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The Broken Seal








From: Still Jim

"When I was young I thought the world was made for love. Now
I know that love made the world."

MUSINGS OF THE ELEPHANT.


How he passed the night that followed Jim never was sure. He knew that
he fought his way down stream until long after darkness set in. Then,
utterly exhausted, bleeding and bruised, he crawled up onto a rock under
the wall and lay dripping and shivering until dawn.

He watched the light touch the far top of the crevice, saw the azure
strip of the sky appear and then with a deep groan he forced himself to
eat from his grub bag and started hurriedly on down the river. The
stream was much deeper below the point of the accident, with several
large falls. Jim worked his way along carefully, swimming or floating
for the most part, for the walls for many miles offered not even a
hand-hold nor did they once give back in beach or eddy.

The loneliness was appalling. The hardship of the work was astonishingly
increased, robbed of Tuck's unfailing cheerfulness and faith. There was
one moment when, toward sunset, Jim's strength almost failed him. The
walls were rougher now. He had found a hand-hold but no place for the
night. He clung here until his exhausted arms were able to endure no
more.

"I can't do any more!" panted Jim. "I'll have to go down." And then he
gave a little childish sob. "'Hang on to what you undertake like a hound
to a warm scent, Jimmy!'" he said, brokenly. And new strength flowed
into his arms and he swam on for a few moments, finding then a bit of
shore on which to spend the night. He and Charlie had each carried a map
and a set of instruments. Jim felt that he bore now not only his own but
Charlie's responsibility to deliver the maps to Freet. As he lay looking
up at the stars, that second night alone in the crevice, Jim realized
ever since he and Charlie had started on the expedition, he had ceased
to be homesick. He realized this when, on this second night, he tried to
keep his nerves in order by thinking very hard of home and he found that
he dwelt most on Exham and his father and the Sign and Seal he had given
Penelope. And that while he longed vaguely for the old brownstone front,
he felt with a sudden invigorating thrill that he belonged where he was
and that he was nearer to Exham than he had been since he had left
there.

It was nearing evening of the fourth day after Charlie's disappearance
that Jim suddenly saw the canyon walls widen. He struggled at last up
onto a sandy beach and looked about him. The canyon walls here, though
very rough, gave promise of access to the top. Jim examined the beach
carefully for trace of Charlie and, finding none, he prepared to spend
the night in resting before the stiff climb of the next day. He built a
fire and ate his last bit of grub, a small can of beans, and fell asleep
immediately.

At dawn the next morning he began his climb up the bristling walls of
the canyon. Eleven days before he would have said that to scale these
sickening heights was impossible. But Jim would never be a tenderfoot
again. He had been on short rations for three days and was weak from
overwork. But he had a canteen of water and rested frequently and he
went about the climb with the care and skill of an old mountaineer. He
had learned in a cruel school.

Late in the afternoon he crawled wearily over one last knife-edged ledge
and hoisted himself up onto the canyon's top. He was greeted by a faint
shout.

Three men on horseback were picking their way carefully toward him. Jim
waved his hand and dropped, panting, to await their arrival. When they
were within speaking distance, he rose weakly and called:

"Where's Charlie Tuck?"

The three men did not answer until they had dropped from their horses
beside Jim; then the rancher who had packed the expedition to the
crevice said:

"They picked his body up near Chaseville this morning. We come up as
quick as we could for trace of you. You look all in. Here, Dick, get
busy! We brought some underclothes; didn't know what shape you'd be in.
Here is the suit you left at my place. God! I thought you'd never need
it. Billy, start a fire and cook the coffee and bacon. You've had an
awful experience, Mr. Manning, I guess. You don't look the tenderfoot
kid that went into the canyon!"

"We found the dam site," said Jim hoarsely.

"Don't try to talk till you get some grub," said the man called Billy.

Clothed and fed, Jim told his story, a little brokenly. The group of men
who listened were used to hardy deeds. They had seen Nature demand her
toll of death again and again in the wilderness. And yet as they sat
looking at the young fellow with his gray eyes shocked and
grief-stricken and perceived his boyish idolatry of Charlie Tuck,
something like moisture shone in their eyes. They shook hands with Jim
when he had finished, silently for the most part, though the rancher
said:

"You're the only man ever came through there alive. They had to bury
Tuck right off. They'd ought to build a monument for him. Where is his
folks?"

"He had none," said Jim. "I want to put up his headstone for him, and I
know just what lines are going to be put on the stone."

"They ought to be blamed good," said Dick.

"What are they?" asked the ranchman.

Jim sat for a moment looking down into the fearful depths where Charlie
and he had lived a lifetime. Then he said:

"'Lift ye the stone or cleave the wood, to make a path more fair or flat,
Lo, it is black already, with blood some Son of Martha spilled for that!
Not as a ladder from Earth to Heaven, not as an altar to any creed,
But simple Service, simply given, to his own kind, in their
common need.'"

And so Charlie Tuck crossed the Great Divide.

Jim stopped two days with the rancher and then went back to the Green
Mountain dam. The story of the trip through the crevice had preceded
him. The men of the Service were inured to the idea of the sacrifice of
blood for the dams. There was little said, some silent handshakes given,
and they ceased to haze Jim. He had become one of them.

The plans for the preliminary surveys of the Makon Project were begun at
once. Jim remained at Green Mountain during the winter, serving his
apprenticeship to the concrete works and the superintendent as Mr. Freet
had planned. But in the spring he had his wish and was sent to lay out
the road on the Makon project.

All this time letters came regularly from the brownstone front, but they
were from Jim's mother and his Uncle Denny for the most part, and they
were very silent about Penelope. Jim wrote Pen from time to time, but he
was not an easy writer and Pen wrote him only gay little notes that were
very unsatisfactory. But Jim was absorbed in his work and did not worry
over this.

Mr. Freet explained to Jim that he needed an "Old Timer" in laying out
the Makon road whose practical experience would supplement Jim's
theories. When Jim reached the survey camp in the Makon valley he found
waiting for him a small man of about fifty, with a Roman nose, bright
blue eyes and a shock of gray hair. This was Iron Skull Williams, whom
Freet had described in detail to Jim and who was to be Jim's right hand.
He was an old Indian fighter. The Apaches, Freet said, had given him his
nickname because they claimed he would not be killed. Bullets glanced
off his head like rain. Williams was an expert road maker and had
worked much for Freet in various parts of the west.

Jim and Williams looked each other over carefully and liked each other
at once. They found immediately in each other's society something very
choice. The friendship had not been a week old before Iron Skull had
heard of Exham and the brownstone front and of Penelope. While Jim had
learned what no other man knew, that Williams' life-long, futile passion
had been for a college education and that he was a bachelor because a
blue-eyed, yellow-haired girl had been buried in the Arizona ranges,
twenty-five years before.

Jim's quiet ways and silent tongue did not make him an easy mixer. The
opening up of a project is a rough and lonesome job. Running surveys
through unknown country where supplies are hard to get and distances are
huge, makes men very dependent on one other for companionship. Jim liked
the young fellows who ran the road surveys with him. He enjoyed the
"rough necks," the men who did the actual building of the road. They all
in turn liked Jim. But Jim had not the easy coin of word exchange that
makes for quick and promiscuous acquaintanceship. So he grew very
dependent on Iron Skull, who, in a way, filled both Sara's and Uncle
Denny's place.

The old Indian fighter had that strange sense of proportion, that
eagle-eyed view of life that the desert sometimes breeds. All the love
of a love-starved life he gave to Jim.

One evening in April Jim came in from a hard day on horseback. The
spring rains were on and he was mud-splashed and tired but full of a
great content. He had found a short cut on the crevice end of the road
that would save thousands of dollars in time and material.

He lighted the lamp in his tent and saw a letter from Uncle Denny on the
table. There was nothing unusual about a letter from Uncle Denny and
ordinarily Jim waited for his bath and clean clothes before reading it.
But this time, with an inexplicable sense of fear, he picked it up and
read it at once.

"STILL JIM, MY BOY:

We've had a blow. All the year Penelope has been seeing
Saradokis. She has made no bones of it, and he would not let
her alone. I could do nothing, though I talked till I was no
better than a common scold. But it never occurred to your
mother and me that Pen could do what she did.

Day before yesterday, just at noon, she called me up at the
office and told me she and Sara had just been married at the
Little Church Round the Corner and were leaving for Montauk
Point in Sara's new high power car. She rang off before I
could answer.

I sat at my desk, paralyzed. I couldn't even call your
mother up. I sat there for half an hour, seeing and hearing
nothing when your mother called me up. There had been an
accident. Sara had disobeyed a traffic policeman, they had
run into a truck at full speed. His car was wrecked. Pen
escaped with a broken arm. Sarah had been apparently
paralyzed. Pen had him brought to our house.

Well, I got home. It has been a fearful two days. Sara is
hopelessly paralyzed from the waist down. He may live
forever or die any time. He is like a raving devil.

Pen--Still Jim, my boy--Little Pen is paying a fearful price
for her foolishness. She is like a person wakened from a
dream. She says she cannot see what made her give in to
Sara.

I've made a bad job of telling you this, Jimmy. Your mother
says to tell you she understands. She will write later.

Love, dear boy, from
UNCLE DENNY."

Jim crumpled the letter into his pocket and dashed out into the night.
For hours he walked, heedless of rock or cactus, of rain or direction.
He took a fiendish satisfaction in the thought of Sara's tragedy. Other
than this he did not think at all. He felt as he had at his father's
death, rudderless, derelict.

It was dawn when Iron Skull found Jim sitting on a pile of rock five
miles from camp. He put his hand on Jim's shoulder.

"Boss Still," he said, "what's broke loose? I've trailed you all over
the state."

Jim looked up into the kindly face and his throat worked. "Iron Skull,"
he got out at last, "my--my girl has thrown me down!"

Williams sat down beside him. "Not Penelope?"

Jim nodded and suddenly thrust the crumpled letter into his friend's
hands. In the dawn light Williams read it, cleared his throat, and said:

"God! Poor kids! I take it your folks don't like this Sara, though you
never said so."

Jim put his hand on Iron Skull's knee. "Iron Skull," he said, hoarsely,
"I'd rather see Pen laid away there in the Arizona ranges beside your
Mary than married to him. He's got a yellow streak."

The two sat silent for a time, then Williams said: "This love business
is a queer thing. Some men can care for a dozen different women. But
you're like me. Once and never again. I ain't going to try to comfort
you, partner. I know you've got a sore inside you that'll never heal.
It's hell or heaven when a woman gets a hold on your vitals like
that.--My Mary--she had blue eyes and a little brown freckle on her
nose--I was just your age when she died. And I never was a kid again.
You gotta face forward, partner. Work eighteen hours a day. Marry your
job. You still owe a big debt for your big brain. Go ahead and pay it."

Jim did not answer, but he did not remove his hand from Williams' knee,
and finally Williams laid a hard palm on it. They watched the sun rise.
The rain had ceased. Far to the east where the little camp lay, crimson
spokes shot to the zenith. Suddenly the sun rolled above the desert's
brim and leading straight and level to its scarlet center lay the road
that Jim was building.

"It's a good road," said Jim unevenly. "It's my first one. I'd planned
to show it to her, this summer. And now, she'll never see it--nor any of
my work. Iron Skull, she had a bully mind. Just the little notes she's
sent me, show she got the idea of the Projects. I guess I'm a quitter.
If I can't keep my girl, what's the use of living?"

The old Indian fighter nodded. "Life is that away, partner. You mostly
do what you can and not what you dream. Some day you'll have to marry.
That's where I fell down. These days all us old stock Americans ought to
marry. First you marry your job, Boss Still, then you marry a mother for
your children."

Jim shook his head. "Pen's thrown me down," he said drearily.

Iron Skull waited patiently. At last Jim rose and held out his hand.

"Thank you, Williams," he said.

"Don't mention it," said Iron Skull Williams. "Glad to do it any
time--that is, I ain't but--Hell, you know how I feel. Come home for
some breakfast."

Before he went to work that day, Jim wrote a note to Pen.

"DEAR PENELOPE: If there is anything I can do, send for me.
I can't bear to think of that occasional look of tragedy in
your eyes standing for fact. I shall not get over this.
Good-by, little Pen!

JIM."

Pen's answer to this reached Jim the following week.

"DEAR STILL: There is nothing you or anyone else can do.
Sara and I must pay the price for our foolishness. I have
learned more in the past two weeks than in all my life
before. And I shall keep on learning. I can't believe that
I'm only eighteen. Write to me once in a while.

PENELOPE."

This was Jim's answer:

"DEAR PEN: Uncle Denny wrote that you are to stay with him
and mother and that Sara's father has arranged matters so
that money pinch will not add to your burdens. We three are
still mere kids in years so I suppose we shall get over our
griefs to some extent. Let me keep at least a part of my old
faith in you, Pen. In spite of the Hades you are destined to
live through, keep that fine, sweet spirit of yours and keep
that unwarped clarity of vision that belonged to the side of
you, you showed me. It will help you to bear your trouble
and I need this thought of you as much as Sara needs your
nursing. I can't write you, Pen, but wire me if you need me.

JIM."

And then, as Iron Skull had bade him, Jim married his job.





Next: The Makon Road

Previous: The Cub Engineer



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