The Lotus Eater
By Mabel S. Harmer
When Danny was two years old his father bought him a complete cowboy outfit for a birthday present. “But Dan!” protested Helen, laughing, “it will be two years before he is big enough to wear that outfit and much longer than that before he can ride a horse.”
“Well, I don’t know about that,” said Dan, looking at his sturdy son with pride. “The way that boy is growing he’ll be ready for the saddle ‘most any day now, and it’s best to be prepared. One of these days we’ll be riding the range together, won’t we, old man?”
Danny’s answer was a punch to his father’s broad chest with his tightly doubled little fist. Helen had declared more than once that Dan was teaching the boy too many rough tricks, but he went blissfully on and would romp with Danny by the hour on the kitchen floor until Helen would gather the baby up under one arm and take him off to bed uttering loud protests.
She was amused now, remembering the days before the baby’s birth when she had worried because of Dan’s lack of interest in the boy. His delight in the chubby, blue eyed youngster was unbounded and he spent many an evening hour building air castles for “the judge” as he still occasionally called the boy.
Helen herself wondered how she had ever lived without the delightful mischief maker about to work for or to romp with during the day and to hold in her arms with his fair head against her shoulder at night.
She still had her moments of loneliness, especially during the long cold winter when it was almost impossible to get away from the ranch with the baby. Looking for the mail from home became almost an obsession and she dreamed constantly of the time when Danny would be old enough to take on a visit to California.
She would have been fairly contented at the ranch, now that she had the baby to help fill her days, if it had not been for the utter lack of good music. She derived a great deal of pleasure from her own playing on her violin, but she hungered to hear once more a real concert or an orchestra that played something better than jazz dance music.
The winter after Danny turned two, Dan’s sister Marta, who was now out of school, came to live with them so that Helen would have companionship on the days that Dan was away from home. The snow held off until after the first of December that year, for which Helen was very grateful. The isolation of the ranch during the winter months and the howl of the coyotes was something she felt she would never be reconciled to.
During January Dan left with a carload of cattle for an eastern livestock market expecting to be gone a week or ten days. He had left a good supply of wood cut for fuel and made everything as comfortable as possible for the two women and left them with instructions to “sit tight and have a nice cozy time.”
“Two days after he had left, Danny developed a severe cold which rapidly became worse. There had been slight colds in the past which had yielded easily to the simple remedies of which Helen had a complete stock, but this time, in spite of everything she could do, the baby’s temperature continued to rise and his breathing became heavy.
“I can’t cope with this any longer,” she said finally to Marta. “I’ve got to get a doctor here.”
Marta glanced apprehensively out of the window where a stiff wind was drifting the snow about in great billows. “Couldn’t you wait until morning? Perhaps he will be better then, or the storm will have died down. I don’t see how you can possibly get through now,” she said.
“I’ve got to get through,” answered Helen grimly, as she looked down at Danny’s flushed cheeks.
“Then let me go,” said Marta. “You can take care of the baby so much better than I.”
For a brief moment Helen was sorely tempted to let the girl go. It might be hours before she could get back and it would be torture to leave the sick baby and not know what was happening during that time but she couldn’t ask Marta to attempt such an ordeal, even for Danny, and she answered, “No, thanks, Marta. I can’t send you. I’ll make it all right.”
She left minute instructions regarding the baby’s care and dressed in the warmest clothing she could find. It took what seemed an eternity to her merely to fight her way to the stable. Once inside she saddled the horse and rode him most unwillingly into the biting snow and wind.
The nearest telephone was at Jennings, two miles down the road. What a fool she had been, she thought bitterly, never to have had one put in. It was true they had scarcely any need for one since groceries could not be ordered for delivery, anyway, and their social calls were very few, but they should have foreseen that an emergency like the present might arise.
She drew her scarf around her head and leaned down over the horse’s neck. The snow drove relentlessly into her face and her hands and feet soon became numb. the animal floundered almost helplessly about and Helen tried desperately to urge him on. “Come on, old fellow,” she cried, her voice choking, “it’s for Danny.”
It seemed that half the snow in the valley was being piled into the roadway. Why, oh why, she thought, should anyone live in such a country where nature seemed to let the weather out of all bounds?
“If Danny gets better –” she began, and then said to herself stoutly, “When Danny gets better, I’ll take him home where he can play all day in the sunshine.”
They fought their way almost blindly through the storm and when they finally arrived at the Jennings’ door both Helen and the animal were utterly spent. Helen’s hands were so cold and numb that she opened the door without the formality of knocking and the family seated about the fire inside stared at her in amazement.
“My land, child,” gasped Mrs. Jennings, “whatever made you come out in such a storm?”
“It’s Danny,” said Helen brokenly. “He’s sick and I’ve just got to have a doctor.”
“Well, sit right down and get warm,” said the older woman, pushing Helen gently into a chair and beginning to remove her wraps. “Pa, you phone for her and tell the doctor to come right out and not wait for the storm to die down, neither.”
“Shucks, Dr. Ward don’t think nuthin’ of a storm,” said Pa Jennings as he went to the telephone. “He’s been running around in ‘em for twenty years now.”
Helen clung to her wraps when Mrs. Jennings offered to take them. “I can’t stay,” she said. “I’ve been two hours on the way now and Marta is alone with the baby. If you’ll lend me a fresh horse I’ll start right back.”
“Horse, nothing,” declared Pa Jennings. “I’ll harness up the covered sleigh and take you back.”
“And I’ll come, too,” joined in his wife. “I’ve nursed more cases of pneumony than you’ve ever heard about.”
Tears came to Helen’s eyes. “Oh, if you only would,” she cried. “I feel so helpless and alone. But I can’t take you out in this storm!”
“Humph!” replied Mrs. Jennings with a shrug of her ample shoulders. “I guess one storm more or less ain’t a-goin’ to hurt me after all the ones I’ve lived through. I drove five miles through one as bad as this and helped bring a baby to Fannie Miller. Here, Sadie,” to one of her daughters, “wrap up these irons from the stove and we’ll take ‘em along to keep our feet warm.”
The two women sat in the rear of the sleigh and drew quilts around them to help keep the wind from driving the chill into their bodies. Mr. Jennings sheltered himself as best he could while driving as they fought their way on through the storm. The horses crept through the drifts at snail’s pace and at times Helen felt that she would scream if she couldn’t do something to help them cover the ground a little more rapidly.
Mrs. Jennings talked and tried to divert her mind from the thoughts of the sick boy, but Helen only answered her absent-mindedly in between her prayers that they would be able to get back more quickly and that Danny would not be any worse. They finally ploughed their way through to her own doorway and Helen rushed into the house.
“How is he?” she gasped as soon as she was inside the door.
“About the same, I think,” was Marta’s answer. “He has been awfully restless. I thought that you would never get back.”
“Let’s have a look at this boy who has been scaring his mother to death,” said Mrs. Jennings as she drew off her many wraps. She set to work with the efficiency of one who has had to be both doctor and nurse on many occasions and before long the baby was breathing much easier and his fever had subsided considerably. Now that Helen had someone else to share the responsibility she began to show the effects of the strain she had been under and Mrs. Jennings ordered her to go and rest up or she would need the doctor worse than the baby did.
It was nightfall before the doctor arrived, bringing necessary medicines and reassurance to the anxious mother’s heart. He tried to joke with Helen a little before he left and said with a chuckle, “Now I want you to take better care of that boy. I don’t pass out fine babies like that every day of the week.”
“Don’t worry,” said Helen grimly. “I’m going to take care of him.”
Within a few weeks Danny was playing around again very much like his old lively self, much to the satisfaction of his anxious parents. Helen decided that she would take him to California as soon as it was safe to travel through the mountains so that he could have plenty of sunshine in which to complete his recovery. The snow drifts lay on the pass through the highest part of the canyon until late in May and it was June before the road had dried sufficiently for them to drive a car through to Junction City.
Helen tried to persuade Dan to go with them, but he insisted that he couldn’t be spared from the ranch. She rather believed that he was diffident about meeting her people for the first time and didn’t press the matter. He said something vague about coming and getting her if she stayed too long, but Helen was quite sure that he didn’t have any such intentions. She realized that summer was a busy time on the ranch and after all, the important thing was to get Danny away to a milder climate.
Helen felt more light-hearted than she had done in years as they drove through the canyon, lovely in its gay dress of early summer foliage. Going home for the first time in five years. She wondered if she had changed much and if she would look “countrified” and “out of date.” Anyway, she had Danny, she thought, gazing down affectionately at the boy, and she defied any of her family to have produced anything more wonderful in five years’ time.
Dan bade them goodbye at the station with a crooked smile and more than a suspicion of tears in his eyes. “Take good care of your mother,” he said, giving Danny’s cheek a playful pinch, “and bring me a present when you come back.”
“I’ll bwing you a puppy,” promised Danny, who could think of nothing more desirable for anyone at any time than a dog.
Danny was wildly excited at the prospect of riding on a “sure nuff train” and Helen felt her own spirits rise as they journeyed toward the West. It was good to get away from the deadly routine of ranch life. To see people who had been places and were going places and to order food from a printed menu.
She had telegraphed her father to meet her at Los Angeles and her heart was beating wildly as she and Danny pushed their way through the crowds from the train. At last she saw him. Dear old Dad! With hair a little grayer and a few more wrinkles, but the same cheery, lovable smile that she had so missed. The next minute she was in his arms and Danny seemed quite forgotten until he piped in a solemn voice, “Here’s me.”
“Yes, yes, young man,” laughed his grandfather as he released Helen and swung the boy up in his arms, “and what a fine young fellow he is.”
They were soon out in the car and speeding toward their home in Long Beach where a tumultuous welcome awaited them. The two boys, Marvin and Ted, had grown into tall lanky youths in the time she had been away, and Nina had changed from a square little girl into a lovely slender miss of eighteen. “I declare you’ve all grown out of bounds, even you, mother,” she laughed.
“Tut, tut,” said her father. “At your mother’s age a few extra pounds are very becoming.”
“And as long as your father thinks so, I’m not bothering about going on a diet,” replied Mrs. Burt decisively.
“I wasn’t inferring that you should,” said Helen, giving her an extra hug. “In fact, I think you are grand just as you are.”
Danny at once became the center of attraction and Helen protested that they would spoil him until he couldn’t be lived with, but her father replied complacently that it was every grandparent’s privilege to spoil the first grandchild.
Late that night after Danny had been tucked into bed, Helen went out on the porch and sat down on the step with her head resting against the pillar as she used to do years ago. The rich sweet odor of growing things crept over her and she took deep breaths of the pungent night air. Although she could not see the ocean in the distance she felt its presence and a thrill of happiness swept through her as she thought of the joyous times she and Danny would have playing in the sands.
A few minutes later her mother came out and settled herself down in a rocker. Helen moved over and leaned her head against her mother’s knee. As she reached down and stroked her daughter’s head Helen murmured in tremulous tones, “Oh, mother, it’s so good to be back.”