by Olive W. Burt
Synopsis: Carol Wilson, an artist on the staff of a magazine edited by Brent Gibson, went to Wyoming to attend the funeral of her sister Elizabeth. She felt a deep sympathy for the motherless children and decided to go back to them; however, she found them well cared for. Fred, Carol’s brother-in-law, had become interested in a neighbor, Dolly Graham, and Dolly’s brother Tony declared his love for Carol. Brent Gibson telephoned, asking Carol to return to the city to make the illustrations for a serial story. After the work was completed, Carol went back to Wyoming for a vacation. Tony took her on many excursions, and their regard for each other deepened. Finally, Brent Gibson went to the Wyoming ranch to see Carol.
When Tony dropped in at Fred’s next day and found Brent Gibson on the porch with Carol, he looked accusingly at the girl.
“So this is why you wouldn’t go on a picnic with me yesterday!” he complained.
Carol, unaccountably gay, laughed. “Don’t be silly, Tony! I had no idea Brent was coming up here.”
“But you’re glad! Mighty glad!”
“Of course I’m glad. Brent’s my boss, and I had suggested that he come here for his vacation. It’s always reassuring to have your boss act upon your suggestions!”
“I wish he’d gone some place else!” Tony grumbled.
Brent was staying at a nearby dude ranch, but Fred and Dolly welcomed him to the happy family circle so cordially that he spent most of his time at the ranch house. He was included, of course, in all their picnics and excursions.
Elizabeth’s children were enchanted with Brent. They swarmed over him. Carol remembered how he had been with her other nieces and nephews last Christmas, and, as then, her heart was warmed by the man’s complete understanding of the child mind. Tony was wonderful with them, too, but with Brent there was an intangible something that was different. It was almost as if the children felt an invisible arm around them, protecting them, while they romped.
He ought to have children of his own, Carol thought, watching the group one afternoon. If he’d only forget that first love of his, he could find someone who would appreciate him. He didn’t look or act like the type of man who would devote his life to nursing a dream, but you never could tell with that silent kind.
Carol let her thoughts wander to the kind of woman Brent Gibson might choose, if he ever did choose a wife. But she drew back from actually visualizing her. There’s no one good enough, she told herself angrily. Then she shook herself mentally.
Of course you’re fond of Brent – he’s been mighty good to you, kind and understanding – a wonderful boss. And you ought to be generous enough to want his happiness, she told herself, being stern and honest. Then, oh, I do! I do want his happiness! But, oh, Brent, why did you have to let me know that you were not really happy? If we could only be as we were a year ago – before Elizabeth’s death. Then we were calm and happy and busy with our work, untroubled by thoughts of homes and motherless children and long lost loves!
It was only when Carol was alone that her thoughts churned like this. When she was riding the hills between Brent and Tony, when she was frying flapjacks over a campfire for their activated appetites, when they were clambering up steep slopes or exploring dark caves, Carol was untroubled and happy. She felt gay and competent, and a little excited by the thought that two men were dancing attendance upon her. It was the first time she had been in a position to be a coquette, probably because she had been too busy, first with family responsibilities and then with her job. It was a pleasing, exhilarating situation, and Carol permitted herself to enjoy it to the full. And all the time, she was conscious of Fred and Dolly Graham, intent upon each other, moving inevitably toward marriage.
They went one day, the whole crowd of them, to explore an Indian cave at the foot of Buck Mountain. It would be a three-day trip, and with the food, tents, and equipment, there was going to be too much, even for the commodious station wagon. Tony glanced across the yard at his convertible.
“Look, Carol! Why don’t you and I go in the convertible? It would give the others more room.”
Carol was perplexed for a moment. She glanced involuntarily at Brent.
Brent came toward them. “That’s a good idea, Tony. And maybe Becky and I had better climb in with you two. What say, Becky, my girl?”
Becky danced up and down, entranced with the idea. It was rather a new experience for the quiet little girl to be singled out, and Brent’s attention had made her blossom like a bright little flower.
Tony was not to be circumvented so easily. “That will make us even more crowded than the station wagon,” he objected. “Maybe you two better go with the family.”
“Oh, we don’t mind!” Brent was perfectly composed. “Becky can sit on my lap – or, if it will be more comfortable for you, Tony, she can sit between us and I’ll hold Carol.”
“No, you don’t!” Tony glared at the suggestion.
Oh! Oh! Carol thought, now they’re coming out into the open. Tony fighting for a wife – Brent determined to rescue his artist. Well, I don’t know that I want to be rescued. An impish impulse moved her.
“You’re so good with the children, Brent,” she said cheerfully. “Maybe you’d better ride in the station wagon and keep some sort of order in the back seat!”
Brent shrugged, his expression shuttered. “Okay, if that’s what you want. We don’t crowd in where we’re not desired, do we, Beck?” He picked the child up and gently tossed her into the station wagon. He climbed in after her.
Carol’s heart began to beat painfully. That was a mean trick! Why had she done that to Brent? Put him in with a carful of youngsters – no responsibility of his – while she went riding off with Tony.
Tony was delighted. He grinned down at Carol with a possessiveness he had never before shown. “Well, we’ll have a picnic, whether old Brent does or not!” he exulted.
“I shouldn’t have done that, Tony! I don’t know what possessed me. It wasn’t nice.”
“I’ll say it wasn’t!” Tony agreed cheerfully. “But he sort of deserved it, coming up here when everything was running so smoothly. He came up on purpose, too, to keep me from cutting him out.”
“Oh, Tony! Cutting him out! He never had such a thought! Brent Gibson is interested in me only because I’m a good artist. I’ve really done things for the magazine, and he doesn’t want to lose me.”
“Okay!” Tony agreed. “Keep on thinking that way, honey. In the meantime, remember that I am not your boss – I don’t give a darn about your art – it is you, I am after, and I am frank to admit it.” Then, very soberly, “You know I’m in earnest about this, don’t you, Carol?”
Carol didn’t answer. One little phrase had caught her ear, only one: “I don’t give a darn about your art.” That was honest, at any rate. But couldn’t Tony see that if he didn’t care about her art he didn’t care about the real Carol at all? Tony, so sensitive, so understanding in most things, was dismissing her painting as if it were something that didn’t count in her life – something that could be tossed out of the window in exchange for a wedding ring. He didn’t see that it was a vital part of her which would enrich the lives of all those she loved – husband and children most of all – if only she cherished it and used it for their good. And suddenly, violently, Carol wished she were back in the station wagon with Brent and the children.
Tony took plenty of time driving to the prearranged campsite, so they arrived some time after the others. In fact, Brent and Fred had got the tents up, and Dolly and Kathy were busy with getting the dinner, while Steve was valiantly carrying dry wood to keep the fire burning. Carol was vexed, with both Tony and herself. She knew that they had cheated on the others; that they should have been on hand to help with the children and the setting up of the camp. She was honest enough to blame herself for their dereliction. She could easily enough have avoided this.
Her embarrassment was heightened by the cordial good nature with which the early arrivals greeted them. She knew they were all too well-bred, even the children, to make an issue of the little episode, but she felt that she and Tony deserved some sort of silent treatment. To make up for her truancy, she set to work helping Dolly with an excess of energy that should have made the older woman smile.
So, in spite of the little escapade, the day ended pleasantly enough, with stories around the campfire and an early climbing into sleeping bags to be ready for the dawn.
There was a long climb to the cave, so breakfast was eaten in the chilly air before sunup. As soon as the camp had been straightened up, they all set out. Fred had been there before, so he led the way. The others strung along behind him, or clambered as near to his side as possible, for Fred was telling some amusing anecdotes about his former visit to the cave. Amusing and thrilling the stories were, for Fred and his companion, Bishop Glover’s son Dave, had met a big black bear and had had an exciting brush with the huge creature. It had been a close shave, but the young men had won out.
“That black bear rug in front of the living-room fireplace is the result!” Fred ended his account triumphantly.
“I hope we see a big black bear!” Stevie said bravely. “I’d sure like to meet up with an old, big black bear!”
“Not me!” Carol exclaimed, laughing. “No black bears for me. I wouldn’t mind a bear rug, though.”
“Maybe there’ll be a big black bear hiding around here somewheres, but you don’t need to be scared. if I find one, I’ll yell for Daddy, and he can protect you, Aunt Carol.”
“Well, just don’t go looking for trouble,” Fred cautioned. “You stay with the group and we’ll all be fine, bear or no bear.”
The climb to the mouth of the cave took most of the morning, and the hikers paused for lunch before entering the wide orifice. Inside, they found that it was light enough to explore without flashlights. The sun shone down through some narrow clefts in the rocky roof and showed a long, twisting room. That it had been occupied at some distant time was obvious from the shards of pottery, fragments of fiber, and other debris. But it was also obvious that there was nothing of importance left.
“I suppose hundreds of local folks have searched through here since my visit,” Fred said, looking about him. “But it’s worth seeing, anyway. The children can get an idea of the sort of caves the Indians lived in, and, who knows, they might find something!”
The children scattered through the cavern, picking up the pottery shards, bright rocks, anything that appealed to their collectors’ instinct.
Tony watched them, amused at their intent search. “It’s been stripped,” he said to Carol. “I doubt if they’ll find even one arrowhead, though such a find would certainly tickle them!”
“Maybe there’s a secret room somewhere that nobody else has ever found. And maybe it’s filled with treasure …” Stevie was saying.
“You find a secret room filled with treasure and tell me about it,” Tony whispered conspiratorially. “We’ll divide it between us!”
“Okay, Uncle Tony!” Steve agreed, and scampered away toward the other children.
They made a thorough search of the rocky room, which extended back into the mountainside in an irregular tunnel. Here and there large rocks had fallen to the floor, and the children climbed up on these, having a wonderful, even though scarcely remunerative, time.
But, finally, Fred glanced at this watch, decided it was time to start back to the campsite, and blew the whistle he used to summon the children. They came scampering, and Fred said, “Time to start back, folks! All out into the open!” He turned and made for the cave’s mouth.
The others followed, loosely bunched, the children lagging behind. Now and then one of them darted aside to pick up some bit of treasure that had been overlooked. They were all chattering, laughing, comparing finds. The adults came out of the cave first, and stood blinking in the brilliant sunshine after the subdued light in the cave.
Trudy ran out, holding up a bit of flint. “This is too an arrowhead, isn’t it, Daddy?’ she demanded.
Fred took the tiny object and examined it. “It certainly is, Trudy. Those pretty eyes of yours must have kept a sharp lookout to find it.”
The others crowded around, peering at the small, shaped bit of stone, complimenting Trudy on her diligence in finding it.
Fred looked over the group. “Where’s Steve?”
Kathy motioned vaguely toward the interior of the cave. “Back there.”
Fred blew his whistle again, but there was no answering rush of feet. He stepped to the cave entrance, and shouted, “Steve! Come along! We want to go!”
There was no answer.
“I’ll get him,” Brent volunteered, and stepped back into the cave, calling, “Steve, old man! Come along!”
Steve was nowhere in sight. Brent hurried to the very end of the cave, where a band of sunlight lay across the rocky floor, showing a break in the ledge beneath which the shelter lay. He looked up through the dancing sunbeams, but the opening seemed too small and too vertical to have been a way of egress for the boy. Brent went back outside.
“He’s not in there. Are you sure he didn’t come out and start on down the hill?”
“No, he didn’t come out,” Fred answered. “I was the first one out and he never passed me. He must be inside.”
Simultaneously, all three of the men stepped back into the cave, Fred blowing his whistle impatiently.
“He said he was going to find a secret room,” Kathy offered slowly, “but I told him there wasn’t any.”
Above the child’s head the eyes of Carol and Dolly Graham met. Their glance held, and as they stood there the vague annoyance they had felt coalesced into cold fear.