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Annie's Boy








From: The Man From The Bitter Roots

When Bruce was left alone in the gloomy canyon, where the winter sun at
its best did not shine more than three hours in the twenty-four, he had
wondered whether the days or nights would be the hardest to endure. It
was now well into December, and still he did not know. They were equally
intolerable.

During the storms which kept him inside he spent the days looking at the
floor, the nights staring at the ceiling, springing sometimes to his
feet burning with feverish energy, a maddening desire to do
something--and there was nothing for him to do but wait. Moments would
come when he felt that he could go out and conquer the world bare-handed
but they quickly passed with a fresh realization of his helplessness,
and he settled back to the inevitable.

It was folly to go out penniless--unarmed; he had learned that lesson in
the East and his condition then had been affluence compared to this. He
was doing the one thing that it was possible for him to do in the
circumstances--to get money enough to go outside.

"Slim" had brought a collection of traps down the river from Meadows,
and Bruce had set these out. So far he had been rather lucky and the
pile of skins in the corner was growing--lynx, cougar, marten, mink--but
it still was not high enough.

If Bruce had been less sensitive, more world-hardened, his failure would
not have seemed such a crushing, unbearable thing, but alone in the
killing monotony he brooded over the money he had sunk for other people
until it seemed like a colossal disgrace for which there was no excuse
and that he could never live down. In his bitter condemnation of himself
for his inexperience, his ill-judged magnanimity, he felt as though his
was an isolated case--that no human being ever had made such mistakes
before.

But it was thoughts of Helen that always gave his misery its crowning
touch. She pitied him, no doubt, because, she was kind, but in her heart
he felt she must despise him for a weakling--a braggart who could not
make good his boasts. She needed him, too,--he was sure of it--and lack
of money made him as helpless to aid her as though he were serving a
jail sentence. When, in the night, his mind began running along this
line he could no longer stay in his bunk; and not once, but many times,
he got up and dressed and went outside, stumbling around in the brush,
over the rocks--anything to change his thoughts.

He tried his utmost to put her out of his mind, yet as he plodded on his
snow-shoes, along his fifteen-mile trap line, either actively or
subconsciously his thoughts were of her. He could no longer imagine
himself feeling anything more than a mild interest in any other woman.
He loved her with the same concentration of affection that he had loved
his mother.

Bruce had formed the habit of wondering what she would think of this and
that--of imagining how she would look--what she would say--and so all
through the summer she had been associated with the work. He had
anticipated the time when he should be showing her the rapids with the
moonlight shining on the foam, the pink and amber sunsets behind the
umbrella tree, and when the wind blew among the pines of listening with
her to the sounds that were like Hawaiian music in the distance.

Now, try as he would, he could not rid himself of the habit, and, as he
pushed his way among the dark underbrush of creeks, he was always
thinking that she, too, would love that "woodsy" smell; that she, too,
would find delight in the frozen waterfalls and the awesome stillness of
the snow-laden pines.

But just so often as he allowed his imagination rein, just so often he
came back to earth doubly heavy-hearted, for the chance that she would
ever share his pleasure in these things seemed to grow more remote as
the days went by.

Bruce had built himself a shelter at the end of his trap-line that
consisted merely of poles and pine boughs leaned against a rim-rock.
Under this poor protection, wrapped in a blanket, with his feet toward
the fire at the entrance and his back against the wall, he spent many a
wretched night. Sometimes he dozed a little, but mostly wide-eyed, he
counted the endless hours waiting for the dawn.

During the summer when things had continually gone wrong Bruce had found
some comfort in recounting the difficulties which his hero of the
Calumet and Hecla had gone through in the initial stages of the
development of that great mine. But that time had passed, for, while
Alexander Agassiz had had his struggles, Bruce told himself with a
shadowy smile, he never had been up against a deal like this! there was
no record that he ever had had to lie out under a rim-rock when the
thermometer stood twenty and twenty-five below.

In the long, soundless nights that had the cold stillness of infinite
space, Bruce always had the sensation of being the only person in the
universe. He felt alone upon the planet. Facts became hazy myths, truths
merely hallucinations, nothing seemed real, actual, except that if he
slept too long and the fire went out he would freeze to death under the
rim-rock.

It was only when he dropped down from the peaks and ridges and began to
follow his own steps back, that he returned to reality and things seemed
as they are again. Then it was not so hard to believe that over beyond
that high, white range there were other human beings--happy people,
successful people, people with plenty to read and plenty to do, people
who looked forward with pleasure, not dread, to the days as they came.

He was so lonely that he always felt a little elated when he came across
an elk track in the snow. It was evidence that something was stirring
in the world beside himself.

One day three deer came within thirty feet of him and stared.

"I suppose," he mused, "they're wondering what I am? Dog-gone!" with
savage cynicism. "I'm wondering that myself."

Whatever small portion of his spirits he had recovered by exercise and
success at his traps, always disappeared again on his return down Big
Squaw Creek. To pass the head-gate and the flume gave him an acute pang,
while the high trestle which represented so much toil and sweat, hurt
him like a stab. It seemed unbelievable that he could fail after all
that work!

When he passed the power-house with its nailed windows and doors he
turned his head the other way. It was like walking by a graveyard where
some one was sleeping that he loved.

Bruce always had been peculiarly depressed by abandoned homesteads,
deserted cabins, machinery left to rust, because they represented wasted
efforts, failure, but when these monuments to dead hopes were his own!
His quickened footsteps sometimes became very nearly like a run.

It was from such a trip that Bruce came back to his cabin after two
days' absence more than ordinarily heavy-hearted, if that were possible,
though his luck had been unusually good. He had a cougar, one lynx, and
six dark marten. Counting the State bounty on the cougar, the green
skins be brought back represented close to a hundred dollars. At that
rate he soon could go "outside."

But to-night the thought did not elate him. What was there for him
outside? What was there for him anywhere? As he had trudged along the
trail through the broken snow, the gloom of the canyon had weighed upon
him heavily, but it was the chill silence in the bare cabin when he
opened the door that put the finishing touches upon his misery. The
emptiness of it echoed in his heart.

The blankets were in a mound in the bunk; he had been too disheartened
before he left even to sweep the floor; the ashes over-flowed the stove
hearth and there was no wood split. The soiled dishes, caked with
hardened grease, made him sick. The chimney of the lamp he lighted was
black with smoke. It was the last word in cheerlessness, and there was
no reason to think, Bruce told himself, that it would not be in such
surroundings that he would end his days. He was tired, hungry; his
vitality and spirits were at low ebb.

He warmed over a pan of biscuits and cold bacon and threw a handful of
coffee in the dismal looking coffee pot. When it was ready he placed it
on the clammy oilcloth and sat down. He eyed the food for a moment--the
ever-present bacon, the sticky can of condensed milk, the black coffee
in the tin cup, the biscuits covered with protuberances that made them
look like a panful of horned toads. He realized suddenly that, hungry as
he had thought himself, he could not eat.

With a sweeping, vehement gesture he pushed it all from him. The tin cup
upset and a small waterfall of coffee splashed upon the floor, the can
of condensed milk rolled across the table and fell off but he did not
pick it up. Instead, he folded his arms upon the oilcloth in the space
he had made and dropping his forehead upon his ragged shirt-sleeve, he
cried. Bruce had hit bottom.

Older, wiser, braver men than Bruce have cried in some crisis of their
lives. Tears are no sign of weakness. And they did not come now because
he was quitting--because he did not mean to struggle on somehow or
because there was anything or anybody of whom he was afraid. It was only
that he was lonely, heartsick, humiliated, weary of thinking, bruised
with defeat.

These tears were different from the ready tears of childhood, different
from the last he had shed upon his dead mother's unresponsive shoulder;
these came slowly--smarting, stinging as they rose. His shoulders moved
but he made no sound.

* * * * *

A little way from the cabin where the steep trail from Ore City dropped
off the mountain to the sudden flatness of the river bar, some dead
branches cracked and a horse fell over a fallen log, upsetting the
toboggan that it dragged and taking Uncle Bill with it. Helen hurried to
the place where he was trying to extricate himself from the tangle.

"Are you dead, Uncle Bill?"

"Can't say--I never died before. Say," in a querulous whisper as he
helped the floundering horse up--"Why don't you notice where you're
goin'? Here you come down the mountain like you had fur on your feet,
and the minute I gits you where I wants you to be quiet you make more
noise nor a cow-elk goin' through the brush. How you feelin', ma'am?" to
Helen. "I expect you're about beat."

"Sorry to disappoint you, Uncle Bill, but I'm not. You tried so hard to
keep me from coming I don't think I'd tell you if I was."

"You wouldn't have to--I reckon I'd find it out before we'd gone far.
I've noticed that when a lady is tired or hungry she gits powerful
cross."

"Where did you learn so much about women?"

"I've picked up considerable knowledge of the female disposition from
wranglin' dudes. A bald-face bear with cubs is a reg'lar streak of
sunshine compared to a lady-dude I had out campin' once--when she got
tired or hungry, or otherwise on the peck. Her and me got feelin' pretty
hos-tile toward each other 'fore we quit.

"I didn't so much mind packin' warm water mornin's for her to wash her
face, or buttonin' her waist up the back, or changin' her stirrups every
few miles or gittin' off to see if it was a fly on her horse's stummick
that made him switch his tail, but I got so weak I couldn't hardly set
in the saddle from answerin' questions and tryin' to laugh at her
jokes.

"'Say,' says she, 'ain't you got no sense of humor?' atter I'd let out
somethin' between a groan and a squeal. 'I had,' I says, ''till I was
shot in the head.' 'Shot in the head! Why didn't it kill you?' 'The
bullet struck a bolt, ma'am, and glanced off.' We rode seven hours that
day without speakin' and 'twere the only enjoyable time I had. Dudin'
wouldn't be a bad business," Uncle Bill added judicially, "if it weren't
for answerin' questions and listenin' to their second-hand jokes.
Generally they're smart people when they're on their home range and
sometimes they turns out good friends."

"Like Sprudell." Helen suggested mischievously.

"Sprudell!" The old man's eyes blazed and he fairly jumped at the sound
of the name. "I ain't blood-thirsty and I never bore that reputation but
if I had knowed as much about that feller as I know now he'd a slept in
that there snow-bank until spring.

"You know, ma'am," Uncle Bill went on solemnly while he cast an eye back
up the trail for Burt who had fallen behind, "when a feller's drunk or
lonesome he's allus got some of a dream that he dreams of what he'd do
if he got rich. Sometimes its a hankerin' to travel, or be State
Senator, or have a whole bunch of bananny's hangin' up in the house to
onct. I knowed an old feller that died pinin' for a briled lobster with
his last breath. Since I read that piece about sobbin' out my gratitude
on Sprudell's broad chest it's woke a new ambition in me. Every time I
gits about three fingers of 'cyanide' from the Bucket o' Blood under my
belt I sees pictures of myself gittin' money enough together to go back
to Bartlesville, Indianny, and lick him every day, reg'lar, or jest as
often as I kin pay my fine, git washed up, and locate him agin." Uncle
Bill added reflectively:

"If this deal with Dill goes through without any hitch, I'd ort to be
able to start about the first of the month."

"When you get through with him," Helen laughed, "I'll review the book
he's publishing at his own expense. Here comes Mr. Burt; he looks fagged
out."

"These plains fellers are never any good on foot," Uncle Bill commented
as Burt caught up. "Now," to Burt and Helen, "I'll jest hold this
war-horse back while you two go on ahead. Down there's his light."

There was eagerness in Burt's voice as he said:

"Yes, I'd like to have a look at him before he knows we're here. I'm
curious to see how he lives--what he does to pass the time."

"I hope as how you won't ketch him in the middle of a wild rannicaboo of
wine, women and song," Uncle Bill suggested dryly. "Bachin' in the
winter twenty miles from a neighbor is about the most dissipatin' life I
know. There must be somethin' goin' on this evenin' or he wouldn't be
settin' up after it's dark under the table."

"I'm so excited I'm shaking." Helen declared. "My teeth are almost
chattering. I'm so afraid he'll hear us. That will spoil the surprise."

But Bruce had not heard. In complete abandonment to his wretchedness he
was still sitting at the table with his head upon his arm. So it was
that his father saw him after fifteen years.

When he had thought of Bruce it was always as he had seen him that day
through the window of the prairie ranch house--his head thrown back in
stubborn defiance, his black eyes full of the tears of childish anger
and hurt pride, running bare-footed and bare-headed down the dusty
road--running, as he realized afterward, out of his life.

He had bitterly imagined that his son was prospering somewhere, with a
wife and children of his own, too indifferent in his contentment and
success to bother with his old Dad; and the picture had hardened his
heart.

His own life had been no bed of roses--no pioneer's was--and he, too,
had known loneliness, hardships, but never anything like this. His
shrewd face, deep-seamed and weather-beaten by the suns and snows of
many years, worked. Then he straightened his shoulders, stooped from
years of riding, and the black eyes under their thick eyebrows flashed.

"So this was that Sprudell fellow's work, was it? He was trying to
freeze Bruce out, down him because he thought he had no backing--break
him on the rack!" His teeth shut hard and the fingers inside his mittens
clenched. "There were people in the world who thought they could treat
Bruce like that--and get away with it? Annie's boy--his son! Not yet,
by God, not while steers were bringing nine-sixty on the hoof."

Burt strode around the corner and threw the door back wide.

"Bruce! Bruce! You mustn't feel so bad!" Excitement made his voice sound
harsh, but there was no mistaking the sympathy intended or the yearning
in his face.

Bruce jumped, startled, to his feet and stared, his vision dimmed by the
smarting tears. Was it a ghost--was he, too, getting "queer?"

"Haven't you anything to say to me, Bruce?"

There was an odd timidity in his father's voice but it was real
enough--it was no hallucination. Simultaneous with the relief the
thought flashed through Bruce's mind that his father had seen him
through the window in his moment of weakness and despair. His features
stiffened and with a quick, shamed movement he brushed his eyes with the
back of his hand while his eyes flashed pride and resentment.

"I said all I had to say fifteen years ago when you refused me the
chance to make something of myself. If I'd had an education nobody could
have made a fool of me like this." His voice vibrated with mingled
bitterness and mortification.

"I suppose you've heard all about it and come to say--'I told you so.'"

"I've come to see you through."

"You're too late; I'm down and out." In Bruce's voice Burt recognized
his own harsh tones. "You've got nothing that I want now; you might as
well go back." His black eyes were relentless--hard.

"Won't you shake hands with me, Bruce?" There was pleading in his voice
as he took a step toward his son. Bruce did not stir, and Burt added
with an effort: "It ain't so easy as you might think for me to beg like
this."

"I begged, too, but it didn't do any good."

"I've come twenty miles--on foot--to tell you that I'm sorry. I'm not
young any more, Bruce. I'm an old man--and you're all I've got in the
world."

An old man! The words startled Bruce--shocked him. He never had thought
of his father as old, or lonely, but always as tireless, self-centred,
self-sufficient, absorbed heart and soul in getting rich. He seemed
suddenly to see the bent shoulders, the graying hair and eyebrows, the
furrows and deep, drooping lines about the mouth that had not been
engraved by happiness. There was something forlorn, pathetic about him
as he stood there with his hand out asking for forgiveness. And he had
plodded through the snow--twenty miles--on foot to see him!

The blood that is thicker than water stirred, and the tugging at his
heart strings grew too hard to withstand. He unfolded his arms and
stretched out a hand impulsively--"Father!" Then both--"Dad!" he cried.

"My boy!" There was a catch in the old man's voice, misty eyes looked
into misty eyes and fifteen years of bitterness vanished as father and
son clasped hands.

When Burt could speak he looked at Bruce quizzically and said, "I
thought you'd be married by this time, Bruce."

"Married! What right has a Failure to get married?"

"That's no way to talk. What's one slip-up, or two, or three? Nobody's a
failure till he's dead. Confidence comes from success, but, let me tell
you, boy, practical knowledge comes from jolts."

"Dog-gone! I ought to be awful wise," Bruce answered ironically. "Yes,"
sobering. "I've learned something--I'm not liable to make the same
mistake twice." He added ruefully: "Nor, by the same token, am I likely
to have the chance. I suppose I've got the reputation of being something
midway between an idiot and a thief."

Burt seemed to consider.

"Well, now, I can't recall that the person who engineered this trip for
me used any such names as that. As near as I could make out she was
somewhat prejudiced on your side."

Bruce stared.

"She? Not 'Ma' Snow!"

Burt's eyes twinkled as he shook his head.

"No," drily, "not 'Ma' Snow. She's an estimable lady but I doubt if she
could talk me into comin' on a tour like this in winter."

A wonderful light dawned suddenly in Bruce's eyes.

"You mean--"

"--Helen. I'm feelin' well enough acquainted with her now to call her
Helen. Whatever else we disagree on, Bruce, it looks as though we had
the same taste when it comes to girls."

"You know her?" Bruce's tone was as incredulous as his face.

Burt answered with a wry smile:

"After you've ridden on the back seat of that Beaver Creek stage with a
person and bumped heads every fifteen feet for a hundred miles, you're
not apt to feel like strangers when you get in."

Bruce almost shouted--

"She's in Ore City!"

"She was."

Bruce fell back into his old attitude at the table, but his father
stepped quickly to the door and an instant later threw it open. At his
side was Helen--with outstretched arms and face aglow, her eyes shining
happily.

Bruce had not known that great and sudden joy could make a person
dizzy, but the walls, the floor, everything, seemed to waver as he
leaped to his feet.

"I was sure you wouldn't turn your own partner out of doors!" Her lips
parted in the smile that he loved and though he could not speak he went
toward her with outstretched arms.

Passing the window, Uncle Bill stopped and stood for a second looking
into the light.

"Hells catoots!" he muttered gruffly, "Seems like sometimes in this
world things happen as they ort." And then, Ore City to the contrary, he
demonstrated that he had both presence of mind and tact, for he shouted
to Burt in a voice that would have carried a mile on a still night--"Hi!
Old Man! Come out and help me with this horse. Sounds like he's down
agin and chokin' hisself."





Next: The Taste Of The Meat

Previous: Uncle Bill Is Ostracized



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