Out of the Wilderness
By Shirley Thulin
Synopsis: Marian Morgan, a widow and mother of six children, has come with her family to their mining property in Montana, planning to oversee the assessment work which must be done to hold the property. In the mountain wilderness Marian meets Jake Hadley, the owner of an adjacent property, whose motives she mistrusts.
Marian put the bucket of water down. Her fingers were suddenly too weak to hold onto the handle.
Jake picked it up and started towards the cabin with the long strides of a confident man. For a minute she could not follow him, then, knowing there was nothing else to do, she turned and made one foot go in front of the other.
At the cabin door Jake stood waiting for her, looking at her, and she felt uncomfortable, like a schoolgirl caught by the football captain with her hair amiss.
“Sure is a lot to be done around here,” Jake told her, not seeming to notice her embarrassment, and yet at the same time enjoying it.
“Yes, but Jim and I …”
“I have a full crew at my mine this year. That gives me some spare time.” Jake was a big man and now he was in the doorway.
Marian could not get past to open the door. She had to stand there, not knowing what to do. She had felt this way once before, when she was in a play at school, and the leading boy wouldn’t give her the right cues.
“Maybe I could come and help out some each day. You would be surprised what a little paint and fixing can do to a place like this.”
“Yes, I suppose so, but we hadn’t planned …”
“Oh, should I take this in?” he indicated the water bucket, and she knew he had timed his question to interrupt her objections.
Jim looked up from the table where he had been working all morning, making lists and planning. At the sight of Jake, he got up and took the bucket. He didn’t say anything. He just looked at his mother and then at Jake and set the bucket on the drainboard.
“Howdy, son,” Jake said, “I was just telling your mother how much there is to be done around here. Why, the work on the cabin alone would cost quite a bit, and take a lot of time, not to mention the work on that old worthless mine.”
“Yes, we know,”Jim said, “we plan…”
“I bet if you were to add up all the cost of the improvements that need to be done around here, and the cost of the labor it would take, you would be going way in the hole each year. Now, I’d suggest you let me help you …”
“We don’t need any help.” Jim was suddenly like a young animal trying to protect what was his.
“Now, wait a minute, son. There’s no use to get all upset.” Jake had a half-smile on his face. It was as though he were enjoying Jim’s upset. “I only want to help you.”
“I told you we don’t need any help.” Jim’s words were measured. “We can get along just fine.”
Marian could see that Jim was angered. “Just what is it that you want, Mr. Hadley?” she asked.
Jake’s grin disappeared at the unexpected firmness in Marian’s voice. “Well, I thought you might consider selling out. I’m prepared to give you a good deal, and you’d be wise to accept.”
Marian thought of the leaky roof, the ugly black stove, Sue’s frightened screams at the sight of a little animal. She thought of the bare floors and the old scrub board. “Well, we hadn’t thought about it, but maybe …”
“Mom! You wouldn’t … You just wouldn’t!”
“Don’t decide just yet.” Jake looked at Jim and then back at Marian. “I never did believe in hasty decisions. I’ll come back in a week or two.”
Jake left then, and there was silence between mother and son. Jim stood at the doorway with bent shoulders and Marian sat down near the table.
Then Jim said, “Mom, you really hate this place, don’t you?” His words were like something he didn’t want to say but had to.
“No, dear, I don’t hate it, exactly,” Marian spoke slowly. She wanted to tell him how she truly felt and didn’t know how. “It’s more that I just don’t understand the cabin, the forest … I’m just not at home here.”
“Mom, please don’t sell. Keep it for … for when I grow up. I want to have it always. Please, Mom. You won’t have to come back ever again … I’ll take care of it from now on …”
“We’ll see, son. Now, tell me what all this is.” She picked up one of the papers he had been working on.
“Dad told me that each year we have to do $150 worth of improvements for each claim we have. I am figuring out how much money I’m going to have to charge myself per hour to add up to the right amount.”
“Yes, you see, I won’t really collect any money. That’s how Dad and I did before. You just estimate how much your time is worth. If you had to hire the help, that is …” He stopped, not being able to find the words to explain.
“I think I understand.” Marian felt his need for understanding. “You are sort of making a bid on the job, but instead of hiring anyone, you do the work for yourself, is that it?”
Jim looked relieved. “Yes, and I have to figure how long each job is going to take me to make it come to the right amount.”
“What jobs are you planning to do, Jim?”
“I’ll have to dig a shallow ditch along the railway back into the mine so that the water can drain out. That’s one of the things we’ve had to do each year, so I know how. Then I’ll have to fill in all the chuck holes in the road that leads to the mine from the cabin. They are pretty bad this year. That will take quite a while.”
“But I don’t see how digging along a track that no mine cars are going to go on, and filling in chuck holes on a road that no automobile will travel on, is going to accomplish anything,” Marian told him.
“Mom,” Jim began, then whatever he was going to say, he decided against it and began anew. “Let’s just say that it’s sort of the rules. Anything you do to improve the mine, keeps your lease for you.” His voice was patient, as though he were explaining something to a child.
Marian looked at her half-grown son in a new light. She could see that he knew what he must do, and just as she had let David make plans, she must now let Jim. It was a comfortable feeling, having an almost-grown son, and she smiled to herself as he went on telling her of the way he was going to haul dirt with the wheelbarrow to fill in the pit holes, and what a job it would be to cut down some small trees for replacing some of the badly rotted timber in the mine. He ended his explanation with a faraway look. “Someday I’ll be able to go deep into the mine as far as Dad did, and make a lot more repairs. Maybe next year …”
“Jim, the mine isn’t any good any more, is it?”
“No ore has been taken out for a long time. Costs too much to ship it. It used to be one of the richest mines around here, but shipping costs went up. Dad told me that if someone ever builds a mill close, it could pay again.”
“Then why did your father want to keep it? Why do you?”
“It isn’t only the mine, mother. It’s the land. It’s …” His words ended, but in his eyes, the dream continued.
Marian knew what he was feeling and how deep the feeling was within him. She hadn’t known in time for David, but she was thankful that she did know for Jim.
Marian got up and looked out of the window to check on the children. They were still playing near the cabin. They had been all morning, and now besides little colorful rocks, their collection included pine cones and snail shells from along the bank of the small stream. Marian was glad that Sue no longer felt the need for the protection the cabin afforded. She seemed almost as much at home outside as did the boys.
Jim was busy writing more figures, so Marian got out her cookbook and turned to her grandmother’s bread recipe. The batch she made long years ago had not turned out well, and she had given it up. But now there wasn’t a grocery store handy on the corner, and she knew she had to learn. We can’t eat baking powder biscuits the rest of the summer, she told herself.
“Mom, do you suppose Ted and Jed could help me?” Jim looked up from the table.
“I think they could. They’re ten, and pretty husky.”
A smile spread over Jim’s face. “I used to help Dad plenty when I was ten. I could handle a shovel fairly well, and could help smooth and tramp down the dirt on the road. I dragged trees to the mine …” He picked up his pencil and made a new row of figures. “There, that ought to do it,” he said, and folded the papers. “I’ll go to the mine this afternoon and look things over, and then tomorrow I’ll get a good early start on my work.”
“What about the roof?” Marian was reluctant to mention it, but she didn’t want to go through another rainstorm without its being fixed.
“Oh, yes, I almost forgot …”
“Are you sure you can do it?”
“Yes, I helped Dad with the woodshed.”
Marian stirred and measured and smiled to herself as she thought how like a man it was to tarpaper an old shed first and let the house go. And in so thinking, a feeling of loneliness for her husband filled her. She stirred faster and tried to see the words on the page, but they were dancing through her tears. Jim went out, and Marian knew that more than the wilderness of her surroundings, or fear of the unknown, she would have trouble conquering loneliness of heart, and the wilderness of her soul.
Marian gave the fresh dough a final pat and covered it with a clean cloth. She went out into the dooryard and watched the children. Her eyes swept across the stretch of blue sky circled by giant green pines. She looked at the road which led to the mine, and it seemed to beckon her, but she could not follow. The mine had somehow been an enemy all these years. Maybe tomorrow she could follow the short road and make the mine her friend, but not today.
Today she would make some hot suds in an old bucket and scrub the bare boards clean with a sturdy brush. She would find the hammer and nails in the shed and try to fix the loose boards along the wall and in the floor. She would wash the widows and have Sue shine them with bits of torn newspapers, and she would look for some wire or rope to make a clothesline between two trees.
Marian went into the shed and hunted for nails and wire with a wary eye. She remembered the spiders she had encountered in the shed as a bride. Picking up boxes, and looking in old crocks, she happened to find a large shoebox filled with seeds. There were packages of carrots, peas, radishes, and lettuce.
“Jed,” Marian stepped outside the shed, “look, I’ve found some seeds. Would you and Ted run up to the mine and tell Jim to bring the shovel when he comes? We’re going to plant a garden!”
The twins hurried along. They enjoyed being near the mine and were glad for an excuse to go there.
“Mommy, what’s a garden?” Jill asked.
“Oh, don’t you know anything, Jill?” Tommy said. “A garden is a field with cows and horses and hay in it, like at Grandma’s.”
“Not that kind of a garden,” Sue corrected, “ours will have … what will ours have, Mom?”
“See? Carrots, peas, lettuce. I found them in the shed.”
“I don’t like peas and carrots.” Tommy screwed up his nose.
“You’ll like these, fresh from our own garden.”
“I like cows and horses,” said Jill.
Marian laughed and hugged her baby close to her. She was so glad for the prospect of a new project, especially a garden to tend.
“Here comes Jim already,” pointed Sue. “And he’s got something.”
Marian looked. Jim and the twins were just coming out of the wooded area, into the clearing. Jim was holding something – an animal, with long legs. Jed and Ted were having a hard time keeping up with Jim’s long strides. He was very disturbed, and for a moment Marian was frightened, then as he neared her, her fears turned to compassion.
“What is it?”
“A fawn, Mother. Just a little fellow, left to die.” Jim stooped and tenderly laid the bewildered little animal down on a grassy spot near the shed.
“Left to die?” Marian knelt with Jim, and so did the children, all but Sue, who kept a little distance away.
“Mom, how could anyone …?”
Marian looked at Jim. His mouth was drawn in a hard line and his face muscles were tightening. “How could anyone do what, son?”
“Someone killed the mother deer and left the fawn to go it on his own.”
“Killed his mother?” Tommy asked, his big blue eyes wide.
“Maybe they didn’t know about the fawn,” Marian said.
“Maybe they didn’t kill her, maybe she just got sick and died,” Ted suggested.
“Maybe he’s an orphan,” Jed said.
“Yes, an orphan,” Tommy repeated.
“He’s an orphan, all right.” Jim rubbed the deer’s head and then patted him on the side.
“Jim, what makes you think someone killed the deer?”
“I found the fawn first, and then could see where something had been dragged through the brush to a big tree. And there at the bottom of the trunk, were the feet and part of the hide where they had cleaned her.”
“Maybe someone was lost and hungry. They might have had to do it, Jim.”
“No. Those miners do this all the time – shoot them out of season. I heard Dad talking about it. We found one once. It was on our property that time, too.” Jim’s eyes narrowed. “Now I know where I saw Jake before. Dad was talking to him … telling him it was wrong …”
Marian put her hand on Jim’s shoulder. “Don’t, Jim. Don’t feel so strongly about it. You’re not sure Jake did it. Maybe it was someone else.”
Jim pulled himself from her. “Stay close to him, so he won’t get up and run. I’m going to see what I can find to make a pen with.”
“Mommy, is that a horse or a cow?” Jill asked.
“It’s a baby deer, sweetie. What shall we name him?”
And while the children were suggesting one name after another, Marian’s heart went out to Jim. He is so intense, she thought, and so lacking in judgment. I dare not think of what may happen if Jake comes back here again.
(To be continued)