Warning: This is a very unsatisfying story, especially coming from Olive W. Burt. Don’t blame me!
From the Relief Society Magazine, October 1951 –
Every Step of the Way
By Olive W. Burt
Martha had awakened that morning with a vague feeling of uneasiness that had mounted, as the hidden sun had mounted in the gray sky, till now, it had become a gnawing fear, localized and intensified by the sudden sharp pain that tore through her body.
She rested her head for a moment on her arms flung across the table where she had been trying to eat a little lunch. Then she sought the comfort of Ronnie’s eyes. They were everywhere she looked, smiling down at her tenderly from the photographs all about the room – Ronnie in his neat, dark wedding suit, Ronnie in overalls with his prize steer, Ronnie in his uniform as he had looked when he told her goodby.
“I’ll be here, Martha, honey!” he had promised her. “No matter how many miles are between us, when your time comes I will be with you, in spirit.”
“Don’t worry about me,” she had answered stoutly. “I’ll be all right. And what you just said goes double. I am going to be with you all the way. We’ll be together always, sweetheart. Miles don’t mean anything.”
Martha, remembering that parting, thought bitterly, those were words, Ronnie, brave words, but nothing else. You are far away – so far that I cannot touch you, even with my thoughts – even with my fears!
She rose from the table and went to the window and looked out. It was three, yet it was so dark and gray outside that she could barely see the barns. The road winding down the canyon was empty and desolate.
Martha sighed and turned resolutely from the window. there was no sense in waiting nay longer. Her father would not be back till Saturday – three long days away. When he had left, they had thought that would be plenty soon enough, but now Martha knew that Saturday would be too late. Not only was Ronnie gone, but so was everyone else. She was alone.
The thing to do was to get herself ready and drive down to the city to the hospital. It was only a matter of a little over a hundred miles – a three hours journey at most – and if she hurried she should be able to get there in plenty of time. The first baby, she had heard, took a long time coming.
But she mustn’t get panicky. She must move calmly and take care of everything, because this was an important trip – dreadfully important.
Martha threw on an old sweater and went out to the barn. The wind, whipping down the canyon, wrapped her skirts about her legs. She forked down hay for the cows and put oats in the horses’ manger. She pumped water to fill the troughs, moving very carefully, afraid that sudden exertion or too much energy might hasten the event she must hold at bay.
“Better go slow, even if it gets dusk before I reach town,” she whispered, her stiff lips forming the words deliberately, reassuringly.
Back at the house she called the Hendersons who had the next ranch up the canyon.
“Dolly,” Martha said, trying to keep her voice casual and unafraid, “Dolly, the pains have started. I’ve got to go down to Trinidad – I’ve got to get to the hospital. Will you ask Pete to take care of the stock here till Dad gets back Saturday? There’s only the two cows to milk and the feeding to do. Everything else can wait.”
“You poor kid!” Dolly’s voice meant to be reassuring, Martha knew, but it very compassion bred fear. “Gosh, I wish I could go with you and see that you get there all right. but Pete’s gone over the mountain to look after the sheep and the boys are all in school. I wouldn’t dare leave the babies – but it looks awful out. What if it storms?”
“I can get through all right. It isn’t far. But I am afraid, I guess. Dolly?”
“How long – will I have time?”
“You ought to.” The older woman’s voice was hearty. “Shucks! Most babies come in the morning, you know – not that any of mine did – they’re too ornery to abide by any rules …”
Martha breathed more easily. “Oh, then that’s all right … only …”
“Don’t you worry now!” Dolly advised. “And don’t get scared. Just grit your teeth and keep going. And don’t think about the place. We’ll take care of everything until your father gets back. Don’t forget to leave him a note or he’ll be scared to find you gone.”
“Thanks, Dolly, I will. I’ve got to rush now.”
Martha turned from the phone and tried to organize her thoughts.
“I must take things for the baby,” she said, and went to the small cretonne-covered box where she had put the little garments as she had fashioned them or had received them from the mail-0order house. She took out shirts and diapers and tiny hose. Then she saw the tiny bootees – the first thing she had made for the baby. Ronnie had insisted on helping and had tried to put the edge around the top, his brown hands clumsy with the slender hook.
Martha held the bootees close to her cheek for an instant, remembering that night. Then she laid them on top of the other wee garments.
“Now my things.”
She got her new nightdresses, her comb and brush and toothbrush. There was something else – what was it? Oh! Ronnie had written from far Korea, “Take my picture to the hospital with you, sweetheart! Don’t you dare forget it. I want to be in on this!”
Martha smiled a little wanly. Maybe it would be some comfort to him to know that his photograph was on the table beside her bed, but she wanted Ronnie, himself, warm and tangible and breathing …
She had heated some milk, and now she poured herself a steaming cupful and turned the rest into a thermos bottle. She noticed that her hand was shaking, and she scolded herself sternly. Another pain tore through her and her eyes sought the clock beseechingly. It was past four … the pains were still a long way apart, but she’d better hurry.
She began to cram things helter-skelter into the suitcase, and crowded the lid shut with that lost feeling of having forgotten something. She looked about her, trying to remember. The note to her father! She scribbled it hastily, placed it under the salt cellar on the table, lifted her suitcase, and went out.
The wind was screeching down the canyon now, and scattered flakes of snow were whirling madly about the yard. She set her suitcase and thermos bottle on the side porch and hurried to the garage. She forgot her earlier caution and flung wide the garage doors with a wild gesture. She got into the car and felt like crying with relief when the engine turned over obediently and the old car backed smoothly into the yard.
“It would have been just like it to have stalled,” she said, blinking back a tear. She glanced at the gas gauge and mentally thanked her father for his care on never leaving unless the tank was full of gas in case of an emergency.
By the porch she stopped and put her suitcase into the car. She put the thermos bottle in the door pocket. Then she opened the kitchen door and gave one last swift look about to be sure everything was shut. She locked the door, hid the key under the milk bench on the side porch, and was ready to go.
It was hard to drive with the wind whipping the snow against the windshield. The flakes seemed to come out of nowhere, from every direction, to batter against the glass and cling there in a heavy, white curtain. She hadn’t thought it was snowing so heavily until the car started.
The windshield wiper wasn’t working very well, and Martha had to lean forward and peer through the twisting gray and white kaleidoscope in order to keep on the winding road.
The pain caught her and shook her and she had to stop the car and lean her head on the steering wheel and pray.
After a while she started on again, but during the brief stop the snow had piled high on the windshield and the rear window, so she got out onto the running board and wiped it off with a bit of cloth she found in the glove compartment. She chafed at the delay, but could not avoid it.
When she started again she made herself think of Ronnie. She tried to conjure him up, out of memory, to sit beside her here in the cold car on the snowy road. But it was useless. All she could remember was Ronnie in that last snapshot he had sent – a picture of him in a helmet all spotted with paint and ridiculously draped with leaves. His shirt was spotted, and the sun beat down on his broad shoulders.
Would there ever be a night – a safe, distant night, when she would lie in Ronnie’s arms and tell him of this nightmare?
“But you weren’t ever alone,” Ronnie would whisper against her hair, and she would whisper back, “No, I was never really alone!” she would never let him know how alone she had been in the cold and the snow and the fear of these hours. She had read somewhere that no spot on earth was more than sixty hours away from you, wherever you stood. Sixty hours … in sixty hours she could be lost forever.
She looked at the speedometer – twenty-five miles – but that was as fast as she dared go. There was no one on the road – no one at all, and Martha thought bitterly that if anything happened she could die here, on this road she knew so well and had traveled so often, and no one would know until it was too late. She bit her lips to keep them from shaking into sobs, and drove doggedly on.
Every little while another pain would rip through her body. Her hands on the wheel would tense in uncontrollable agony, and she would have to stop the car because she couldn’t tell where those tense fingers would direct it on this sloping, slippery road. After the paroxysm had passed, she would rest her head for a moment on her arms across the wheel; then she would get out and wipe off the accumulated snow from the windshield and the back window, and then go on, slowly, painfully.
Each time she got out of the car she was stung by the snowflakes and the lashing wind. Her feet got cold, and she was afraid this might be harmful to the unborn baby, but she didn’t know how to avoid it. The stops were becoming so frequent now that she didn’t have time to get warm between them, and she wondered how much of the aching cold was from the weather and how much came from her own terror.
Slowly, stubbornly the little car moved down the lonely road in short spurts of motion and longer and longer pauses of shaking agony. At last, looking out of the window, Martha could tell by the landmarks, even though they were distorted with snow, that she was out of the canyon and on the road into town.
It wasn’t the main road, of course, but it seemed less lonely somehow. The most dangerous part of her journey was over.
But it was getting dark. The trip down the canyon had taken longer than she had planned, and she would have to hurry now. She drew the car slightly off the road and stepped out onto the running board to wipe off the windshield one last time, so that she could travel faster.
Snow had frozen to the glass, and it took time and effort to get it even passably clear. As Martha worked furiously she heard with a sickening lurch of her heart the engine give a funny cough and die. She stumbled back into her seat, thrust her foot against the starter, pulled the choke frantically.
The starter buzzed, but the engine didn’t turn over. She tried again and again, her hands shaking, her lip caught between her teeth. But it was no use.
“I’ve flooded the carburetor now,” she thought bitterly. “I’ll have to wait. I’ll have to make myself wait.”
She looked about her in the deepening dark of the lonely road and was filled with panic. She knew that every time she choked the car more gas would be forced into the flooded carburetor, delaying her that much longer. Then she recalled a trick Ronnie had taught her – a way of waiting until the carburetor was clear. She began to count, “One and two and three and four.” At sixty she bent her thumb against her palm … one minute … but how long it had been!
She started counting again. Ronnie had said to give the carburetor ten minutes, a good ten minutes, before she tried again. It had always worked. But at the end of that interminable period, when all ten fingers lay clenched against her palms, Martha still could not start the car. It was incomprehensible, unwarranted, frightening. She laid her head on her arms and wept.
Her weeping was interrupted by a searing flash of pain. Now she just sat there, behind the wheel, and let the pains come. There was nothing else she could do. After each one passed she rested her head on her arms and dozed. She was too weary to cry any more – too weary to be afraid of what was happening.
She wished she could think of Ronnie. She wished she could remember what he would have done in this place – some crazy Boy Scout trick, no doubt, like waving a flashlight. There was one in the glove compartment!
She looked out again. The snow had stopped falling and the night was clear and cold about her. Wearily, without the slightest hope, her numb fingers opened the door in the panel and took out the flashlight. Moving in a drugged sleep, she stepped out of the car into the bitter cold. She pressed her thumb against the catch and the light flared on. It made a little circle of yellow on the snow beside the road.
Martha looked at it numbly. now what should she do? There was some special way to signal distress with a light – but there was no one to see in all the darkness that lay so close and tight around her. She lifted her arm, waved it in a slow, tired circle – and then the light went out. As suddenly as the engine had failed her, the light was gone, and she was alone in the cold and the night.
Martha opened the door of the car and crawled into her place behind the wheel. This was the end – the end to hope and the end to fighting. Ronnie had promised to be with her, to help her through this ordeal. But it wasn’t Ronnie’s fault that he was not here. And it wasn’t her father’s fault that she was alone. It was beyond them all.
* * *
A sense of warmth awakened her. She opened her eyes and found bright sunlight lying across her face. She looked around and found that she was in a hospital room. Ronnie’s picture was on the little table, just as she had planned it would be.
A nurse came in quietly, and seeing that Martha was awake, she put on her professional smile and said, “You have a lovely, dark-haired son. Do you want to see him now?”
Martha couldn’t answer, but the nurse understood what her eyes said. She went out and returned with a small, soft bundle which she laid in Martha’s arms.
Martha looked down. Ronnie! Ronnie’s forehead and mouth and dark hair tumbled into a soft little curl. Martha’s eyes drank their fill and her heart, too, was full.