"Will you go feed the team, or shall I?" Bailey quietly interrupted.
"I'll go." And he went out into the storm with savage resolution, while Bailey prepared supper.
"The storm is sure to end to-night," he said, as they were preparing for sleep. As before, Blanche lay down upon the bed, Rivers took the bunk, and Bailey camped upon the floor, content to see his partner well bestowed.
Blanche, unable to sleep, lay for a long time listening to the storm, thinking disconnectedly on the past and the morrow. The strain upon her was twisting her toward insanity. The never-resting wind appalled her. It was like the iron resolution of the two men. She saw no end to this elemental strife. It was the cyclone of July frozen into snow, only more relentless, more persistent—a tornado of frost. It filled her with such awe as she had never felt before. It seemed as if she must not sleep—that she must keep awake for the sake of the little heart of which she had been made the guardian.
As she lay thus a sudden mysterious exaltation came upon her, and she grew warm and happy. She cared no longer for any man's opinion of her. She was a mother, and God said to her, "Be peaceful and hopeful." Light fell around her, and the pleasant odors of flowers. She looked through sunny vistas of oaks and apple-trees. Bees hummed in the clover, and she began to sing with them, and her low, humming song melted into the roar of the storm. She saw birds flying like butterflies over fields of daisies, and her song grew louder. It became sweet and maternal—full of lullaby cadences. As she lay thus, lovely and careless and sinless as a prattling babe, her eyes fixed upon the gleam of lights in the dark, a shaking hand was laid on her shoulder, and Rivers spoke in anxious voice:
"What is it, Blanche?—are you sick?"
She looked at him drowsily, and at last slowly said: "No, Jim—I am happy. See my baby there, in the sunshine! Isn't she lovely?"
The man grew rigid with fear, and the hair of his head moved. He thought her delirious—dying, perhaps, of cold. He gathered her hands in his and fell upon his knees.
"What is it, dear? What do you mean?"
"Nothing, nothing," she murmured.
"You're sure you're not worse? Can't I help you?"
She did not reply, and he knelt there holding her hands until she sank into unmistakably quiet sleep.
He feared the unspeakable. He imagined her taken in premature childbirth, brought on by exposure and excitement, and, for the first time, he took upon himself the burden of his guilt. The thought of danger to her had not hitherto troubled him. For the poor, weak fool of a husband he cared nothing; but this woman was his, and the child to come was his. Birth—of which many men make a jest—suddenly took on majesty and terror, and the little life seemed about to enter a world of storm which filled him with a sense of duty new to him.
He bent down and laid his cheek against his woman's hands, and his throat choked with a passionate resolution. He put his merry, careless young manhood behind him at that moment and assumed the responsibilities of a husband.
"May God strike me dead if I don't make you happy!" he whispered.
Bailey woke in the night, chilled. The fire was low, and as he rose to add some coal to the stove he looked about him in his way. Rivers' bunk was empty. He glanced toward the bed, and saw him wrapped in his buffalo coat kneeling beside Blanche's pillow. He seemed asleep, as his cheek rested upon his right hand, which was clasped in both of hers.
The young pioneer sat for several minutes thinking, staring straight at his friend. There was something here that made all the difference in the world. Suppose these people really loved each other as he loved Estelle? Then he softly fed the fire and lay down again.
His brain whirled as if some sharp blow had dazzled him. Outside the implacable winds still rushed and warred, and beat and clamored, shrieking, wailing, like voices from hell. The snow dashed like surf against the walls. It seemed to cut off the little cabin from the rest of the world and to dwarf all human action like the sea. It made social conventions of no value, and narrowed the question of morality to the relationship of these three human souls.
Lying there in the dark, with the elemental war of wind and snow filling the illimitable arch of sky, he came to feel, in a dim, wordless way, that this tragedy was born of conventions largely. Also, it appeared infinitesimal, like the activities of insects battling, breeding, dying. He came also to feel that the force which moved these animalculae was akin to the ungovernable sweep of the wind and snow—all inexplicable, elemental, unmoral.
His thought came always back to the man kneeling there, and the clasp of the woman's hands—that baffled him, subdued him.
When he awoke it was light. The roar of the wind continued, but faint, far away, like the humming of a wire with the cold. He lay bewildered, half dreaming, not knowing what it was that had impressed him with this unwonted feeling of doubt and weariness. At last he heard a movement in the room and rose on his elbow. Rivers was awake and was peering out at the window.
Blanche replied to his words of greeting with a low murmur—"I feel very weak."
She seemed calmer, also, and her eyes had lost something of their tension of appeal.
Bailey looked at her closely, and his heart softened with pity. He waited upon her and tried by his cheerful smiles to comfort her, nevertheless.
They ate breakfast in silence, as if apprehending the struggle which was still to come.
At last Rivers rose with abrupt resolution.
"Well, now, I'll bring the team around, and we'll get away."
"Wait a minute, Jim," Bailey said. "I want to say something to you." There was a note of pleading in his voice. "Wait a little. I've been thinking this thing over. I don't want you to go away feeling hard toward me." His throat choked up and his eyes grew dim. "I don't want to be hard on you, Jim. It's a mighty big question, and I'm not one to be unjust, specially toward a woman. Of course, somebody's got to suffer, but it hadn't ought to be the woman—I've made up my mind on that. Seems like the woman always does get the worst of it, and I want you to think of her. What is to become of her?"
Blanche turned toward him with a wondrous look—a look which made him shiver with emotion. He looked down a moment, and his struggle to speak made him seem very boyish and gentle.
"I can't exactly justify this trade, Jim, but I guess it all depends on the mother. She ought to be happy anyway, whether you are or not; so if she thinks she'd better go with you, why, I ain't got a word to say."
Blanche gave a low cry, a cry such as no woman had ever uttered in his presence, and fell upon her knees before him.
The cadence of her moan cut deep into his heart. He realized for the first time some part of her suffering, her temptations. Her eyes shone with a marvellous beauty. He was awed by the rapt expression of her face.
"Don't do that," he stammered. "Please get up."
"You're so good!" she breathed.
"Oh no, I'm not. I don't know—I don't pretend to judge—that's all. Yesterday I did, but now—well, I leave the whole business with you and God. Please stand up."
She rose, but stood looking upon him with a fixed, devouring look. He had never seen tears in her eyes before. She had been gay and sullen and tense and sad, but now she was transfigured with some emotion he could not follow. Her eyes were soft and dark, and her pale face, sad and sweet, was instinct with the tenderness of her coming maternity. The sturdy plainsman thrilled with unutterable pity as he looked down upon her.
There was a silence, and then Rivers came to Bailey's side, and said, brokenly,
"Rob, old man, you've done me good—you always have done me good—I'll be faithful to her, so help me God!"
Bailey understood him, and shook his hand. They stood for a moment, palm to palm, as if this were in some sense a marriage ceremony. Bailey broke the tension by saying:
"Well, now get your team—I wouldn't let you take her out into the cold only I know she ought to be where a doctor can be reached. The quicker you go the better."
While Rivers was gone he turned to her and helped her with her cloak and shawl. His heart went out toward her with a brother's love. He talked with cheerful irrelevancy and bustled about, heating a bowlder for her feet and warming her overshoes.
"Now it's all right. Jim will take care of you. Don't worry about Will; I'll go over and see him." He wrapped her in every available blanket and shawl, and at last helped her outside and into the sleigh. He tucked the robe around her while Rivers held the restless horses. His voice trembled as he said:
"Now, Jim, get her under shelter as quick as you can. Leave the team at Wheatland. I'll come after it in a day or two. I want to see somebody in town, anyway."
The woman turned toward him. He saw her eyes shine through her veil. She bared her hand and extended it toward him. "I hope you and Estelle will be happy."
He covered her hand with both of his. The gesture was swift and tender. It seemed to shield and forgive. Then drawing the robe over it without a word, he briskly said, "Well, Jim, I guess this is the fork in the road," and he looked at his chum with misty eyes. Rivers turned away, and they again clasped hands without looking at each other.
"Good-bye, old man," said Rivers.
"Good-bye, Jim, and good luck!"
Bailey saw his partner draw the woman close down under the shelter of his shoulder, while his powerful hand whirled the team to the south.
He stood in the lee of the shanty until the swift sleigh was a slowly moving speck on the plain, then he went in and sat down to muse on the wondrous last look in the woman's eyes. "I wonder what Estelle will say?" he asked himself, and a sense of loneliness, of longing to see her, filled his heart with dreams.