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The First Stages








From: Cabin Fever

For a month Bud worked and forced himself to cheerfulness, and tried to forget. Sometimes it was easy enough, but there were other times when he must get away by himself and walk and walk, with his rifle over his shoulder as a mild pretense that he was hunting game. But if he brought any back camp it was because the game walked up and waited to be shot; half the time Bud did not know where he was going, much less whether there were deer within ten rods or ten miles.

During those spells of heartsickness he would sit all the evening and smoke and stare at some object which his mind failed to register. Cash would sit and watch him furtively; but Bud was too engrossed with his own misery to notice it. Then, quite unexpectedly, reaction would come and leave Bud in a peace that was more than half a torpid refusal of his mind to worry much over anything.

He worked then, and talked much with Cash, and made plans for the development of their mine. In that month they had come to call it a mine, and they had filed and recorded their claim, and had drawn up an agreement of partnership in it. They would "sit tight" and work on it through the winter, and when spring came they hoped to have something tangible upon which to raise sufficient capital to develop it properly. Or, times when they had done unusually well with their sandbank, they would talk optimistically about washing enough gold out of that claim to develop the other, and keep the title all in their own hands.

Then, one night Bud dreamed again of Marie, and awoke with an insistent craving for the oblivion of drunkenness. He got up and cooked the breakfast, washed the dishes and swept the cabin, and measured out two ounces of gold from what they had saved.

"You're keeping tabs on everything, Cash," he said shortly. "Just charge this up to me. I'm going to town."

Cash looked up at him from under a slanted eye-brow. His lips had a twist of pained disapproval.

"Yeah. I figured you was about due in town," he said resignedly.

"Aw, lay off that told-you-so stuff," Bud growled. "You never figured anything of the kind, and you know it." He pulled his heavy sweater down off a nail and put it on, scowling because the sleeves had to be pulled in place on his arms.

"Too bad you can't wait a day. I figured we'd have a clean-up to-morrow, maybe. She's been running pretty heavy—-"

"Well, go ahead and clean up, then. You can do it alone. Or wait till I get back."

Cash laughed, as a retort cutting, and not because he was amused. Bud swore and went out, slamming the door behind him.

It was exactly five days alter that when he opened it again. Cash was mixing a batch of sour-dough bread into loaves, and he did not say anything at all when Bud came in and stood beside the stove, warming his hands and glowering around the room. He merely looked up, and then went on with his bread making.

Bud was not a pretty sight. Four days and nights of trying to see how much whisky he could drink, and how long he could play poker without going to sleep or going broke, had left their mark on his face and his trembling hands. His eyes were puffy and red, and his cheeks were mottled, and his lips were fevered and had lost any sign of a humorous quirk at the corners. He looked ugly; as if he would like nothing better than an excuse to quarrel with Cash—since Cash was the only person at hand to quarrel with.

But Cash had not knocked around the world for nothing. He had seen men in that mood before, and he had no hankering for trouble which is vastly easier to start than it is to stop. He paid no attention to Bud. He made his loaves, tucked them into the pan and greased the top with bacon grease saved in a tomato can for such use. He set the pan on a shelf behind the stove, covered it with a clean flour sack, opened the stove door, and slid in two sticks.

"She's getting cold," he observed casually. "It'll be winter now before we know it."

Bud grunted, pulled an empty box toward him by the simple expedient of hooking his toes behind the corner, and sat down. He set his elbows on his thighs and buried his face in his hands. His hat dropped off his head and lay crown down beside him. He made a pathetic figure of miserable manhood, of strength mistreated. His fine, brown hair fell in heavy locks down over his fingers that rested on his forehead. Five minutes so, and he lifted his head and glanced around him apathetically. "Gee-man-ee, I've got a headache!" he muttered, dropping his forehead into his spread palms again.

Cash hesitated, derision hiding in the back of his eyes. Then he pushed the dented coffeepot forward on the stove.

"Try a cup of coffee straight," he said unemotionally, "and then lay down. You'll sleep it off in a few hours."

Bud did not look up, or make any move to show that he heard. But presently he rose and went heavily over to his bunk. "I don't want any darn coffee," he growled, and sprawled himself stomach down on the bed, with his face turned from the light.

Cash eyed him coldly, with the corner of his upper lip lifted a little. Whatever weaknesses he possessed, drinking and gambling had no place in the list. Nor had he any patience with those faults in others. Had Bud walked down drunk to Cash's camp, that evening when they first met, he might have received a little food doled out to him grudgingly, but he assuredly would not have slept in Cash's bed that night. That he tolerated drunkenness in Bud now would have been rather surprising to any one who knew Cash well. Perhaps he had a vague understanding of the deeps through which Bud was struggling, and so was constrained to hide his disapproval, hoping that the moral let-down was merely a temporary one.

He finished his strictly utilitarian household labor and went off up the flat to the sluice boxes. Bud had not moved from his first position on the bed, but he did not breathe like a sleeping man. Not at first; after an hour or so he did sleep, heavily and with queer, muddled dreams that had no sequence and left only a disturbed sense of discomfort behind then.

At noon or a little after Cash returned to the cabin, cast a sour look of contempt at the recumbent Bud, and built a fire in the old cookstove. He got his dinner, ate it, and washed his dishes with never a word to Bud, who had wakened and lay with his eyes half open, sluggishly miserable and staring dully at the rough spruce logs of the wall.

Cash put on his cap, looked at Bud and gave a snort, and went off again to his work. Bud lay still for awhile longer, staring dully at the wall. Finally he raised up, swung his feet to the floor, and sat there staring around the little cabin as though he had never before seen it.

"Huh! You'd think, the way he highbrows me, that Cash never done wrong in his life! Tin angel, him—I don't think. Next time, I'll tell a pinheaded world I'll have to bring home a quart or two, and put on a show right!"

Just what he meant by that remained rather obscure, even to Bud. He got up, shut his eyes very tight and then opened them wide to clear his vision, shook himself into his clothes and went over to the stove. Cash had not left the coffeepot on the stove but had, with malicious intent—or so Bud believed—put it away on the shelf so that what coffee remained was stone cold. Bud muttered and threw out the coffee, grounds and all—a bit of bachelor extravagance which only anger could drive him to—and made fresh coffee, and made it strong. He did not want it. He drank it for the work of physical regeneration it would do for him.

He lay down afterwards, and this time he dropped into a more nearly normal sleep, which lasted until Cash returned at dusk After that he lay with his face hidden, awake and thinking. Thinking, for the most part, of how dull and purposeless life was, and wondering why the world was made, or the people in it—since nobody was happy, and few even pretended to be. Did God really make the world, and man, just to play with—for a pastime? Then why bother about feeling ashamed for anything one did that was contrary to God's laws?

Why be puffed up with pride for keeping one or two of them unbroken—like Cash, for instance. Just because Cash never drank or played cards, what right had he to charge the whole atmosphere of the cabin with his contempt and his disapproval of Bud, who chose to do both?

On the other hand, why did he choose a spree as a relief from his particular bunch of ghosts? Trading one misery for another was all you could call it. Doing exactly the things that Marie's mother had predicted he would do, committing the very sins that Marie was always a little afraid he would commit—there must be some sort of twisted revenge in that, he thought, but for the life of him he could not quite see any real, permanent satisfaction in it—especially since Marie and her mother would never get to hear of it.

For that matter, he was not so sure that they would not get to hear. He remembered meeting, just on the first edge of his spree, one Joe De Barr, a cigar salesman whom he had known in San Jose. Joe knew Marie—in fact, Joe had paid her a little attention before Bud came into her life. Joe had been in Alpine between trains, taking orders for goods from the two saloons and the hotel. He had seen Bud drinking. Bud knew perfectly well how much Joe had seen him drinking, and he knew perfectly well that Joe was surprised to the point of amazement—and, Bud suspected, secretly gratified as well. Wherefore Bud had deliberately done what he could do to stimulate and emphasize both the surprise and the gratification. Why is it that most human beings feel a sneaking satisfaction in the downfall of another? Especially another who is, or has been at sometime, a rival in love or in business?

Bud had no delusions concerning Joe De Barr. If Joe should happen to meet Marie, he would manage somehow to let her know that Bud was going to the dogs—on the toboggan—down and out—whatever it suited Joe to declare him. It made Bud sore now to think of Joe standing so smug and so well dressed and so immaculate beside the bar, smiling and twisting the ends of his little brown mustache while he watched Bud make such a consummate fool of himself. At the time, though, Bud had taken a perverse delight in making himself appear more soddenly drunken, more boisterous and reckless than he really was.

Oh, well, what was the odds? Marie couldn't think any worse of him than she already thought. And whatever she thought, their trails had parted, and they would never cross again—not if Bud could help it. Probably Marie would say amen to that. He would like to know how she was getting along—and the baby, too. Though the baby had never seemed quite real to Bud, or as if it were a permanent member of the household. It was a leather-lunged, red-faced, squirming little mite, and in his heart of hearts Bud had not felt as though it belonged to him at all. He had never rocked it, for instance, or carried it in his arms. He had been afraid he might drop it, or squeeze it too hard, or break it somehow with his man's strength. When he thought of Marie he did not necessarily think of the baby, though sometimes he did, wondering vaguely how much it had grown, and if it still hollered for its bottle, all hours of the day and night.

Coming back to Marie and Joe—it was not at all certain that they would meet; or that Joe would mention him, even if they did. A wrecked home is always a touchy subject, so touchy that Joe had never intimated in his few remarks to Bud that there had ever been a Marie, and Bud, drunk as he had been, was still not too drunk to hold back the question that clamored to be spoken.

Whether he admitted it to himself or not, the sober Bud Moore who lay on his bunk nursing a headache and a grouch against the world was ashamed of the drunken Bud Moore who had paraded his drunkenness before the man who knew Marie. He did not want Marie to hear what Joe might tell There was no use, he told himself miserably, in making Marie despise him as well as hate him. There was a difference. She might think him a brute, and she might accuse him of failing to be a kind and loving husband; but she could not, unless Joe told of his spree, say that she had ever heard of his carousing around. That it would be his own fault if she did hear, served only to embitter his mood.

He rolled over and glared at Cash, who had cooked his supper and was sitting down to eat it alone. Cash was looking particularly misanthropic as he bent his head to meet the upward journey of his coffee cup, and his eyes, when they lifted involuntarily with Bud's sudden movement, had still that hard look of bottled-up rancor that had impressed itself upon Bud earlier in the day.

Neither man spoke, or made any sign of friendly recognition. Bud would not have talked to any one in his present state of self-disgust, but for all that Cash's silence rankled. A moment their eyes met and held; then with shifted glances the souls of them drew apart—farther apart than they had ever been, even when they quarreled over Pete, down in Arizona.

When Cash had finished and was filing his pipe, Bud got up and reheated the coffee, and fried more bacon and potatoes, Cash having cooked just enough for himself. Cash smoked and gave no heed, and Bud retorted by eating in silence and in straightway washing his own cup, plate, knife, and fork and wiping clean the side of the table where he always sat. He did not look at Cash, but he felt morbidly that Cash was regarding him with that hateful sneer hidden under his beard. He knew that it was silly to keep that stony silence, but he kept telling himself that if Cash wanted to talk, he had a tongue, and it was not tied. Besides, Cash had registered pretty plainly his intentions and his wishes when he excluded Bud from his supper.

It was a foolish quarrel, but it was that kind of foolish quarrel which is very apt to harden into a lasting one.





Next: Marie Takes A Desperate Chance

Previous: Emotions Are Tricky Things



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