The Bite Of Memory
From: Cabin Fever
The heavy boom of a dynamite blast rolled across the fiat to the hills that flung it back in a tardy echo like a spent ball of sound. A blob of blue smoke curled out of a hole the size of a hogshead in a steep bank overhung with alders. Outside, the wind caught the smoke and carried streamers of it away to play with. A startled bluejay, on a limb high up on the bank, lifted his slaty crest and teetered forward, clinging with his toe nails to the branch while he scolded down at the men who had scared him so. A rattle of clods and small rocks fell from their high flight into the sweet air of a mountain sunset.
"Good execution, that was," Cash remarked, craning his neck toward the hole. "If you're a mind to go on ahead and cook supper, I'll stay and see if we opened up anything. Or you can stay, just as you please."
Dynamite smoke invariably made Bud's head ache splittingly. Cash was not so susceptible. Bud chose the cooking, and went away down the flat, the bluejay screaming insults after him. He was frying bacon when Cash came in, a hatful of broken rock riding in the hollow of his arm.
"Got something pretty good here, Bud—if she don't turn out like that dang Burro Lode ledge. Look here. Best looking quartz we've struck yet. What do you think of it?"
He dumped the rock out on the oilcloth behind the sugar can and directly under the little square window through which the sun was pouring a lavish yellow flood of light before it dropped behind the peak. Bud set the bacon back where it would not burn, and bent over the table to look.
"Gee, but it's heavy!" he cried, picking up a fragment the size of an egg, and balancing it in his hands. "I don't know a lot about gold-bearing quartz, but she looks good to me, all right."
"Yeah. It is good, unless I'm badly mistaken. I'll test some after supper. Old Nelson couldn't have used powder at all, or he'd have uncovered enough of this, I should think, to show the rest what he had. Or maybe he died just when he had started that hole. Seems queer he never struck pay dirt in this flat. Well, let's eat if it's ready, Bud. Then we'll see."
"Seems kinda queer, don't it, Cash, that nobody stepped in and filed on any claims here?" Bud dumped half a kettle of boiled beans into a basin and set it on the table. "Want any prunes to-night, Cash?"
Cash did not want prunes, which was just as well, seeing there were none cooked. He sat down and ate, with his mind and his eyes clinging to the grayish, veined fragments of rock lying on the table beside his plate.
"We'll send some of that down to Sacramento right away," he observed, "and have it assayed. And we won't let out anything about it, Bud—good or bad. I like this flat. I don't want it mucked over with a lot of gold-crazy lunatics."
Bud laughed and reached for the bacon. "We ain't been followed up with stampedes so far," he pointed out. "Burro Lode never caused a ripple in the Bend, you recollect. And I'll tell a sinful world it looked awful good, too."
"Yeah. Well, Arizona's hard to excite. They've had so dang much strenuosity all their lives, and then the climate's against violent effort, either mental or physical. I was calm, perfectly calm when I discovered that big ledge. It is just as well—seeing how it petered out."
"What'll you bet this pans out the same?"
"I never bet. No one but a fool will gamble." Cash pressed his lips together in a way that drove the color from there.
"Oh, yuh don't! Say, you're the king bee of all gamblers. Been prospecting for fifteen years, according to you—and then you've got the nerve to say you don't gamble!"
Cash ignored the charge. He picked up a piece of rock and held it to the fading light. "It looks good," he said again. "Better than that placer ground down by the creek. That's all right, too. We can wash enough gold there to keep us going while we develop this. That is, if this proves as good as it looks."
Bud looked across at him enigmatically. "Well, here's hoping she's worth a million. You go ahead with your tests, Cash. I'll wash the dishes."
"Of course," Cash began to conserve his enthusiasm, "there's nothing so sure as an assay. And it was too dark in the hole to see how much was uncovered. This may be just a freak deposit. There may not be any real vein of it. You can't tell until it's developed further. But it looks good. Awful good."
His makeshift tests confirmed his opinion. Bud started out next day with three different samples for the assayer, and an air castle or two to keep him company. He would like to find himself half owner of a mine worth about a million, he mused. Maybe Marie would wish then that she had thought twice about quitting him just on her mother's say-so. He'd like to go buzzing into San Jose behind the wheel of a car like the one Foster had fooled him into stealing. And meet Marie, and her mother too, and let them get an eyeful. He guessed the old lady would have to swallow what she had said about him being lazy—just because he couldn't run an auto-stage in the winter to Big Basin! What was the matter with the old woman, anyway? Didn't he keep Maria in comfort. Well, he'd like to see her face when he drove along the street in a big new Sussex. She'd wish she had let him and Marie alone. They would have made out all right if they had been let alone. He ought to have taken Marie to some other town, where her mother couldn't nag at her every day about him. Marie wasn't such a bad kid, if she were left alone. They might have been happy—
He tried then to shake himself free of thoughts of her. That was the trouble with him, he brooded morosely. He couldn't let his thoughts ride free, any more. They kept heading straight for Marie. He could not see why she should cling so to his memory; he had not wronged her—unless it was by letting her go without making a bigger fight for their home. Still, she had gone of her own free will. He was the one that had been wronged—why, hadn't they lied about him in court and to the gossipy neighbors? Hadn't they broke him? No. If the mine panned out big as Cash seemed to think was likely, the best thing he could do was steer clear of San Jose. And whether it panned out or not, the best thing he could do was forget that such girl as Marie had ever existed..
Which was all very well, as far as it went. The trouble was that resolving not to think of Marie, calling up all the bitterness he could muster against her memory, did no more toward blotting her image from his mind than did the miles and the months he had put between them.
He reached the town in a dour mood of unrest, spite of the promise of wealth he carried in his pocket. He mailed the package and the letter, and went to a saloon and had a highball. He was not a drinking man—at least, he never had been one, beyond a convivial glass or two with his fellows—but he felt that day the need of a little push toward optimism. In the back part of the room three men were playing freeze-out. Bud went over and stood with his hands in his pockets and watched them, because there was nothing else to do, and because he was still having some trouble with his thoughts. He was lonely, without quite knowing what ailed him. He hungered for friends to hail him with that cordial, "Hello, Bud!" when they saw him coming.
No one in Alpine had said hello, Bud, when he came walking in that day. The postmaster bad given him one measuring glance when he had weighed the package of ore, but he had not spoken except to name the amount of postage required. The bartender had made some remark about the weather, and had smiled with a surface friendliness that did not deceive Bud for a moment. He knew too well that the smile was not for him, but for his patronage.
He watched the game. And when the man opposite him pushed back his chair and, looking up at Bud, asked if he wanted to sit in, Bud went and sat down, buying a dollar's worth of chips as an evidence of his intention to play. His interest in the game was not keen. He played for the feeling it gave him of being one of the bunch, a man among his friends; or if not friends, at least acquaintances. And, such was his varying luck with the cards, he played for an hour or so without having won enough to irritate his companions. Wherefore he rose from the table at supper time calling one young fellow Frank quite naturally. They went to the Alpine House and had supper together, and after that they sat in the office and talked about automobiles for an hour, which gave Bud a comforting sense of having fallen among friends.
Later they strolled over to a picture show which ran films two years behind their first release, and charged fifteen cents for the privilege of watching them. It was the first theater Bud had entered since he left San Jose, and at the last minute he hesitated, tempted to turn back. He hated moving pictures. They always had love scenes somewhere in the story, and love scenes hurt. But Frank had already bought two tickets, and it seemed unfriendly to turn back now. He went inside to the jangling of a player-piano in dire need of a tuner's service, and sat down near the back of the hall with his hat upon his lifted knees which could have used more space between the seats.
While they waited for the program they talked in low tones, a mumble of commonplaces. Bud forgot for the moment his distaste for such places, and let himself slip easily back into the old thought channels, the old habits of relaxation after a day's work was done. He laughed at the one-reel comedy that had for its climax a chase of housemaids, policemen, and outraged fruit vendors after a well-meaning but unfortunate lover. He saw the lover pulled ignominiously out of a duck pond and soused relentlessly into a watering trough, and laughed with Frank and called it some picture.
He eyed a succession of "current events" long since gone stale out where the world moved swifter than here in the mountains, and he felt as though he had come once more into close touch with life. All the dull months he had spent with Cash and the burros dwarfed into a pointless, irrelevant incident of his life. He felt that he ought to be out in the world, doing bigger things than hunting gold that somehow always refused at the last minute to be found. He stirred restlessly. He was free—there was nothing to hold him if he wanted to go. The war—he believed he would go over and take a hand. He could drive an ambulance or a truck—
Current Events, however, came abruptly to an end; and presently Bud's vagrant, half-formed desire for achievement merged into biting recollections. Here was a love drama, three reels of it. At first Bud watched it with only a vague, disquieting sense of familiarity. Then abruptly he recalled too vividly the time and circumstance of his first sight of the picture. It was in San Jose, at the Liberty. He and Marie had been married two days, and were living in that glamorous world of the honeymoon, so poignantly sweet, so marvelous—and so fleeting. He had whispered that the girl looked like her, and she had leaned heavily against his shoulder. In the dusk of lowered lights their hands had groped and found each other, and clung.
The girl did look like Marie. When she turned her head with that little tilt of the chin, when she smiled, she was like Marie. Bud leaned forward, staring, his brows drawn together, breathing the short, quick breaths of emotion focussed upon one object, excluding all else. Once, when Frank moved his body a little in the next seat, Bud's hand went out that way involuntarily. The touch of Frank's rough coat sleeve recalled him brutally, so that he drew away with a wincing movement as though he bad been hurt.
All those months in the desert; all those months of the slow journeying northward; all the fought battles with memory, when he thought that he had won—all gone for nothing, their slow anodyne serving but to sharpen now the bite of merciless remembering. His hand shook upon his knee. Small beads of moisture oozed out upon his forehead. He sat stunned before the amazing revelation of how little time and distance had done to heal his hurt.
He wanted Marie. He wanted her more than he had ever wanted her in the old days, with a tenderness, an impulse to shield her from her own weaknesses, her own mistakes. Then—in those old days—there had been the glamor of mystery that is called romance. That was gone, worn away by the close intimacies of matrimony. He knew her faults, he knew how she looked when she was angry and petulant. He knew how little the real Marie resembled the speciously amiable, altogether attractive Marie who faced a smiling world when she went pleasuring. He knew, but—he wanted her just the same. He wanted to tell her so many things about the burros, and about the desert—things that would make her laugh, and things that would make her blink back the tears. He was homesick for her as he had never been homesick in his life before. The picture flickered on through scene after scene that Bud did not see at all, though he was staring unwinkingly at the screen all the while. The love scenes at the last were poignantly real, but they passed before his eyes unnoticed. Bud's mind was dwelling upon certain love scenes of his own. He was feeling Marie's presence beside him there in the dusk.
"Poor kid—she wasn't so much to blame," he muttered just above his breath, when the screen was swept clean and blank at the end of the last reel.
"Huh? Oh, he was the big mutt, right from the start," Frank replied with the assured air of a connoisseur. "He didn't have the brains of a bluejay, or he'd have known all the time she was strong for him."
"I guess that's right," Bud mumbled, but he did not mean what Frank thought he meant. "Let's go. I want a drink."
Frank was willing enough; too willing, if the truth were known. They went out into the cool starlight, and hurried across the side street that was no more than a dusty roadway, to the saloon where they had spent the afternoon. Bud called for whisky, and helped himself twice from the bottle which the bartender placed between them. He did not speak until the second glass was emptied, and then he turned to Frank with a purple glare in his eyes.
"Let's have a game of pool or something," he suggested.
"There's a good poker game going, back there," vouchsafed the bartender, turning his thumb toward the rear, where half a dozen men were gathered in a close group around a table. "There's some real money in sight, to-night."
"All right, let's go see." Bud turned that way, Frank following like a pet dog at his heels.
At dawn the next morning, Bud got up stiffly from the chair where he had spent the night. His eyeballs showed a network of tiny red veins, swollen with the surge of alcohol in his blood and with the strain of staring all night at the cards. Beneath his eyes were puffy ridges. His cheekbones flamed with the whisky flush. He cashed in a double-handful of chips, stuffed the money he had won into his coat pocket, walked, with that stiff precision of gait by which a drunken man strives to hide his drunkenness, to the bar and had another drink. Frank was at his elbow. Frank was staggering, garrulous, laughing a great deal over very small jokes.
"I'm going to bed," said Bud, his tongue forming the words with a slow carefulness.
"Come over to my shack, Bud—rotten hotel. My bed's clean, anyway." Frank laughed and plucked him by the sleeve.
"All right," Bud consented gravely. "We'll take a bottle along."
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