followed between Hank and Murphy. The sonorous shwoo-oosh of the wind-tormented pine tops surged through the very soul of her, the diapason accompaniment to the miserere of motherhood. Somewhere on this wild mountainside was Jack, huddled from the wind in a cave, or wandering miserably through the storm. Wrapped in soft luxury all her life, Mrs. Singleton Corey shuddered as she looked forth through her silken veil, and saw what Jack was enduring because she had never taught her son to love her; because she had not taught him the lessons of love and trust and obedience.
Of the girl who was lost she scarcely thought. Jack was out here in the cold and the snow and the roaring wind; homeless because she had driven him forth with her coldness; friendless because she had not given him the precious friendship of a mother. Her own son, fearing his mother so much that he was hiding away from her among these terrible, mourning, roaring forests! Behind her veil, her delicately powdered cheeks showed moist lines where the tears of hungry motherhood slid swiftly down from eyes as brown as Jack's and as direct in their gaze, but blurred now and filled with a terrible yearning.
GRIEF, AND HOPE THAT DIED HARD
During the months when she had hidden her shame in a sanitarium, Mrs. Singleton Corey first learned how it felt to be unsatisfied with herself. Had learned, too, what it meant to have her life emptied of Jack's roisterous personality. She had learned to doubt the infallibility of her own judgments, the justice of her own viewpoints. She had attained a clarity of vision that enabled her to see herself a failure where she had taken it for granted that she was a success. She had failed as a mother. She had not taught her son to trust her, to love her—and she had discovered how much she craved his love and his trust.
Now she was learning other things. For the first time in her sheltered life Mrs. Singleton Corey knew what it meant to be cold; bitterly cold—cold to the middle of her bones. As Murphy had predicted, a tree had fallen across the trail, so close to their passing that they had heard the crash of it and had come up to see the branches still quivering from the impact. Before then Mrs. Singleton Corey had learned the feel of biting cold, when she waited on a bald nose of the hill while three shovels lifted the snow out of the road so that they could go on. Her unaccustomed ears had learned the sound of able-bodied swearing because the horseman had taken a short-cut over the hill and so had not broken the trail here for the team.
Then, because the driver had not prepared for the emergency of fallen trees—rather, because the labor of removing a section would have been too long even if they had brought axes and a cross-cut saw—she learned how it felt to be plodding through snow to her aristocratic knees. She had to walk a mile and a half to reach Toll-Gate cabin, which was the only shelter on the mountainside, save the cabin of Murphy and Mike, which was out of the question. She had to walk, since she declined to ride one of the horses bareback; so she was tired, for the first time in her pampered life, and she knew that always before then she had merely played at being tired.
The driver, being unable to go farther with the sleigh, and having a merciful regard for his four horses, turned back when the men had lifted the sleigh around so that it faced townward. So Mrs. Singleton Corey had the novel experience of walking with the assistance of Murphy, whose hands were eager to help the lady, whose tongue was eager to while away the wearisome journey with friendly converse, whose breath was odorous of bad whisky. The other two men went ahead with the blankets and the gunny-sack of supplies, and broke trail for Murphy and the lady whose mission remained altogether a mystery, whose manner was altogether discouraging to curiosity.
Those of us who have never experienced hardships, never plumbed the black depths of trouble, never suffered desperate anguish, are too prone to belittle the suffering of others. Mrs. Singleton Corey had always secretly believed that suffering meant merely a certain bearable degree of discomfort. In exalted moments she had contemplated simple living as a desirable thing, good to purge one's soul of trivialities. Life in the raw was picturesque.
She changed her mind with a suddenness that was painful when she tottered thankfully into Toll-Gate cabin and found the main room unswept and with the breakfast dishes cold and cluttered upon the rough, homemade table. And Kate crying on a couch in the other room, close enough to the heating stove so that she could keep the fire up without putting her injured foot to the floor. She did not know this disheveled woman with swollen eyes and a soiled breakfast cap and an ugly bathrobe and one foot bandaged like a caricature of a gouty member of plutocracy. The Kate Humphrey she hazily remembered had been a careful product of refinement, attired in a black lace evening gown and wearing very good imitation pearls.
But Mrs. Singleton Corey gave no more than one glance at Kate, who hurriedly pulled her bathrobe together and made a half-hearted attempt to rise and greet her properly. The stove looked like a glimpse of paradise, and Mrs. Singleton Corey pulled up a straight-backed chair and sat down with a groan of thankfulness, pulling her snow-sodden skirts up above her shoetops to let a little warmth reach her patrician limbs. She fumbled at the buttons of her coat and threw it open, laid a palm eloquently upon her aching side and groaned again.
But the dauntless Mrs. Singleton Corey could not for long permit her spirit to be subdued, especially since she had not yet found Jack.
"Well, can you get word to my son that I am here and should like to see him?" she asked, as soon as the chill had left her a little. "This is a terrible storm," she added politely.
Even when Kate had explained how impossible it was to get word to any one just then, Mrs. Singleton Corey refused to yield one bit of her composure to the anxiety that filled her. She simply sat and looked at poor Kate like the chairman of a ways-and-means committee who is waiting to hear all the reports.
"You think, then, that the young woman went to meet Jack?"
"I know she did. She was furious because I had not concealed the fact of his being here, but I felt that I owed it—"
"Yes, to be sure. And where would she be most likely to meet him? Do you know?"
"I know where she did meet him," Kate retorted with an edge to her voice. "She couldn't have gotten lost, though, if she had gone there. It is close to the road you traveled. Doug—Professor Harrison has led a party up where Marion said Jack had his cave. If they are there, we shall know it as soon as they come back."
"Yes, certainly. And if they are not there?" Mrs. Singleton Corey held her voice firm though the heart within her trembled at the terrible possibility.
"Well—she didn't take the train, we know that positively. She must be up there with Jack!"
Mrs. Singleton Corey knew very well that Kate was merely propping her hope with the statement, but she was glad enough to accept the prop for her own hopes. So they talked desultorily and with that arms-length amiability which is the small currency of polite conversation between two strange women, and Mrs. Singleton Corey laid aside her dignity with her fur-lined coat, and made tea for them—since Kate could not walk.
Late in the afternoon men began to straggle into the cabin, fagged and with no news of Marion. The professor was brought back so exhausted that he could not walk without assistance, and talked incoherently of being shot at, up near the peak, and of being unable to reach Taylor Rock on account of the furious wind and the deep drifts.
Hank Brown declared that he could make it in the morning, and one or two others volunteered to go with him. It began to seem more and more likely that Marion was up there and compelled by the storm to stay, in whatever poor refuge Jack might have. It seemed useless to make any further attempt at hiding Jack's identity and whereabouts, although Mrs. Singleton Corey, with a warning glance at Kate and a few carefully constructed sentences, managed to convey the impression that Jack had been hiding away from her, after a quarrel between them which had proved merely a misunderstanding. She was vastly relieved to see that her explanation was accepted, and to know that if Quincy had ever heard of the auto-bandit affair, it had forgotten all about it long ago.
Still, that was a small relief, and temporary. Until the next day they were hopeful, and the physical discomfort of staying in that crude little cabin with a lot of ungrammatical, roughly clad men, and of having no maid to serve her and not even the comfort of privacy, loomed large in the mind of Mrs. Singleton Corey. Never before in her life had she drunk coffee with condensed cream in it, or eaten burned bread with stale butter, and boiled beans and bacon. Never before had she shared the bed of another woman, or slept in a borrowed nightgown that was too tight in the arms. To Mrs. Singleton Corey these things bore all the earmarks of tragedy.
But the next day real tragedy pushed small discomforts back into their proper perspective. It still stormed, though not so furiously, and with fitful spells of sunlight breaking through the churning clouds. The men left the cabin at daylight, and Mrs. Singleton Corey found herself practically compelled to wash the dishes and sweep the floor and wait on the distracted Kate who was crushed under the realization of Mrs. Singleton Corey's disgust at her surroundings. Conversation languished that day. Mrs. Singleton Corey sat in a straight-backed chair and stared out of the window that faced the little basin, and waited for Jack to come. She had suffered much, and she felt that fate owed her a speedy return of the prodigal.
Instead of that they brought Hank Brown to the cabin, dead on a makeshift stretcher. When the shock of that had passed a little, so that her mind could digest details, Mrs. Singleton Corey learned, with a terrible, vise-like contraction of the heart, that Hank had climbed ahead of the others and had almost reached the place they called Taylor Rock, where Jack was said to have his cave. Those below had heard a rifle shot, and they had climbed up to find Hank stretched dead in the snow. Two men had searched the vicinity as well as they could, but they had found nothing at all. The snow, they said, was drifted twenty feet deep in some places.
They did not tell her what they thought about it, but Mrs. Singleton Corey knew. And Kate knew. And the two women's eyes would not meet, after that, and their voices were constrained, their words formal when they found it necessary to have speech with each other.
Mrs. Singleton Corey forgot the crudities and the discomforts of Toll-Gate cabin after that. She watched the trail, and her eyes questioned dumbly every man that came in for rest and food before going out again to the search. They always went again, fighting their way through the storm that never quite cleared. They went forth, with a dogged persistence and a courage that made Mrs. Singleton Corey marvel in spite of her absorption in her own anxiety.
Men with fresh horses and fresh supplies came up from the valley, and the search went on, settling to a loose system of signals, relief shifts and the laying out of certain districts for certain men to cover, yard by yard. The body of Hank Brown was lashed upon a horse and taken down to Quincy, and in the evening the mystery of his death was discussed in the kitchen, where the men sat in a haze of tobacco smoke. Mike had been reported absent from his cabin, the day that Murphy came up from the valley, and he had not returned. So there was mystery in plenty to keep the talk going. One man shot dead from ambush and three persons missing, were enough to stir the most phlegmatic soul—and Mrs. Singleton Corey, however self-possessed her manner, was not phlegmatic.
Stormy day followed stormy day, and still they found no trace of Marion, got no glimpse of Jack. There were days when the wind made it physically impossible to climb the peak and search for the cave under Taylor Rock, dangerous to be abroad in the woods. Hank had said that he knew about where the cave was—but Hank's lips were closed forever upon garrulous conversation. Two or three others were more or less familiar with that barren crest, having hunted bear in that locality. They led the parties that turned their faces toward the peak whenever the wind and the snow promised to hold back for a time.
They began to whisper together, out in the kitchen where they thought that Mrs. Singleton Corey could not hear. They whispered about the fight that had taken place up at the lookout station, last summer, when Hank had ridden into town sullen and with blackened eyes and swollen lips, and had cursed the lookout on Mt. Hough. It began to seem imperative that they locate that cave as soon as possible, and the man who had shot Hank.
Kate mourned because Fred was not there, and talked as though his presence would right nearly everything. That, and the whispering and the meaning glances among the men when she appeared in the room, exasperated Mrs. Singleton Corey almost beyond endurance. Why did they not find Jack and the girl? What possible use could Fred be, more than any other man? Why didn't somebody do something? She had never seen so inefficient a country, it seemed to her. Why, they had even let the trains stop running, and the telegraph lines were all down! Nobody seemed to know when communication with the outside world would be possible. She might have to stay here a month, for all she could learn to the contrary. There was just one cheerful thought connected with the whole thing, and that was the fact that this Fred, of whom Kate talked so much, could not be summoned. Mrs. Singleton Corey felt that another Humphrey in the house would drive her quite mad.
Then one day Murphy came stumbling in to the cabin, just after three or four disheartened searchers had arrived, and announced that he had got on the track of the man that shot Hank Brown.
"An' it's Mike, the crazy fool thot did it, an' I'll bet money on it," he declared, goggling around at his audience. "An' what's more, the rest of ye had betther be travelin' wit' yer eyes open, fer he's crazy as a loon, an' he'll kill anny one that crosses his trail. An' didn't I notice just this marnin' that his rifle was gone wit' him—me dom eyes bein' so near blind thot I c'uldn't see in the corner where it was, an' only fer wantin' a belt that hung on a nail there, I w'uldn't av been feelin' around at all where the gun sh'uld be standin'. An' it's gone, an' I mind me now the talk he was makin' about sphies in the woods, an' thot the gurrl had betther look out, an' the feller up on the peak had betther look out, an' me thinkin' he was talkin' becawse av the railroad tie thot hit 'im wanct, an' hushed 'im up whin I sh'uld 'a' been takin' 'im in to the crazy house, I dunno. An' if he's kilt the gurrl an' the missus' boy, like he kilt Hank Brown, it's like he's found the cave the lad was livin' in, an' is sthayin' holed up there, I dunno—fer he ain't been near the cabin, an' unlest a tree er a fallin' limb kilt him, he'd have to be sthayin' somewheres. Fer he's kilt the gurrl an' the boy, an' I'll bet money on it, I dunno."
"Looks that way, Murphy—" began one, but he was stopped by a cry that thrilled them with the terrible grief that was in the voice,—grief and hope that was dying hard.
Mrs. Singleton Corey, having stood just within the other room listening, made two steps toward Murphy and fell fainting to the kitchen floor.
TROUBLE FINDS THE GOLD THAT WAS IN THEM
After that nothing seemed to matter. The days slipped by and Mrs. Singleton Corey cared so little that she did not count them or call them by name. She would sit by the one window that faced the Basin and watch the trail beaten in the deep snow by the passing of many feet, and brood over the days when she might have won Jack and by the very closeness of their love have saved him from this. Had she done her part, Jack would not have lied to her about that trip to Venice; he would not have dreamed of such a thing. It hurt terribly to think how close she had been to happiness with Jack and how unthinkingly she had let it slip from her while she centered her interest upon other things that held no comfort for her now—now when all she asked of life was to give her back her son alive.
Men came and went, and answered the heartbreaking question in her big brown eyes with cheerful words that did not, somehow, cheer. The storm was over, they told her, and now they would have a better chance. She mustn't think of what Murphy said—Murphy was an old fool. She mustn't give up. And even while they talked she knew by their eyes that they had given up long ago, and only kept up the pretense of hopeful searching for her sake.
Because the partition was only one thickness of boards she heard them commenting one night on the grim fact that no smoke had been seen at Taylor Rock, though many eyes had watched anxiously for the sign. She listened, and she knew that they were going to give up—knew that they should have given up long ago but for her. With no fire in the cave none could live for long in this weather, she heard them muttering. The cave was drifted full of snow, in the opinion of those who had the most experience with mountain snows. The lost couple might be in the cave, but they were not alive. One man said that they were probably under some fallen tree—and they were many—or buried deep in a gulch somewhere. Certainly after ten days neither Jack nor Marion nor Mike could by any possibility be alive in the hills.
Kate was asleep and did not hear. The professor was out there with the others—probably they thought that Mrs. Singleton Corey was asleep also, for it was growing late. Her chapped knuckles pressed against her trembling lips, she listened awhile, until she could bear no more. How kind they were—these men of Quincy! How they had struggled to keep alive her courage! She got up, opened the door very quietly, and went out into the strong, bluish haze of tobacco smoke that enveloped the men huddled there around the kitchen stove for a last pipe before they turned in. She stood within the door, like "madam president" risen to address the meeting. Like "madam president" she waited for their full attention before she spoke.
"I wish to thank you gentlemen for the heroic efforts you have put forth during the past week," she said, and her low-pitched voice had the full resonance that was one of her charms as a leader among women. "It would be impossible for me to express my grateful appreciation—" She stopped, pressed her lips together for a minute, and when she felt sure of her composure she made a fresh start. "I cannot speak of the risks you have taken in these forests, but I—I appreciate your bravery. I know that you have been in danger from falling trees, nearly every day that you spent searching for—those who are lost. I have learned from your conversations among yourselves how useless you consider the search. I—I am forced to agree with you. Miss Humphrey and Professor Harrison have long ago given up all hope—they say that—that no one could possibly be alive.... I—I know that a mother can be terribly selfish when her son...." Hard as she fought for steadiness, she could not speak of it. She stood with the back of one hand pressed hard against her shaking lips, swallowing the sobs that threatened to balk her determination to speak a little of the humble gratitude that filled her. The men looked down in embarrassed silence, and in a minute she went on.
"Gentlemen, I know that you have gone on searching because you felt that I wanted you to do it, and you were too kind-hearted to tell me the truth. So I beg of you now to go back to your families. I—I must not let my trouble keep you away from them any longer. I—I—have given up."
Some one drew a long breath, audible in that room, where tragedy held them in silence. It was as though those two lost ones lay stark and cold in their midst; as though this woman was looking down upon her son. But when the silence had tightened their nerves, she spoke again with the quiet of utter hopelessness.
"I must ask you to help me get down the mountain somehow. If the railroad is in operation I shall return home. I wish to say that while I shall carry with me the bitterest sorrow of my life, I shall carry also a deep sense of the goodness and the bravery—"
Proud, yes. But proud as she was she could not go on. She turned abruptly and went back into the room where Kate slept heavily. A little later the sound of stifled sobbing, infinitely sad, went out to the men who sat with cooling pipes in their palms, constrained to silence still by the infinite sadness of motherhood bereaved.
"Tomorrow morning we better start in clearing the road," one muttered at last. "Somebody can ride down and have a team come up after her."
"It's no use to hunt any longer," another observed uneasily. "The snow would cover up—"
"Sh-sh-sh!" warned the professor, and nodded his head toward the room door.
In her own home, that had been closed for months, Mrs. Singleton Corey folded her black veil up over the crown of her black hat and picked up the telephone. Her white hair was brushed up from her forehead in a smooth, cloudy fashion that had in it no more than a hint of marcelle waving. Her face was almost as white as her hair, and her eyes were black-shadowed and sunken. She sat down wearily upon the chair beside the telephone stand, waited dull-eyed for Central to answer, and then called up her doctor. Her voice was calm—too calm. It was absolutely colorless.
Her doctor, on the other hand, became agitated to the point of stuttering when he realized who was speaking to him. His disjointed questions grated on Mrs. Singleton Corey, who was surfeited with emotion and who craved nothing so much as absolute peace.
"Yes, certainly I am back," she drawled with a shade of impatience. "Just now—from the depot.... No, I am feeling very well—No, I have not read the papers, and I do not intend to.... Really, doctor, I can see no necessity of your coming out here. I am perfectly all right, I assure you. I shall call up the maids and let them know that I am home, but first I have called you, just to ease your mind—providing, of course, that you have one. You seem to have lost it quite suddenly...."
She listened, and caught her breath. Her lips whitened, and her nostrils flared suddenly with what may have been anger. "No, doctor ... I did not—find—Jack." She forced herself to say it. He would have to know, she reflected.
She was about to add something that would make her statement sound less bald, but the doctor had hung up, muttering something she did not catch. She waited, holding the receiver to her ear until Central, in that supercilious voice we all dislike so much, asked crisply, "Are you waiting?" Then Mrs. Singleton Corey also hung up her receiver and sat there idly gazing at her folded hands.
"I must have a manicure at once," she said to herself irrelevantly, though the heart of her was yearning toward Jack's room upstairs. She wanted to go up and lie down on Jack's bed; and put her head on Jack's pillow. It seemed to her that it would bring her a little closer to Jack. And then she had a swift vision of Taylor Rock, where Jack was said to have his cave. She closed her eyes and shuddered. She could not get close to Jack—she had never been close to him, since he passed babyhood. Perhaps.... The girl, Marion—had Jack loved her? She was grown used to the jealousy that filled her when she thought of Marion. She forced herself now to think pityingly of the girl, dead up there in that awful snow.
She went upstairs, forgetting to telephone to the maids as she had intended. She moved slowly, apathetically, pausing long before the closed door of Jack's room. She would not go in, after all. Why dig deeper into the grief that must be mastered somehow, if she would go on living? She remembered the maids, and when she had put on one of her soft, silk house gowns that she used to like so well, she went slowly down the stairs, forgetting that she had a telephone in her room, her mind swinging automatically to the one in the hall that she had used as she came in. She had just reached it when the doctor came hurrying up the steps and pressed the bell button. She saw him dimly through the curtained glass of the door, and frowned while she let him in. And then—
She knew that the doctor was propelled violently to one side by some one coming behind him, and she knew that she was dreaming the rest of it. The feel of Jack's arm around her shoulders, and Jack's warm, young lips on her cheeks and her lips and her eyelids, and the sound of Jack's voice calling her endearing pet names that she had never heard him speak while she was awake and he was with her—It was a delicious dream, and Mrs. Singleton Corey smiled tremulously while the dream lasted.
"Gee, I'd like to give you a real old bear-hug, but I've got a bum wing and I can't. Gee, we musta passed each other on the road somewhere, because I was streaking it down here to see you—gee, but you look good to me!—and you were streaking it up there to see me—" The adorable young voice hesitated and deepened to a yearning half-whisper. "Did you go away up there just because you—wanted to see me? Did you do that, mother? Honest?"
Mrs. Singleton Corey snapped into wakefulness, but she still leaned heavily within her curve of Jack's good arm. Her eyes—brown, and very much like Jack's—stared up with a shining, wonderful gladness into his face. But she was Mrs. Singleton Corey, and she would not act the sentimental fool if she could help it!
"Yes, I—thought I should have to dig you out of a snowdrift, you—young—scamp!"
"She'd a done it, believe me! Only I wasn't in any snowdrift, so she couldn't—God love her!" He was half crying all the while and trying to hide it; and half laughing, too, and altogether engrossed in the joy of being able to hold his own mother like that, just as he had hungered to do up there on the mountain.
It was the doctor who saw that emotion had reached the outer edge of safety for Mrs. Singleton Corey. Over her head he scowled and made warning signs to Jack, who gave her a last exuberant squeeze and let the doctor lead her to a chair.
"I've got a wife out in the taxi, mother," he announced next. "She wouldn't come in—she's afraid you won't like her. But you will, won't you? Can't I tell her—"
"Bring her right in here to me, Jack," said Mrs. Singleton Corey, gasping a bit, but fighting still for composure to face this miracle of a pitying God.
Bit by bit the miracle resolved itself into a series of events which, though surprising enough, could not by any stretch of the credulity be called supernatural.
Mrs. Singleton Corey learned that, with a bullet lodged somewhere in the upper, northwest corner of Jack's person, he had nevertheless managed to struggle down through the storm to Marston, with Marion helping him along and doing wonders to keep his nerve up. They had taken the train without showing themselves at the depot, which was perfectly easy, Jack informed her, but cold as the dickens.
She managed to grasp the fact that Jack and Marion had been married in Sacramento, immediately after Jack had his shoulder dressed, and that they had come straight on to Los Angeles, meaning to find her first and face the music afterwards. She was made to understand how terribly in earnest Jack had been, in going straight to the chief of police and letting the district attorney know who he was, and then telling the truth about the whole thing in court. She could not quite see how that had settled the matter, until Jack explained that Fred Humphrey was a good scout, if ever there was one. He had testified for the State, but for all that he had told it so that Jack's story got over big with the jury and the judge and the whole cheese.
Fred Humphrey had remembered what Jack had shouted at the boys when they fired. "—And mother, that was the luckiest call-down I ever handed the bunch. It proved, don't you see, that the hold-up was just a josh that turned out wrong. And it proved the boys weren't planning to shoot—oh, it just showed the whole thing up in a different light, you know, so a blind man had to see it. So they let me go—"
"If you could have seen him, you wouldn't have wondered, Mrs. Corey!" Marion had been dumb for an hour, but she could not resist painting Jack into the scene with the warm hues of romance. "He went there when he ought to have gone to the hospital. Why, he had the highest fever!—and he was so thin and hollow-eyed he just looked simply pathetic! Why, they wouldn't have been human if they had sent him to jail! And he told the whole thing, and how it just started in fooling; and why, it was the grandest, noblest thing a boy could do, when the others had been mean enough to lay all the blame on Jack. And he had his shoulder all bandaged and his arm in a sling, and he looked so—so brave, Mrs. Corey, that—"
Mrs. Singleton Corey reached out and patted Marion on the hand, and smiled strangely. "Yes, my dear—I understand. But I think you might call me mother."
If it cost her something to say that, she was amply repaid. Marion gave her one grateful look and fled, fearing that tears would be misunderstood. And Jack made no move to follow her, but stayed and gathered his mother again into a one-armed imitation of a real bear-hug. I think Jack wiped the last jealous thought out of Mrs. Singleton Corey's mind when he did that. So they clung to each other like lovers, and Jack patted her white cloud of hair that he had never made bold to touch since he was a baby.
"My own boy—that I lost from the cradle, and did not know—" She reached up and drew her fingers caressingly down his weathered cheek, that was losing some of its hardness in the softer air of the South. "Jack, your poor old mother has been cheating herself all these years. Cheating you too, dear—"
"Not much! Your cub of a son has been cheating himself and you. But you watch him make it up. And—mother, don't you think maybe all this trouble has been kind of a good thing after all? I mean—if it's brought the real stuff out to the surface of me, you know—"'
"I know. The gold in us all is too often hidden away under so much worthless—"
"Why, forev—" In the doorway Marion checked herself abruptly, because she had resolved to purify her vocabulary of slang and all frivolous expressions. Her eyelids were pink, her lips were moist and tremulous, her face was all aglow. "I—may I please—mother—"
Mrs. Singleton Corey did not loosen her hold of Jack, but she held out her free hand with a beckoning gesture. "Come. I'm going to be a foolishly fond old lady, I know. But I want to hold both my children close, and see if I can realize the miracle."
"Mother!" Jack murmured, as though the word held a wonderful, new meaning. "Our own, for-keeps mother!"
NOVELS By B.M. BOWER
Starr, of the Desert $1.35 net
A new set of characters is here presented by the author in a spirited story of love and mystery intermingled with a Mexican revolt.
The Flying U's Last Stand $1.35 net
What happened when a crowd of farmers and school teachers encamped on the grounds of Flying U Ranch.
The Gringos Illustrated. $1.35 net
A picturesque story of California in the days of the Forty-niners which is "not only entertaining, but also impartially realistic."—Chicago Inter-Ocean.
Good Indian Illustrated. $1.35 net
There is excitement and action on every page.... A somewhat unusual love story runs through the story. Boston Transcript.
The Uphill Climb Illustrated. $1.35 net
It's a cowboy who has an uphill fight in that worst of all fights—a fight with himself. A deep-toned, human note is struck in this narrative.—St. Louis Globe-Democrat.
The Ranch at the Wolverine $1.35 net
A ringing tale full of exhilarating cowboy atmosphere, abundantly and absorbingly illustrating the outstanding feature of that alluring ranch life which is fast vanishing.—Chicago Tribune.
Jean of the Lazy A $1.35 net
She joins the "movies" to solve a murder mystery.
The Phanton Herd $1.35 net
How the Happy Family became "movie" actors.
The Heritage of the Sioux $1.35 net
A "Flying U" story in which the Happy Family get mixed up in a fake robbery for film purposes.