Out of the Wilderness
By Shirley Thulin
Synopsis: Marian Morgan, a widow and mother of six children, makes plans to spend the summer at the family mining claim in Montana, where assessment work is required to hold the property. After a long train trip and a hazardous ride up the mountain, the family arrives at the cabin in the wilderness.
Marian ran up the dirt path to the cabin. Sue’s voice echoed such fright that Marian momentarily forgot her own fear of the wilderness. As she neared, she could hear the children’s excited voices mingled with Sue’s near hysteria.
“What happened? What’s the matter?” Marian hurried inside.
“A bear, Mommy! A bear!” Baby Jill came running to Marian.
“It was a wildcat,” Tommy said, “a great big wildcat, with …”
“Oh, Mother, it was a little old muskrat,” Jim said. “That’s the first time I’ve seen one so far away from water.”
“Maybe he was lost,” said Jed.
“Yes, he was lost,” Tommy repeated.
Marian felt like sinking in the nearest chair, her knees were so weak. She looked at Sue, who was still standing in a corner with both palms pressed against her cheeks.
“Sue, everything’s all right now, dear. It’s gone.”
“He won’t come back again, Sue.” Jim was quick to defend his wood friends. “They don’t like to be this far away from the water.”
“He squeezed outside under that board.” Tommy pointed to the floor.
“You scared him,” Jed said.
“I’ll bet you did, Sue,” Marian said. “He’ll surely have something to tell his family about, won’t he?”
Sue managed a weak smile and relaxed. Marian put her arm around her shoulders. “How about helping me unpack some of these things, honey? We had better start getting something ready to eat.”
Jim and the twins brought in fresh water from the well and firewood from the shed.
“Sure am glad Dad and I cut plenty of wood last fall,” Jim said as he put an armful in a box behind the stove.
The rest of the day was spent in getting things straightened around. Sue and Marian heated water and washed all the tin plates, cracked china, and black pots and pans they found in the cupboard. Jim got out the two coal-oil lamps, but there was no coal oil. There were four sleeping bags and several blankets on the bedroom shelves. Sue and Marian took the dusty bedding into the yard and shook it well. What I could do with my automatic washer, thought Marian!
Jill kept close to Marian’s heels, and Sue seldom went outside the cabin door, but the four boys were in their glory. Jim took the twins and Tommy to see his favorite haunts, and they gathered wild flowers and small rocks. Marian found a broom with only half a handle, but the more she swept, the dustier the floors seemed.
“We’ll have to make the beds as best we can until we get our other boxes,” Marian told Jim and Sue.
“You didn’t bring any bedding, did you?” Jim asked.
“Only some sheets and pillow cases.”
“Sheets and pillow cases … in a cabin?” Jim smiled. “Mom, we don’t need sheets …”
But Marian’s look told him he hadn’t better tease … anyway, he knew she would find out soon enough that there were no pillows.
Marian had to admit to herself that the cabin was quite cozy there in the dimming eventide. She looked from one child to the other and smiled to herself. Sue and Jim were just finishing up the dishes. The twins were taking stock of their treasured rock collection, while Tommy and Jill looked on admiringly. Marian found herself quite content, and even a little pleased with the day’s accomplishments.
But, as she opened her eyes on Monday morning, Marian felt a hundred years old. All the bending, scrubbing, and trying to clean what would not come clean, had tired her. Even though they had rested on Sunday, the hard bed had made her flesh tender. She yawned and stretched, then her gaze followed the ray of sunlight from the small window across the floor to where it rested in Jill’s butter-yellow hair. Jill and Sue were sound asleep. They both had smiles playing at the corners of their mouths. Marian couldn’t hear a sound from the next room where the boys were bedded down. This mountain air and the chores must be good for them, she thought, and she smiled to herself in spite of her aches and pains.
The family took turns washing in the tin basin, then dressed. They ate heartily the pancakes Marian made from the packaged mix. And though there was no milk this morning, there was plenty of cold, fresh water and canned fruit.
Marian cooked more pancakes to leave for the children while she and Jim went to town. She knew it would take most of the day to go back after the supplies.
“Mom, can’t we all go?” Sue was nervous about being left alone with the children, and Marian was even more anxious about leaving her. She almost told Jim to stay, too, but she knew she would need him to help her. Somehow, she just didn’t feel equal to hiking all the way down to the creek and driving the jeep to town alone.
“Sue, if we take all of you, there will be no room for our things,” Marian told her. “We’ll hurry as fast as we can.”
“Keep everyone inside the cabin so you won’t get lost,” advised Jim.
“And if you get hungry, open cans of fruit and eat the hot cakes, but don’t try to cook anything. You’ve never built a fire before. I’ll cook a good meal when we get back,” Marian said, and then, more to herself than aloud, “maybe I had better take the baby.”
“No, Mother,” Jim said, “that would slow us down too much.”
Marian knew he was right, but it was hard to leave. Finally, after their family prayer, they said goodbye and started down the road. Just before they came to the turn Marian looked back. She could see five little faces framed in the window-pane and her throat squeezed dry.
“They will be all right, Mother,” Jim assured her, and with a prayer in her heart, Marian reluctantly followed Jim down the winding trail.
Even before she and Jim could see the creek, Marian heard the men’s voices punctuated by blows of their hammers.
“You hear that, Jim? You don’t suppose … Oh, it couldn’t be that …”
“They’re fixing the bridge!” Jim started running now, and so did Marian.
“I’m so glad. I couldn’t figure out how we were going to get our things back to the cabin.”
“Come on, Mom, I’ll race you to the creek.”
Marian stopped as she came around the bend. There were a dozen men working with new wood. As she neared Jim, she heard one man say to him, “Oh, so you belong to the jeep. I thought it was Dick Tucker’s.”
“It is. We borrowed it.”
“The jeep’s all right, isn’t it?” asked Marian, coming up to them.
“Oh, sure, Ma’am. It’s all right. We just couldn’t figure out how it got here.”
Marian and Jim told them who they were and what they were doing there. Then one man stepped forward and said, “I’m Jake Hadley, owner of the Silver Bear. We came up Saturday afternoon and found the bridge out, so we got right busy on it.”
“I’m glad to meet you, Mr. Hadley,” Marian said, only she wasn’t just right sure she meant that. There was something about his mouth and eyes that disturbed her.
“Why don’t you just call me Jake? I was a good friend of your husband’s. Sure sorry to hear about his accident.”
“Thank you. Well, we’d better get along.”
“You and the boy going to do the assessment work?” Jake stepped in front of them. “That’s a big job for a boy and a woman to take on.”
“I can do it,” Jim said. “Dad and I worked together five years. He told me last year what he was going to do this spring.”
“Well, fine, boy. Say, why don’t you let me drive you on to town? It’s quite a long way for a lady to drive a jeep.”
“Thanks, but I don’t think …”
“Mom can manage just fine,” Jim cut in. “She drove it up here all right.”
Jake eyed Jim for a minute and then looked at Marian. “I’ll be by the mine in a day or two. There must be something I can do to help you out.” He stepped aside, and Jim and Marian walked across the finished part of the bridge. They got into the jeep with Jake’s eyes following them.
“You were rude, Jim,” Marian said.
“I’m sorry, Mother, but I’ve seen him someplace before and I don’t like him.”
“I’m sure he means no harm, dear,” and Marian erased him from her mind, in her eagerness to get on about their duties.
When Jim and Marian neared the railroad station, Jim yelled, “Oh, boy, Dick’s back from Butte. There’s a station wagon in front!” And as they stopped, Dick came out.
“Hello. Dad told me about you. I’m Dick.”
“Hello,” Marian said, and she felt as though she had met an old friend.
“Have they finished the bridge? Dad said they came for timber Saturday.”
“They’re nearly finished,” Jim said. “I think by the time we get back, they will be.”
“I don’t know how to thank you for the loan of the jeep,” Marian said.
“Then don’t try.” Dick smiled. “I was sorry I wasn’t here to drive you.”
They went into the station and began to load their things in the station wagon. It didn’t take them long, and after a trip to the store in town, they were ready to start back up the canyon.
Marian’s thought were miles ahead of the car. It seemed to be going much too slowly. She was increasingly anxious to get back to Sue and the children. When they got to the bridge, the men were still working. Marian’s heart sank. What if it isn’t finished enough for a car to go over? she thought, or what if …
“Hi.” Jake came over to them. “Well, we got the bridge about done. Just the handrail left. Hello, Dick.”
“Hello, Jake. Looks like a good job. Not a bit too soon, either, look at the clouds overhead.”
Marian looked. She had been so worried about getting back to the cabin she hadn’t noticed them – black and threatening.
“Yes,” Jake was saying, “looks like we’ll be in for a good one.”
Marian’s mind raced to the children just as the first flash of lightning split the air and made a path for the downpour of rain. The men ran for cover, and Dick started the car and drove it across the bridge.
The raindrops were bigger than any Marian had ever remembered, and the sky was dark. Sue will be petrified, Marian thought, and she leaned forward, as though that would help the car along the muddy road. Oh, why did I leave them? I should have at least let Jim stay, too. He would have known what to do to comfort them. What if they became frightened and tried to come after us? What if some kind of an animal tried to get in the cabin out of the rain? In the short mile from the creek, Marian had a thousand nightmares. Then as they rounded the bend, the nightmare became reality, for as the headlights picked out the cabin, they could see black clouds of smoke billowing skyward. Even in the semi-darkness, they could see the smoke come rolling out from the space beneath the door, and from the cracks around the windows.
“The cabin … It’s on fire!” Marian hardly waited for the car to stop before she was out and running up the path.
“Mother, come back!” Jim yelled. Dick and Jim got out of the car and ran past her. Just as they reached the door, it opened and the children came out, coughing and rubbing their eyes.
“Oh, Sue, what in the world?” Marian began …
“We tried to build a fire to …”
Jim grabbed a bucket and headed for the well.
“How can we put the fire out? The cabin will burn to the ground!” Marian’s voice was asking … pleading.
“The cabin’s not on fire,” Sue told her.
“It’s just the stove,” said Jed.
“It’s just smoking,” Ted added.
“My eyes hurt,” Tommy cried.
“The cabin’s not on fire?”
“No, the stove is just smoking,” Jed repeated.
“The damper,” said Dick, “I’ll bet they forgot about the damper.” He went inside, and Marian gathered the five children close to her.
“Oh, Sue, I told you not to build a fire.”
“You said not to cook anything,” corrected Sue.
“And we didn’t,” said Ted.
“We had to dry out the blankets,” explained Jed.
“Yes, they’re all wet,” said Tommy.
Marian felt a little bewildered. She didn’t quite grasp what was going on. “How did the blankets get wet?”
“It’s raining,” said Jill.
“Even in the cabin,” said Tommy.
Dick came back. “It was the damper. See, the smoke’s going out the chimney now.”
Jim came in with the bucket of water. Marian couldn’t help but smile, he looked so funny carrying a little bucket of water to put out a fire.
“We don’t need that, honey. It was only the damper.”
“Mommy, what’s a damper?” Jill wanted to know.
“Come inside and I’ll show you. Then I’ll cook something to eat.”
“All the pans are on the floor,” Jed said.
“I’m hungry,” said Jill.
“The beds are wet, too,” Tommy told Marian.
“Oh, dear …” Marian groaned.
“We didn’t notice at first,” said Sue, “but as soon as we did, we put pans around to catch the rain.”
“And we hung the blankets over the chairs,” Ted said.
“Then we built a fire to dry them,” explained Jed.
“What’s the matter, Mom?” Jim asked, coming in with a big box from the car.
“Oh, everything’s drenched! Just look! It will take days to dry things out.”
“Dad and I tried to put the tar paper on the roof before we left last fall, but we didn’t get a chance to.” Jim’s voice faltered just a little, and Marian knew he was missing his father.
“Roof leaking?” asked Dick, coming in.
“Yes,” said Marian. “I’m sure glad Mr. Hadley is coming over in a few days. I’ll ask him to put the tar paper on for us.”
“No, Mom, I can do it.” Jim was emphatic.
“But he offered, and it really is a man’s job …”
“Jim’s right, Mrs. Morgan. If he can do it, it would be better. That Jake Hadley’s a no-good character. I would come up and help you myself, but I’m behind with my spring planting.”
“Jake will be over in a day or two.”
“I know, but he’s not one to offer to do anything without strings attached. If he made an offer to help you, you can bet there’s something behind it.”
The rain stopped, and the sun was making an attempt to brighten things up before it went behind the mountains. Marian’s thoughts were still dampened, though. She hated the cabin more than ever. She looked around her. Dick and her family were chatting and eating, but she could not join in. She kept turning the wet bedding and thinking about the dismal cabin and about Jake Hadley. Her first impression of him was right, she knew, but she didn’t know why it would hurt to let him help if he wanted to.
She thought of Charles. He had said she needed someone. She knew she did, even if it were only to help fix the roof. But she remembered Jake’s eyes and knew he wasn’t the one to turn to. What could he want, Marian wondered? How could he harm me? Then she finally told herself that he was just trying to be nice. I’m sure he won’t even come around, she said to herself.
But she was wrong. The very next morning, as she looked up from the well, she saw him coming towards her. Her throat felt suddenly dry, and she almost dropped the bucket.
“Howdy, Mrs. Morgan,” Jake Hadley said. “Here, let me carry in that water for you.”
(To be continued)