And Bud Never Guessed
From: Cabin Fever
That night, when he had been given a bath in the little zinc tub they used for washing clothes, and had been carefully buttoned inside a clean undershirt of Bud's, for want of better raiment, Lovin Child missed something out of his sleepytime cudding. He wanted Marie, and he did not know how to make his want known to this big, tender, awkward man who had befriended him and filled his thoughts till bedtime. He began to whimper and look seekingly around the little cabin. The whimper grew to a cry which Bud's rude rocking back and forth on the box before the fireplace could not still.
"M'ee—take!" wailed Lovin Child, sitting up and listening. "M'ee take—Uvin Chal!"
"Aw, now, you don't wanta go and act like that. Listen here, Boy. You lay down here and go to sleep. You can search me for what it is you're trying to say, but I guess you want your mama, maybe, or your bottle, chances are. Aw, looky!" Bud pulled his watch from his pocket—a man's infallible remedy for the weeping of infant charges—and dangled it anxiously before Lovin Child.
With some difficulty he extracted the small hands from the long limp tunnels of sleeves, and placed the watch in the eager fingers.
"Listen to the tick-tick! Aw, I wouldn't bite into it... oh, well, darn it, if nothing else'll do yuh, why, eat it up!"
Lovin Child stopped crying and condescended to take a languid interest in the watch—which had a picture of Marie pasted inside the back of the case, by the way. "Ee?" he inquired, with a pitiful little catch in his breath, and held it up for Bud to see the busy little second hand. "Ee?" he smiled tearily and tried to show Cash, sitting aloof on his bench beside the head of his bunk and staring into the fire. But Cash gave no sign that he heard or saw anything save the visions his memory was conjuring in the dancing flames.
"Lay down, now, like a good boy, and go to sleep," Bud wheedled. "You can hold it if you want to—only don't drop it on the floor—here! Quit kickin' your feet out like that! You wanta freeze? I'll tell the world straight, it's plumb cold and snaky outside to-night, and you're pretty darn lucky to be here instead of in some Injun camp where you'd have to bed down with a mess of mangy dogs, most likely. Come on, now—lay down like a good boy!"
"M'ee! M'ee take!" teased Lovin Child, and wept again; steadily, insistently, with a monotonous vigor that rasped Bud's nerves and nagged him with a vague memory of something familiar and unpleasant. He rocked his body backward and forward, and frowned while he tried to lay hold of the memory. It was the high-keyed wailing of this same man-child wanting his bottle, but it eluded Bud completely. There was a tantalizing sense of familiarity with the sound, but the lungs and the vocal chords of Lovin Child had developed amazingly in two years, and he had lost the small-infant wah-hah.
Bud did not remember, bat for all that his thoughts went back across those two years and clung to his own baby, and he wished poignantly that he knew how it was getting along; and wondered if it had grown to be as big a handful as this youngster, and how Marie would handle the emergency he was struggling with now: a lost, lonesome baby boy that would not go to sleep and could not tell why.
Yet Lovin Child was answering every one of Bud's mute questions. Lying there in his "Daddy Bud's" arms, wrapped comically in his Daddy Bud's softest undershirt, Lovin Child was proving to his Daddy Bud that his own man-child was strong and beautiful and had a keen little brain behind those twinkling blue eyes. He was telling why he cried. He wanted Marie to take him and rock him to sleep, just as she had rocked him to sleep every night of his young memory, until that time when he had toddled out of her life and into a new and peculiar world that held no Marie.
By and by he slept, still clinging to the watch that had Marie's picture in the back. When he was all limp and rosy and breathing softly against Bud's heart, Bud tiptoed over to the bunk, reached down inconveniently with one hand and turned back the blankets, and laid Lovin Child in his bed and covered him carefully. On his bench beyond the dead line Cash sat leaning forward with his elbows on his knees, and sucked at a pipe gone cold, and stared abstractedly into the fire.
Bud looked at him sitting there. For the first time since their trails had joined, he wondered what Cash was thinking about; wondered with a new kind of sympathy about Cash's lonely life, that held no ties, no warmth of love. For the first time it struck him as significant that in the two years, almost, of their constant companionship, Cash's reminiscences had stopped abruptly about fifteen years back. Beyond that he never went, save now and then when he jumped a space, to the time when he was a boy. Of what dark years lay between, Bud had never been permitted a glimpse.
"Some kid—that kid," Bud observed involuntarily, for the first time in over three weeks speaking when he was not compelled to speak to Cash. "I wish I knew where he came from. He wants his mother."
Cash stirred a little, like a sleeper only half awakened. But he did not reply, and Bud gave an impatient snort, tiptoed over and picked up the discarded clothes of Lovin Child, that held still a faint odor of wood smoke and rancid grease, and, removing his shoes that he might move silently, went to work.
He washed Lovin Child's clothes, even to the red sweater suit and the fuzzy red "bunny" cap. He rigged a line before the fireplace—on his side of the dead line, to be sure—hung the little garments upon it and sat up to watch the fire while they dried.
While he rubbed and rinsed and wrung and hung to dry, he had planned the details of taking the baby to Alpine and placing it in good hands there until its parents could be found. It was stolen, he had no doubt at all. He could picture quite plainly the agony of the parents, and common humanity imposed upon him the duty of shortening their misery as much as possible. But one day of the baby's presence he had taken, with the excuse that it needed immediate warmth and wholesome food. His conscience did not trouble him over that short delay, for he was honest enough in his intentions and convinced that he had done the right thing.
Cash had long ago undressed and gone to bed, turning his back to the warm, fire-lighted room and pulling the blankets up to his ears. He either slept or pretended to sleep, Bud did not know which. Of the baby's healthy slumber there was no doubt at all. Bud put on his overshoes and went outside after more wood, so that there would be no delay in starting the fire in the morning and having the cabin warm before the baby woke.
It was snowing fiercely, and the wind was biting cold. Already the woodpile was drifted under, so that Bud had to go back and light the lantern and hang it on a nail in the cabin wall before he could make any headway at shovelling off the heaped snow and getting at the wood beneath. He worked hard for half an hour, and carried in all the wood that had been cut. He even piled Cash's end of the hearth high with the surplus, after his own side was heaped full.
A storm like that meant that plenty of fuel would be needed to keep the cabin snug and warm, and he was thinking of the baby's comfort now, and would not be hampered by any grudge.
When he had done everything he could do that would add to the baby's comfort, he folded the little garments and laid them on a box ready for morning. Then, moving carefully, he crawled into the bed made warm by the little body. Lovin Child, half wakened by the movement, gave a little throaty chuckle, murmured "M'ee," and threw one fat arm over Bud's neck and left it there.
"Gawd," Bud whispered in a swift passion of longing, "I wish you was my own kid!" He snuggled Lovin Child close in his arms and held him there, and stared dim-eyed at the flickering shadows on the wall. What he thought, what visions filled his vigil, who can say?
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