Cash Gets A Shock
: Cabin Fever
It happened that Cash was just returning to the cabin from the Blind Ledge claim. He met Bud almost at the doorstep, just as Bud was fumbling with the latch, trying to open the door without moving Lovin Child in his arms. Cash may or may not have been astonished. Certainly he did not betray by more than one quick glance that he was interested in Bud's return or in the mysterious burden he bore. He stepped ahead of Bud and opened the door without a word, as if he always did it just in that way, a
d went inside.
Bud followed him in silence, stepped across the black line to his own side of the room and laid Lovin Child carefully down so as not to waken him. He unbuttoned the coat he had wrapped around him, pulled off the concealing red cap and stared down at the pale gold, silky hair and the adorable curve of the soft cheek and the lips with the dimples tricked in at the corners; the lashes lying like the delicate strokes of an artist's pencil under the closed eyes. For at least five minutes he stood without moving, his whole face softened into a boyish wistfulness. By the stove Cash stood and stared from Bud to the sleeping baby, his bushy eyebrows lifted, his gray eyes a study of incredulous bewilderment.
Then Bud drew a long breath and seemed about to move away from the bank, and Cash turned abruptly to the stove and lifted a rusty lid and peered into the cold firebox, frowning as though he was expecting to see fire and warmth where only a sprinkle of warm ashes remained. Stubbornness held him mute and outwardly indifferent. He whittled shavings and started a fire in the cook stove, filled the teakettle and set it on to boil, got out the side of bacon and cut three slices, and never once looked toward the bunk. Bud might have brought home a winged angel, or a rainbow, or a casket of jewels, and Cash would not have permitted himself to show any human interest.
But when Bud went teetering from the cabin on his toes to bring in some pine cones they had saved for quick kindling, Cash craned his neck toward the little bundle on the bunk. He saw a fat, warm little hand stir with some baby dream. He listened and heard soft breathing that stopped just short of being an infantile snore. He made an errand to his own bunk and from there inspected the mystery at closer range. He saw a nose and a little, knobby chin and a bit of pinkish forehead with the pale yellow of hair above. He leaned and cocked his head to one aide to see more—but at that moment he heard Bud stamping off the snow from his feet on the doorstep, and he took two long, noiseless strides to the dish cupboard and was fumbling there with his back to the bunk when Bud came tiptoeing in.
Bud started a fire in the fireplace and heaped the dry limbs high. Cash fried his bacon, made his tea, and set the table for his midday meal. Bud waited for the baby to wake, looking at his watch every minute or two, and making frequent cautious trips to the bunk, peeking and peering to see if the child was all right. It seemed unnatural that it should sleep so long in the daytime. No telling what that squaw had done to it; she might have doped it or something. He thought the kid's face looked red, as if it had fever, and he reached down and touched anxiously the hand that was uncovered. The hand was warm—too warm, in Bud's opinion. It would be just his luck if the kid got sick, he'd have to pack it clear in to Alpine in his arms. Fifteen miles of that did not appeal to Bud, whose arms ached after the two-mile trip with that solid little body lying at ease in the cradle they made.
His back to that end of the room, Cash sat stiff-necked and stubbornly speechless, and ate and drank as though he were alone in the cabin. Whenever Bud's mind left Lovin Child long enough to think about it, he watched Cash furtively for some sign of yielding, some softening of that grim grudge. It seemed to him as though Cash was not human, or he would show some signs of life when a live baby was brought to camp and laid down right under his nose.
Cash finished and began washing his dishes, keeping his back turned toward Bud and Bud's new possession, and trying to make it appear that he did so unconsciously. He did not fool Bud for a minute. Bud knew that Cash was nearly bursting with curiosity, and he had occasional fleeting impulses to provoke Cash to speech of some sort. Perhaps Cash knew what was in Bud's mind. At any rate he left the cabin and went out and chopped wood for an hour, furiously raining chips into the snow.
When he went in with his arms piled full of cut wood, Bud had the baby sitting on one corner of the table, and was feeding it bread and gravy as the nearest approach to baby food he could think of. During occasional interludes in the steady procession of bits of bread from the plate to the baby's mouth, Lovin Child would suck a bacon rind which he held firmly grasped in a greasy little fist. Now and then Bud would reach into his hip pocket, pull out his handkerchief as a make-shift napkin, and would carefully wipe the border of gravy from the baby's mouth, and stuff the handkerchief back into his pocket again.
Both seemed abominably happy and self-satisfied. Lovin Child kicked his heels against the rough table frame and gurgled unintelligible conversation whenever he was able to articulate sounds. Bud replied with a rambling monologue that implied a perfect understanding of Lovin Child's talk—and incidentally doled out information for Cash's benefit.
Cash cocked an eye at the two as he went by, threw the wood down on his side of the hearth, and began to replenish the fire. If he heard, he gave no sign of understanding or interest.
"I'll bet that old squaw musta half starved yah," Bud addressed the baby while he spooned gravy out of a white enamel bowl on to the second slice of bread. "You're putting away grub like a nigger at a barbecue. I'll tell the world I don't know what woulda happened if I hadn't run across yuh and made her hand yuh over."
"Ja—ja—ja—jah!" said Lovin Child, nodding his head and regarding Bud with the twinkle in his eyes.
"And that's where you're dead right, Boy. I sure do wish you'd tell me your name; but I reckon that's too much to ask of a little geezer like you. Here. Help yourself, kid—you ain't in no Injun camp now. You're with white folks now."
Cash sat down on the bench he had made for himself, and stared into the fire. His whole attitude spelled abstraction; nevertheless he missed no little sound behind him.
He knew that Bud was talking largely for his benefit, and he knew that here was the psychological time for breaking the spell of silence between them. Yet he let the minutes slip past and would not yield. The quarrel had been of Bud's making in the first place. Let Bud do the yielding, make the first step toward amity.
But Bud had other things to occupy him just then. Having eaten all his small stomach would hold, Lovin Child wanted to get down and explore. Bud had other ideas, but they did not seem to count for much with Lovin Child, who had an insistent way that was scarcely to be combated or ignored.
"But listen here, Boy!" Bud protested, after he had for the third time prevented Lovin Child from backing off the table. "I was going to take off these dirty duds and wash some of the Injun smell off yuh. I'll tell a waiting world you need a bath, and your clothes washed."
"Ugh, ugh, ugh," persisted Lovin Child, and pointed to the floor.
So Bud sighed and made a virtue of defeat. "Oh, well, they say it's bad policy to take a bath right after yuh eat. We'll let it ride awhile, but you sure have got to be scrubbed a plenty before you can crawl in with me, old-timer," he said, and set him down on the floor.
Lovin Child went immediately about the business that seemed most important. He got down on his hands and knees and gravely inspected the broad black line, hopefully testing it with tongue and with fingers to see if it would yield him anything in the way of flavor or stickiness. It did not. It had been there long enough to be thoroughly dry and tasteless. He got up, planted both feet on it and teetered back and forth, chuckling up at Bud with his eyes squinted.
He teetered so enthusiastically that he sat down unexpectedly and with much emphasis. That put him between two impulses, and while they battled he stared round-eyed at Bud. But he decided not to cry, and straightway turned himself into a growly bear and went down the line on all fours toward Cash, growling "Ooooooo!" as fearsomely as his baby throat was capable of growling.
But Cash would not be scared. He refused absolutely to jump up and back off in wild-eyed terror, crying out "Ooh! Here comes a bear!" the way Marie had always done—the way every one had always done, when Lovin Child got down and came at them growling. Cash sat rigid with his face to the fire, and would not look.
Lovin Child crawled all around him and growled his terriblest. For some unexplainable reason it did not work. Cash sat stiff as though he had turned to some insensate metal. From where he sat watching—curious to see what Cash would do—Bud saw him flinch and stiffen as a man does under pain. And because Bud had a sore spot in his own heart, Bud felt a quick stab of understanding and sympathy. Cash Markham's past could not have been a blank; more likely it held too much of sorrow for the salve of speech to lighten its hurt. There might have been a child....
"Aw, come back here!" Bud commanded Lovin Child gruffly.
But Lovin Child was too busy. He had discovered in his circling of Cash, the fanny buckles on Cash's high overshoes. He was investigating them as he had investigated the line, with fingers and with pink tongue, like a puppy. From the lowest buckle he went on to the top one, where Cash's khaki trousers were tucked inside with a deep fold on top. Lovin Child's small forefinger went sliding up in the mysterious recesses of the fold until they reached the flat surface of the knee. He looked up farther, studying Cash's set face, sitting back on his little heels while he did so. Cash tried to keep on staring into the fire, but in spite of himself his eyes lowered to meet the upward look.
"Pik-k?" chirped Lovin Child, spreading his fingers over one eye and twinkling up at Cash with the other.
Cash flinched again, wavered, swallowed twice, and got up so abruptly that Lovin Child sat down again with a plunk. Cash muttered something in his throat and rushed out into the wind and the slow-falling tiny white flakes that presaged the storm.
Until the door slammed shut Lovin Child looked after him, scowling, his eyes a blaze of resentment. He brought his palms together with a vicious slap, leaned over, and bumped his forehead deliberately and painfully upon the flat rock hearth, and set up a howl that could have been heard for three city blocks.