Out of the Wilderness
By Shirley Thulin
Synopsis: Marian Morgan, a widow and mother of six children, makes plans to take her family to spend the summer at a mining claim in Montana, to do assessment work. Charles Neering, a widower, has asked her to stay in town.
Marian looked out the train window. The countryside had taken on a translucent shade of green in the early dawn, and the sky was a silver and pink sea. She couldn’t remember when she had taken time to look at the sky last. She stretched and shifted Jill to a new position, then looked at her children around her. The twins and Tommy on the seat opposite were still asleep, heads bobbing from side to side with the motion of the train.
“Want me to hold Jill a while, Mom?” Sue asked.
“Thanks, dear, but it might wake her to change around.”
Now the training was slowing down, and the conductor announced, “Next stop, Rushville.”
The change of motion awakened most of the passengers. Jim stretched his long legs as though he were unfamiliar with their new length. He looked over at his mother and Sue.
“Did he say Rushville?”
“Yes,” Marian answered, reaching for her purse and sweater. “Wake the children. We will have to get our things gathered quickly. Sue, you hang on to Tommy. Jim, you take Jill, and I’ll try to keep track of the twins.”
“I’m hungry,” said Tommy.
“I know, honey, wait until we get off the train.”
“We ate all the sandwiches, Mom,” Sue said.
“The store at the station will have something.” Jim promised.
“I have breakfast all prepared,” announced Marian, with an air of triumph. She had anticipated their first emergency – breakfast.
As they made their way along the aisle, stepping over protruding feet and luggage, Marian noticed they were the only ones getting off. Jim was first to step down onto the wooden platform. He walked over to the man who was taking their boxes and bags from someone on the train.
“Where’s Sam?” Jim asked him. The man straightened up and waved a big hand at the conductor. Then, as the train started to pull forward, he took off his hat, and looked around him. From one to another of Marian’s children he looked, then back at Marian.
“Where did you come form, and where in tarnation do you think you’re going?”
“From Salt Lake,” said Marian. “We’re going to the Silver Star mine for the summer.”
“Where’s Sam?” Jim looked worried, now, as he asked again for the stationmaster he knew.
“Sam? Had a bad spell last fall. Had to quit. I took over in November. Silver Star? How are you planning on getting clear up there?”
Marian suddenly felt ill. “I’m Mrs. David Morgan … We wrote a letter …” Her words were small and they stuck in her throat.
“We had expected Sam to drive us up in his station wagon,” Jim said.
“Mrs. Morgan? Howdy, I’m Tucker. Your letter likely got forwarded to Sam. I have a jeep, but I can’t leave. Got to watch the post office here. My boy Dick has a station wagon, but he’s gone to Butte. Won’t be back until Monday morning.”
Marian watched the train disappear in the distance, and felt that her last tie with civilization had been cut off forever. She looked at the station. It was small and the windows were dirty. There were no buildings near, the town was farther down the road.
“The hotel!” Marian remembered. David had brought her to town one weekend for dinner and a show. “We can stay there until your son comes back.”
“Hotel isn’t there anymore. Wasn’t enough business to keep it up. Some of the stores are gone, too ,and the library.”
“Could we borrow your jeep?” Jim asked.
“Oh, yes, could we?” asked Marian. “Jim and I could bring it back Monday, and then maybe Dick could take us back to the cabin.”
“Don’t think it has any gas in it. Hasn’t been used for a while. It won’t hold all of you and your stuff, anyhow.”
Jim went over and took the gas cap off. He found a stick on the ground and wiped it clean, then dipped it into the tank. Everyone gathered around, leaning forward. The stick came out dry.
“Oh!” Sue’s one word echoed their disappointment.
Marian felt like a trapped animal. Her mind was groping frantically.
“I’m hungry,” said Jill. Tommy began to cry.
“Come on in the station.” Tucker held the door open.”We used to have a store, but there wasn’t enough business, so I made it into a bedroom and kitchen. Maybe we can find something for the youngsters to eat. The service station down town will be open soon. I have a gas can around here somewhere.”
“I have some food,”Marian said, not so proud of her planning now. She was almost apologetic as she opened the box and began to hand out hard-cooked eggs and fruit.
“You will have to leave your gear here, though, and pick it up Monday,” Tucker said. “You’ll be doing well if you get your family in the jeep, let alone your stuff.”
Marian couldn’t eat. Charles was right, she thought, suddenly feeling alone and lost. I shouldn’t have come!
The children were chatting and eating. As far as they were concerned, all was right with the world again, but Marian didn’t share their assurance.
“Sam used to bring supplies to us,” said Jim. “I wonder if you …”
“You can talk to Dick about that,” Tucker said. “He takes things to the Silver Bear.”
“We’ll need potatoes and flour, things we couldn’t bring on the train.”
“Mommy, have I ever had a jeep ride?” Tommy asked between bites of banana.
No, I don’t think so,” said Marian.
“You ever drive a jeep before?” Tucker asked her.
Jim looked quickly at his mother.
“Aren’t they the same as any other car?”Marian asked.
“No. They have more gears. But I’ll show you.”
Marian didn’t say anything. She was remembering what a hard time she had had learning to drive with only three gears. She looked at the six faces searching her own and knew she could do it. She had to.
The jeep jogged along the dirt road like a frightened buffalo. Marian, Jim, and Sue were in the front seat; the twins, Tommy, and Jill in the back, with three boxes of essentials on the floor under their feet.
The road took them through a dream world of stately green pines and silver barked quaking aspen. Sometimes, when they made a sharp turn, there would be a patch of sky so blue it took Marian’s breath away. She had forgotten colors could be so vivid.
At first they traveled in silence. Only the grinding motor and the whirr of the big wheels on the road could be heard. But, as Marian became more adept at handling the jeep, she started to hum a familiar tune. The others joined in. Soon they were singing at the top of their voices, with only an occasional squirrel to criticize or care if the notes were off key. The farther they went along the rugged mountain road, the more vivid the scenery became. Marian stopped the jeep once. The deep purple of a distant mountain, visible through the majestic trees, made her pause to breathe, deeply, and she felt exhilarated.
“We’re almost there,”Jim said. “It’s just around this next bend and about a mile past the creek.” But when the jeep rounded the bend, Marian pulled to a sudden stop.
“The bridge!” Jim shouted. “It’s gone!” He jumped out of the jeep and ran to the steep creek bank. Marian got out, too, and looked at the angry water rushing along, carrying the spring runoff form the winter’s snow.
“Oh, it’s so deep.” Marian’s words were barely audible.
“Not a sign of the bridge. Sure must have had a bad storm,” said Jim.
“Oh,” Sue was really frightened.
So was Marian, but she dared not let the children know.
“Well, now,” she said, trying with all her might to control her voice, “this will take a little thought, won’t it?” A little thought, and a lot of prayer, she told herself. “Jim, is there any place else to cross?”
“No. This is the only road.”
“What will we do?” Sue asked.
“Can’t jeeps go through water?” asked Jed.
“Not when it’s this deep, and the banks are steep,” said Jim.
Marian walked a little way from the creek. She knew she was in no condition to think clearly just yet. “You know,” she said slowly, fighting the tightness in her throat, “I think this is an ideal place to have a picnic.”
Jim looked at her, surprise, almost unbelief written on his face.
“A picnic? Of all the crazy …”
“That’s a good idea,” Ted said.
“Oh, boy, a picnic!” yelled Tommy.
“Mom, for goodness sakes!” said Sue.
Marian went back to the jeep. She took one of the boxes out and set it on a grassy spot beside the road, then took her sweater off. Her hands were shaking, but she moved quickly so the children wouldn’t notice.
“Come on, sit on your sweaters. We have some crackers, cheese, and some more fruit.”
“Mom, I don’t see how this is going to help.” Jim was upset.
“Son, we have all day to cross that creek. In the meantime, it won’t do any harm to enjoy the scenery and get our bearings.” Marian opened the package of sliced cheese.
Jim sat down and pulled impatiently at a tuft of grass. Then a bird called shrilly at the intruders and he watched it dip and turn as it flew overhead and disappeared.
They didn’t eat much. It had been only a couple of hours since they ate at the station. The twins and Tommy began a game of tag among the trees and Jill could hardly be seen above the mountain grass. Jim was lying on his back, arms folded across his chest.
“This is nice,” said Sue. “Why don’t we just stay here until Monday?”
“We can’t do that.” Marian knew that to be in the open after dark would be terrifying to her. The mountains would become great giants, closing in around her, and behind each tree would be something frightening and sickening, ready to grab one of them, if she closed her eyes. She had to have walls and a roof and a door to bar. “We … we don’t have any bedding,” she said. “We have to get to the cabin somehow.”
Marian got up and went to the water’s edge. Her thoughts were darting around everywhere, trying to find a solution.
“Let’s go back for help,” said Jim, coming over to her.
Marian was silent a moment, thinking. Then she said, more to herself than to Jim, “What could anyone do to help? Where would we stay while someone built a bridge? No one can help us…” Then suddenly Marian knew who could help. Going back to the children, she said, “Let’s pray. Then we’ll know what to do.”
They all knelt and bowed their heads. Jill pushed her way between Sue and Marian. The sunlight filtered down through the pines, and Marian asked the Lord for guidance. They lifted their heads, and all was silent. When she could talk, Marian asked Jim how far it was to the cabin.
“Not too far,” he answered.
“Would it be within walking distance for us?”
“I’ve walked from the cabin down here lots of times, but I don’t know if Jill and Tommy …”
“If we left the jeep here, would it be all right until Monday?”
“Yes. No one comes up here this time of the year, except the other miners from the Silver Bear.”
“Then let’s try to find a fallen tree. I saw some as we were driving along earlier.”
“You mean we’re going to go across on a log? Oh, we can’t!” Sue was close to hysterics, and Marian’s heart kept coming up where it didn’t belong.
“Sue,” Marian said, gently, “we can’t drive the jeep over, and it’s too deep to wade, so …”
“But, Mother! A log …!”
Jim was already walking downstream. He hadn’t gone far when he called, “Come here! I’ve found something!”
They all hurried in his direction. “Look, Mom, a beaver dam! We can go across on that!”
“Will it hold us?”
“Sure, I’ve gone across them lots of times at scout camp. Most of them are good and strong, especially when they’re new dams like this one. I’ll go first to see if there are any weak places.” He took off his shoes and stuffed his stockings inside, then rolled up his pants legs. The top of the dam was about two feet wide and fairly flat. Some of the water pushed its way over the top of the dam and fell down in a swirling, foaming pool at the bottom, then went its way on down the creek.
Marian held her breath as Jim made his way carefully across, the water splashing and pushing at him.
“See? It’s strong as cement,” he said, coming back.
Marian’s head was in a whirl. She looked at the rushing water and held Jill’s hand tightly. For an instant, she felt as if she was going to faint.
“Come on, take off your shoes,” Jim told them.
“It’s so swift.” Sue looked at her mother.
Marian tried to reassure her.
“Come on, I’ll help you,” urged Jim. “It isn’t as bad as it looks. It only comes up to my ankles.”
“Is it cold?” Ted wanted to know.
“Mommy, take my shoes off,” said Jill.
“No, darling, Jim will carry you.” Marian had to smile at her eagerness.
“Hang on to your shoes, Jed, and go in front of me,” Jim said.
The boys had no trouble at all making it over to the other side. In fact, Tommy wanted to do it again, but Marian’s insides were all in a knot, and the knot got tighter as it neared her turn. She was hesitant at first, but Jim took her arm, and helped her over, then came back.
“Mom, you go ahead, I’ll go get the boxes.” He started towards the jeep, and Marian couldn’t call after him, her voice wouldn’t squeeze past, the tight place in her throat. She fought back the fright and bared her feet.
“Come on, Mom,” called Tommy, “it’s fun!”
“It really is, Mother,” said Ted.
Marian put one foot in and then the other, then stopped.
“Don’t look down, Mom,” Sue advised. “Just look straight ahead, then you won’t get dizzy.”
“I’m glad we didn’t bring all our things,” Jim said, bringing the biggest box first. “I’d have worn the dam away getting it all across.”
Marian, finally across, sat down on a huge rock on the other side and wiped her feet in the sun-warmed grass. She looked at her children. Their faces were glowing, and their eyes were sparkling, and Marian felt happy.
They were a strange caravan as they made their way up the dusty road, stopping every once in a while to rest, and to shift burdens. They traveled slowly, there was so much to see, a scarlet mountain flower, or a bubbling stream dancing over clean brown rocks. Little Jill began to get so tired she had to be carried. Once Ted and Jed made a chair with their arms for her, to relieve Marian.
“How much farther, Jim?” Marian asked.
“Not far now.”
They rounded the next bend in the road, and Jim said, “There it is, see, by that big pine.”
“I can see it,” yelled Ted.
The children hurried on ahead, but Marian was weary. She could see the cabin now, too, the ugly unpainted boards, the bare yard around it. As she came closer, the two windows were huge glaring eyes. She wanted to turn and run, but there was no place to run to. She wanted to cry out, but she didn’t.
“Mommy, bring the key …”
“Jim has it.”
“Well, hurry …”
Marian followed their voices, reluctantly, mechanically. She knew she had to go inside and begin to make a summer home for her family here in the wilderness.
Suddenly Sue’s terrified voice cut through the mountain air. “Mother!” she screamed. “Mother!”
(To be continued)