Out of the Wilderness
By Shirley Thulin
Synopsis: Marian Morgan, a widow and mother of six children, has come to Montana to supervise assessment work on the mining property owned by the family. In the mountain wilderness, Marian and her family meet Jake Hadley, the owner of an adjacent mine, whom they distrust, and whose offers of friendship they fear.
The early sun filled the room and awakened Marian. She dressed quietly and went outside. She had come to enjoy the short morning walk to the well, things were so special then. The leaves on the trees and the shrubs were bright green and shiny, still damp with dew. The air was refreshing, with just a hint of the night still in it. Marian had begun to feel as though this hour were hers alone, and each day on the way to fill her bucket, she walked along the small stream and watched the merry little ripples dance and bubble. Today she knelt on the bank of the stream and cupped her hands to fill them with water. The coolness of it made her shiver as she splashed handful after handful on her face. This ought to be good for my complexion, she smiled to herself. Though she knew there were elements in it that made it unsafe for drinking, it felt good on her face. The stream ran from the mine on down to the creek. Marian looked deep within the water and wondered if long ago, men with stubby beards and eager hearts had panned for gold here.
She looked at the flowers that bloomed along the stream and up the side of the mountain, as though they were friends. She liked to imagine they had been planted for her enjoyment alone. Now and then, a shrill call from one bird and the scolding reply from others made her smile. It was as though one bird thought it his duty to awaken the entire bird kingdom and wasn’t too well thanked for his efforts.
On the little hill where the well was, Marian stopped and looked at the land around her. It is beautiful here, she thought, and peaceful. She looked at the rugged slopes of the mountains that suddenly jutted out here and there from within the dense tree covering. And everywhere varied shades of green carpeted the ground. The steep mountaintops reigned above, reaching their heads into an intense blue sky, where white clouds floated like puffs of whipped cream.
Now the sun was turning the yellows to orange and the blues to purple. Another day had begun. Marian let the bucket deep down within the shadowy depths of the well, and then drank of the clear cold water, before starting back to the cabin.
“Mother,” Jim met her as she came near, “I was going to go for water.”
“That’s all right, I enjoy doing it.”
“Let’s give Spotty some in his can, before we take it inside.”
“Spotty? Is that the name finally decided on?”
Jim laughed. “The kids all wanted me to name him Bambi, but I held out for something different. See his spots?” Jim closed the door of the pen behind him and went over to the little deer. “Hi, little fellow. Look, Mom, he acts glad to see me. He looks as though he would like to wag his tail.”
“If he were a dog, and if he had a big enough tail,” Marian laughed.
“I’ll have to gather some more fresh brush. He sure eats a lot. I wish we had some hay.”
“Maybe we can get Dick to bring him some. Well ask him when he comes Saturday.”
“Do baby deer eat hay?” Tommy asked, coming towards them.
“Sometimes they will, but mostly they eat leaves and soft twigs.”
“Jim, Spotty looks lonesome. Let’s go find him a playmate,” Tommy suggested.
“Let’s find him two playmates,” said Jill, joining them.
“No more deer.” Marian picked Jill up. “One is going to keep us busy.”
“I’ll be his playmate then,” Jill said. “I’ll play with him.”
Jim came out of the pen and closed it. “I’ll have to fix that door better. The wire hinges aren’t too sturdy, and neither is the latch.”
Morning comes early in the mountains, and it was still an early hour when Jim filled his pockets with roofing tacks and climbed up the ladder with the first roll of tarpaper.
“What can I do to help?” Marian asked him.
“Just stand by to hand me things,” he told her. “And be ready to catch me if I start falling.” He laughed.
“Jim! that’s not funny.” Marian looked at the steep slope of the cabin roof. “You hang on tight and be real careful.”
“What’s Jim up there for?” Tommy wanted to know.
“He’s going to fix the roof, dear. Now you go in and eat your breakfast.”
“All right. Come and pour the milk for me.”
“For me, too,” said Jill.
“I’ll be right back, Jim;. I’d better help Sue get the children settled.”
Marian gave the oatmeal a vigorous stir and filled the pitcher with the milk she had mixed from the white powder the night before. She was filling the bowls when she heard it. A rumble, and a scraping noise on the roof, then a yell from Jim. Marian closed her eyes, and without realizing it, waited for the sickening thud. When it didn’t come, she ran outside and saw that he had caught himself when he got to the chimney.
“Jim, are you all right?”
“I think so. My wrist feels funny, though.” Jim rubbed his arm, then sat still for a minute.
“We’d better get someone to do it, Jim, don’t you think …”
But Marian didn’t finish the sentence. Jim scrambled back up to the top and began to unroll the tarpaper with such a definite purpose, she knew she had to let him do it himself or find out that he couldn’t.
“Mom, can you send one of the twins up? I could use someone to help me unroll this. It’s heavy.”
Marion thought for a moment. To have to worry about one of the children behaving like a human fly was all she could stand. “I’ll come up,” she said. She was used to climbing ladders. She had always helped David clean the wallpaper in their home, but she soon found out that climbing on the to of roofs was something else. She cautiously edged herself up onto the roof, and then could go no farther. She was so frightened that she just sat there.
“Come on, Mom. Crawl on up. It isn’t bad once you’re up here.”
“I … I can’t, Jim. It’s too high.”
“Well, then go back down and get Jed,” he told her, but she couldn’t do that either. The cabin seemed to be spinning one way and the ground the other. She couldn’t make her feet reach out to find the ladder and she couldn’t look down. The children were all watching her now, and Jim was calling directions to her.
“Just turn over on your stomach and start to crawl, Mother.”
She didn’t move.
“Mom, come back down,” Sue urged.
“You look funny,” Jill told her.
“Just a minute. I’ll come and help you.”
Jim made his way down the roof and passed her onto the ladder. He took hold of her and helped her put her feet on the top rung. Now she was able to make her way down, one step at a time, until she finally felt the earth beneath her feet. Her knees were weak, and her head in a whirl.
“Please, Mother, don’t try anything like that again,” Sue scolded.
“You scared us,”Jim added.
“Let me go up,” Ted said, and was halfway up before she could find her voice to protest. Jed went up, too.
“Mommy,” Jill said, and started to brush Marian’s clothing with both her little hands, “you’re all dirty.”
“You better stay down here with us,” Tommy said, and Marian was only too glad to do just that.
She watched the three boys work with the tarpaper to get it started right, and had to admit to herself they were efficient. Soon the tapping of Jim’s hammer made her feel confident and she relaxed. She climbed the ladder again and again, handing them more tacks, and when their work brought them near the edge of the roof, she could reach from the ladder and help.
The morning wore on, and when noon approached, she went inside to prepare some lunch.
“We have done nearly half of it,” Jim said, coming in to wash.
“That’s wonderful, son. I am so proud of you.”
While Jim was eating, Marian noticed that he was using only his left hand; his right one rested in his lap.
“My wrist bent the wrong way when I slipped,” he explained. “It’s all right, though.”
“Are you sure?”
“Now, stop worrying. I’m fine.”
After lunch the boys went back up the ladder, and Marian helped Sue with the dishes, then laid Jill on the bed and tucked her in.
“Keep an eye on Tommy, and listen for Jill to wake,” Marian told Sue, and though her weary body felt more like joining Jill in her nap than climbing ladders, she knew she couldn’t stay away from the project.
After the pulling, hammering, smoothing and fitting, the tarpaper was all in place, and the day was nearly over. Marian wished for her tile tub and gallons of hot water, but knew that was a luxury she would have to do without. She would heat the two buckets of water and pour them in the round tin tub, as she had heard her grandmother describe, and they would all have an old-fashioned scrubbing.
“I’m going to remember these tired muscles every time it rains,” Jim smiled.
“I will be very thankful for your good, hard work every time we listen to the rain on the roof,” Marian told him.
Once inside, Marian noticed how quiet everything was. “Where are the children?” she asked of no one in particular. she went out and around to the back of the cabin, but could see no one. “Sue,” she called, and then she saw Tommy and Sue on a little hill. They both turned when they heard her.
“Come here.” Marian’s voice was full of apprehension, for she could not see Jill with them. when they came closer, Marian asked where the baby was.
“Isn’t she still asleep?” asked Sue.
“We went for a walk,” Tommy said.
Marian dashed into the house. Jill was not in the bed. The blanket was in a little heap, and Marian knew she had wandered outside.
“She’s gone. Oh, Jim, she’s been gone for some time, she doesn’t usually sleep very long.”
They began to look, calling her name over and over, peering into the shed, and behind the trees. Then the search widened. Jim and Jed climbed a tree so they could see over larger areas, but there was no sign of the little girl.
Dread and deep despair gripped Marian’s heart. In the wilderness, how far could a three-year-old stray? Or, then again, she could be but a few feet away, and she couldn’t be seen, the trees were so thick and the underbrush so dense.
Jim ran to the well, and Marian was close behind hm. They decided it was too high and steep for her to have climbed up the boards and fallen in, though they weren’t sure … couldn’t be really sure.
Jim touched his mother’s arm. “Don’t worry, Mother, we’ll find her.”
His concern for her started the tears, and the hot sting of them punctuated her helplessness. They went back to the cabin.
“Mom, Jim … Spotty’s gone, too!” Sue ran to meet them. “His pen is wide open and he’s gone.”
“Jill must have gone in to play with him,” Jim said, “and left the door open.”
“And when he went out, she followed,” Marian guessed.
Marian told the twins, Sue and Tommy, to stay near the cabin. “We don’t want anyone else to get lost,” she told them. She stood, trying to decide which way to go.
“Let’s follow along the stream,” Jim suggested.
Marian took one step before something made her turn and look at Sue. There was hurt in Sue’s face, and her eyes evaded Marian’s.
“Sue, oh, Sue, dear…”
“It’s all my fault. If I had stayed by the cabin … If I’d have watched the door.”
“Please, dear, don’t blame yourself … We all should have watched.”
“But, Mother, if we don’t find her … oh, Mother.”
“Sue, we will find her … we’ve got to. Now, take care of the boys until we get back.”
Marian hoped her words would convey the confidence she did not feel. She turned and caught up with Jim.
They followed one path after another, calling Jill. they went up one ridge after another where they could look over the land, but all their could see was tree tops. They couldn’t see the ground.
New fear came over Marian as she realized there would not be much more daylight. Maybe a couple of hours, she thought, if that much. And the terror, the hopeless thought of her baby somewhere all alone in the forest in the night, made her temples throb and her body feel limp all over.
If only David were here, she thought. He would know right where to look. Or if only she had listened to Charles and not come! She felt so alone, the words of Charles Neering, her friend at home, kept coming back to her, ”You need someone …”
Suddenly all her hatred for the mountains came surging back into her breast. Every tree, every blade of grass was her enemy. Her eyes were full of hot tears, and she was stumbling along trying to keep up with Jim.
“Jill! Oh, Jill, where are you?” she called over and over. Then with a depressing weariness, she slumped to sit on a huge rock.
“Jim, we can’t find her alone. It’s going to be dark soon. What can we do?”
Jim was silent, and Marian knew his words could not come out past the worry in him.
“How far is it to the Silver Bear?”
“Just over that hill. The road goes right past our mine. Shall I go for help?”
“Yes, Jim. We’ll need the men. They know the land. go quickly, Jim.”
As he started up the path that led to the road, Marian knew she could not stay behind. “Wait, Jim,” she called, “wait.” She ran to catch up with him, and then her words of a minute before came back to her. We can’t find her alone. “Jim,” she said aloud, “we are going for help in the wrong direction.”
Jim looked at his mother and knew what she meant. The two of them knelt in prayer. There, high in the mountains, Marian asked for help in finding her baby.
(To be continued)