Cabin Fever In The Worst Form
: Cabin Fever
Bud Moore woke on a certain morning with a distinct and well-defined grouch against the world as he had found it; a grouch quite different from the sullen imp of contrariness that had possessed him lately. He did not know just what had caused the grouch, and he did not care. He did know, however, that he objected to the look of Cash's overshoes that stood pigeon-toed beside Cash's bed on the opposite side of the room, where Bud had not set his foot for three weeks and more. He disliked the audib
e yawn with which Cash manifested his return from the deathlike unconsciousness of sleep. He disliked the look of Cash's rough coat and sweater and cap, that hung on a nail over Cash's bunk. He disliked the thought of getting up in the cold—and more, the sure knowledge that unless he did get up, and that speedily, Cash would be dressed ahead of him, and starting a fire in the cookstove. Which meant that Cash would be the first to cook and eat his breakfast, and that the warped ethics of their dumb quarrel would demand that Bud pretend to be asleep until Cash had fried his bacon and his hotcakes and had carried them to his end of the oilcloth-covered table.
When, by certain well-known sounds, Bud was sure that Cash was eating, he could, without loss of dignity or without suspicion of making any overtures toward friendliness, get up and dress and cook his own breakfast, and eat it at his own end of the table. Bud wondered how long Cash, the old fool, would sulk like that. Not that he gave a darn—he just wondered, is all. For all he cared, Cash could go on forever cooking his own meals and living on his own side of the shack. Bud certainly would not interrupt him in acting the fool, and if Cash wanted to keep it up till spring, Cash was perfectly welcome to do so. It just showed how ornery a man could be when he was let to go. So far as he was concerned, he would just as soon as not have that dead line painted down the middle of the cabin floor.
Nor did its presence there trouble him in the least. Just this morning, however, the fact of Cash's stubbornness in keeping to his own side of the line irritated Bud. He wanted to get back at the old hound somehow—without giving in an inch in the mute deadlock. Furthermore, he was hungry, and he did not propose to lie there and starve while old Cash pottered around the stove. He'd tell the world he was going to have his own breakfast first, and if Cash didn't want to set in on the cooking, Cash could lie in bed till he was paralyzed, and be darned.
At that moment Cash pushed back the blankets that had been banked to his ears. Simultaneously, Bud swung his feet to the cold floor with a thump designed solely to inform Cash that Bud was getting up. Cash turned over with his back to the room and pulled up the blankets. Bud grinned maliciously and dressed as deliberately as the cold of the cabin would let him. To be sure, there was the disadvantage of having to start his own fire, but that disagreeable task was offset by the pleasure he would get in messing around as long as he could, cooking his breakfast. He even thought of frying potatoes and onions after he cooked his bacon. Potatoes and onions fried together have a lovely tendency to stick to the frying pan, especially if there is not too much grease, and if they are fried very slowly. Cash would have to do some washing and scraping, when it came his turn to cook. Bud knew just about how mad that would make Cash, and he dwelt upon the prospect relishfully.
Bud never wanted potatoes for his breakfast. Coffee, bacon, and hotcakes suited him perfectly. But just for meanness, because he felt mean and he wanted to act mean, he sliced the potatoes and the onions into the frying pan, and, to make his work artistically complete, he let them burn and stick to the pan,—after he had his bacon and hotcakes fried, of course!
He sat down and began to eat. And presently Cash crawled out into the warm room filled with the odor of frying onions, and dressed himself with the detached calm of the chronically sulky individual. Not once did the manner of either man betray any consciousness of the other's presence. Unless some detail of the day's work compelled them to speech, not once for more than three weeks had either seemed conscious of the other.
Cash washed his face and his hands, took the side of bacon, and cut three slices with the precision of long practice. Bud sopped his last hotcake in a pool of syrup and watched him from the corner of his eyes, without turning his head an inch toward Cash. His keenest desire, just then, was to see Cash when he tackled the frying pan.
But Cash disappointed him there. He took a pie tin off the shelf and laid his strips of bacon on it, and set it in the oven; which is a very good way of cooking breakfast bacon, as Bud well knew. Cash then took down the little square baking pan, greased from the last baking of bread, and in that he fried his hot cakes. As if that were not sufficiently exasperating, he gave absolutely no sign of being conscious of the frying pan any more than he was conscious of Bud. He did not overdo it by whistling, or even humming a tune—which would have given Bud an excuse to say something almost as mean as his mood. Abstractedness rode upon Cash's lined brow. Placid meditation shone forth from his keen old blue-gray eyes.
The bacon came from the oven juicy-crisp and curled at the edges and delicately browned. The cakes came out of the baking pan brown and thick and light. Cash sat down at his end of the table, pulled his own can of sugar and his own cup of sirup and his own square of butter toward him; poured his coffee, that he had made in a small lard pail, and began to eat his breakfast exactly as though he was alone in that cabin.
A great resentment filled Bud's soul to bursting, The old hound! Bud believed now that Cash was capable of leaving that frying pan dirty for the rest of the day! A man like that would do anything! If it wasn't for that claim, he'd walk off and forget to come back.
Thinking of that seemed to crystallize into definite purpose what had been muddling his mind with vague impulses to let his mood find expression. He would go to Alpine that day. He would hunt up Frank and see if he couldn't jar him into showing that he had a mind of his own. Twice since that first unexpected spree, he had spent a good deal of time and gold dust and consumed a good deal of bad whisky and beer, in testing the inherent obligingness of Frank. The last attempt had been the cause of the final break between him and Cash. Cash had reminded Bud harshly that they would need that gold to develop their quartz claim, and he had further stated that he wanted no "truck" with a gambler and a drunkard, and that Bud had better straighten up if he wanted to keep friends with Cash.
Bud had retorted that Cash might as well remember that Bud had a half interest in the two claims, and that he would certainly stay with it. Meantime, he would tell the world he was his own boss, and Cash needn't think for a minute that Bud was going to ask permission for what he did or did not do. Cash needn't have any truck with him, either. It suited Bud very well to keep on his own side of the cabin, and he'd thank Cash to mind his own business and not step over the dead line.
Cash had laughed disagreeably and asked Bud what he was going to do—draw a chalk mark, maybe?
Bud, half drunk and unable to use ordinary good sense, had said yes, by thunder, he'd draw a chalk line if he wanted to, and if he did, Cash had better not step over it either, unless he wanted to be kicked back.
Wherefore the broad, black line down the middle of the floor to where the table stood. Obviously, he could not well divide the stove and the teakettle and the frying pan and coffeepot. The line stopped abruptly with a big blob of lampblack mixed with coal oil, just where necessity compelled them both to use the same floor space.
The next day Bud had been ashamed of the performance, but his shame could not override his stubbornness. The black line stared up at him accusingly. Cash, keeping scrupulously upon his own side of it, went coldly about his own affairs and never yielded so much as a glance at Bud. And Bud grew more moody and dissatisfied with himself, but he would not yield, either. Perversely he waited for Cash to apologize for what he had said about gamblers and drunkards, and tried to believe that upon Cash rested all of the blame.
Now he washed his own breakfast dishes, including the frying pan, spread the blankets smooth on his bunk, swept as much of the floor as lay upon his side of the dead line. Because the wind was in the storm quarter and the lowering clouds promised more snow, he carried in three big armfuls of wood and placed them upon his corner of the fireplace, to provide warmth when he returned. Cash would not touch that wood while Bud was gone, and Bud knew it. Cash would freeze first. But there was small chance of that, because a small, silent rivalry had grown from the quarrel; a rivalry to see which kept the best supply of wood, which swept cleanest under his bunk and up to the black line, which washed his dishes cleanest, and kept his shelf in the cupboard the tidiest. Before the fireplace in an evening Cash would put on wood, and when next it was needed, Bud would get up and put on wood. Neither would stoop to stinting or to shirking, neither would give the other an inch of ground for complaint. It was not enlivening to live together that way, but it worked well toward keeping the cabin ship shape.
So Bud, knowing that it was going to storm, and perhaps dreading a little the long monotony of being housed with a man as stubborn as himself, buttoned a coat over his gray, roughneck sweater, pulled a pair of mail-order mittens over his mail-order gloves, stamped his feet into heavy, three-buckled overshoes, and set out to tramp fifteen miles through the snow, seeking the kind of pleasure which turns to pain with the finding.
He knew that Cash, out by the woodpile, let the axe blade linger in the cut while he stared after him. He knew that Cash would be lonesome without him, whether Cash ever admitted it or not. He knew that Cash would be passively anxious until he returned—for the months they had spent together had linked them closer than either would confess. Like a married couple who bicker and nag continually when together, but are miserable when apart, close association had become a deeply grooved habit not easily thrust aside. Cabin fever might grip them and impel them to absurdities such as the dead line down the middle of their floor and the silence that neither desired but both were too stubborn to break; but it could not break the habit of being together. So Bud was perfectly aware of the fact that he would be missed, and he was ill-humored enough to be glad of it. Frank, if he met Bud that day, was likely to have his amiability tested to its limit.
Bud tramped along through the snow, wishing it was not so deep, or else deep enough to make snow-shoeing practicable in the timber; thinking too of Cash and how he hoped Cash would get his fill of silence, and of Frank, and wondering where he would find him. He had covered perhaps two miles of the fifteen, and had walked off a little of his grouch, and had stopped to unbutton his coat, when he heard the crunching of feet in the snow, just beyond a thick clump of young spruce.
Bud was not particularly cautious, nor was he averse to meeting people in the trail. He stood still though, and waited to see who was coming that way—since travelers on that trail were few enough to be noticeable.
In a minute more a fat old squaw rounded the spruce grove and shied off startled when she glimpsed Bud. Bud grunted and started on, and the squaw stepped clear of the faintly defined trail to let him pass. Moreover, she swung her shapeless body around so that she half faced him as he passed. Bud's lips tightened, and he gave her only a glance. He hated fat old squaws that were dirty and wore their hair straggling down over their crafty, black eyes. They burlesqued womanhood in a way that stirred always a smoldering resentment against them. This particular squaw had nothing to commend her to his notice. She had a dirty red bandanna tied over her dirty, matted hair and under her grimy double chin. A grimy gray blanket was draped closely over her squat shoulders and formed a pouch behind, wherein the plump form of a papoose was cradled, a little red cap pulled down over its ears.
Bud strode on, his nose lifted at the odor of stale smoke that pervaded the air as he passed. The squaw, giving him a furtive stare, turned and started on, bent under her burden.
Then quite suddenly a wholly unexpected sound pursued Bud and halted him in the trail; the high, insistent howl of a child that has been denied its dearest desire of the moment. Bud looked back inquiringly. The squaw was hurrying on, and but for the straightness of the trail just there, her fat old canvas-wrapped legs would have carried her speedily out of sight. Of course, papooses did yell once in awhile, Bud supposed, though he did not remember ever hearing one howl like that on the trail. But what made the squaw in such a deuce of a hurry all at once?
Bud's theory of her kind was simple enough: If they fled from you, it was because they had stolen something and were afraid you would catch them at it. He swung around forthwith in the trail and went after her—whereat she waddled faster through the snow like a frightened duck.
"Hey! You come back here a minute! What's all the rush?" Bud's voice and his long legs pursued, and presently he overtook her and halted her by the simple expedient of grasping her shoulder firmly. The high-keyed howling ceased as suddenly as it had begun, and Bud, peering under the rolled edge of the red stocking cap, felt his jaw go slack with surprise.
The baby was smiling at him delightedly, with a quirk of the lips and a twinkle lodged deep somewhere in its eyes. It worked one hand free of its odorous wrappings, spread four fat fingers wide apart over one eye, and chirped, "Pik-k?" and chuckled infectiously deep in its throat.
Bud gulped and stared and felt a warm rush of blood from his heart up into his head. A white baby, with eyes that laughed, and quirky red lips that laughed with the eyes, and a chuckling voice like that, riding on the back of that old squaw, struck him dumb with astonishment.
"Good glory!" he blurted, as though the words had been jolted from him by the shock. Where-upon the baby reached out its hand to him and said haltingly, as though its lips had not yet grown really familiar with the words:
The squaw tried to jerk away, and Bud gave her a jerk to let her know who was boss. "Say, where'd you git that kid?" he demanded aggressively.
She moved her wrapped feet uneasily in the snow, flickered a filmy, black eyed glance at Bud's uncompromising face, and waved a dirty paw vaguely in a wide sweep that would have kept a compass needle revolving if it tried to follow and was not calculated to be particularly enlightening.
"Lo-ong ways," she crooned, and her voice was the first attractive thing Bud had discovered about her. It was pure melody, soft and pensive as the cooing of a wood dove.
"Who belongs to it?" Bud was plainly suspicious. The shake of the squaw's bandannaed head was more artfully vague than her gesture. "Don' know—modder die—fadder die—ketchum long ways—off."
"Well, what's its name?" Bud's voice harshened with his growing interest and bewilderment. The baby was again covering one twinkling eye with its spread, pink palm, and was saying "Pik-k?" and laughing with the funniest little squint to its nose that Bud had ever seen. It was so absolutely demoralizing that to relieve himself Bud gave the squaw a shake. This tickled the baby so much that the chuckle burst into a rollicking laugh, with a catch of the breath after each crescendo tone that made it absolutely individual and like none other—save one.
"What's his name?" Bud bullied the squaw, though his eyes were on the baby.
"Take—Uvin—Chal," the baby demanded imperiously.
"Uvin Chal? Now what'd yuh mean by that, oletimer?" Bud obeyed an overpowering impulse to reach out and touch the baby's cheek with a mittened thumb. The baby responded instantly by again demanding that Bud should take.
"Pik-k?" said Bud, a mitten over one eye.
"Pik-k?" said the baby, spreading his fat hand again and twinkling at Bud between his fingers. But immediately afterwards it gave a little, piteous whimper. "Take—Uvin Chal!" it beseeched Bud with voice and starlike blue eyes together. "Take!"
There was that in the baby's tone, in the unbaby-like insistence of its bright eyes, which compelled obedience. Bud had never taken a baby of that age in his arms. He was always in fear of dropping it, or crushing it with his man's strength, or something. He liked them—at a safe distance. He would chuck one under the chin, or feel diffidently the soft little cheek, but a closer familiarity scared him. Yet when this baby wriggled its other arm loose and demanded him to take, Bud reached out and grasped its plump little red-sweatered body firmly under the armpits and drew it forth, squirming with eagerness.
"Well, I'll tell the world I don't blame yuh for wanting to git outa that hog's nest," said Bud, answering the baby's gleeful chuckle.
Freed from his detaining grip on her shoulder, the squaw ducked unexpectedly and scuttled away down the trail as fast as her old legs would carry her; which was surprisingly speedy for one of her bulk. Bud had opened his mouth to ask her again where she had gotten that baby. He left it open while he stared after her astonished until the baby put up a hand over one of Bud's eyes and said "Pik-k?" with that distracting little quirk at the corners of its lips.
"You son of a gun!" grinned Bud, in the tone that turned the epithet in to a caress. "You dog gone little devil, you! Pik-k! then, if that's what you want."
The squaw had disappeared into the thick under growth, leaving a track like a hippo in the snow. Bud could have overtaken her, of course, and he could have made her take the baby back again. But he could not face the thought of it. He made no move at all toward pursuit, but instead he turned his face toward Alpine, with some vague intention of turning the baby over to the hotel woman there and getting the authorities to hunt up its parents. It was plain enough that the squaw had no right to it, else she would not have run off like that.
Bud walked at least a rod toward Alpine before he swung short around in his tracks and started the other way. "No, I'll be doggoned if I will!" he said. "You can't tell about women, no time. She might spank the kid, or something. Or maybe she wouldn't feed it enough. Anyway, it's too cold, and it's going to storm pretty pronto. Hey! Yuh cold, old-timer?"
The baby whimpered a little and snuggled its face down against Bud's chest. So Bud lifted his foot and scraped some snow off a nearby log, and set the baby down there while he took off his coat and wrapped it around him, buttoning it like a bag over arms and all. The baby watched him knowingly, its eyes round and dark blue and shining, and gave a contented little wriggle when Bud picked it up again in his arms.
"Now you're all right till we get to where it's warm," Bud assured it gravely. "And we'll do some steppin', believe me. I guess maybe you ain't any more crazy over that Injun smell on yuh, than what I am—and that ain't any at all." He walked a few steps farther before he added grimly, "It'll be some jolt for Cash, doggone his skin. He'll about bust, I reckon. But we don't give a darn. Let him bust if he wants to—half the cabin's mine, anyway."
So, talking a few of his thoughts aloud to the baby, that presently went to sleep with its face against his shoulder, Bud tramped steadily through the snow, carrying Lovin Child in his arms. No remote glimmer of the wonderful thing Fate had done for him seeped into his consciousness, but there was a new, warm glow in his heart—the warmth that came from a child's unquestioning faith in his protecting tenderness.