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. They encounter many difficulties, and they mistrust Jake Hadley, the owner of a neighboring mine, who has made protestations of friendship. While Marian and the older boys are repairing the roof on the cabin, three-year-old Jill wanders away and becomes lost in the wilderness.
Marian and Jim hurried along toward the road that led to the Silver Bear mine to get help. Jim’s long, anxious strides made it difficult for Marian to keep up with him as they picked their way over roots and rocks. Daylight was slipping away, and Jill was out there somewhere in the wilderness alone, frightened …
“Jim, there’s not much time left, is there?” Marian was talking more to herself than to him.
“Hurry, Mother, just hurry.” His words were so sharp that Marian knew something other than worry was mixed with them.
“Jim, wait.” As he turned, she could see there was something besides fright in his eyes, and there were lines of pain around his mouth. “Jim, what is it?”
“Nothing, let’ s just hurry.”
“Oh, Jim, your wrist!” Marian saw that he was holding his right arm with his left hand. “Let me see it, son.”
“We haven’t time. Every minute counts.”
“But …” She could say no more.
He strode out ahead of her and thereby dismissed further conversation. They were almost running now, but running where? Marian knew that Jill could be clear over the opposite mountain by now. But even as she thought this, something compelled her feet to move quickly in the direction of the mine.
They hurried along in silence. Then Marian turned around to see where the sun was. It was setting on a ridge between two towering peaks, reluctant to go behind the mountain. It seemed to know how much its light meant to them.
“Jim, will the men at the Silver Bear have something to light our way? torches, maybe, or …?”
“They have carbide lamps. They use them for light in the mines.”
“Oh, yes, I remember the carbide lamps …”
“I didn’t think to bring ours. They’re back in the shed. Come on, Mother, please hurry.”
They were coming to a clearing now, and even after so many years, Marian recognized the wooden-framed hole in the face of the mountain. It was their mine, the “Silver Star.”
“Jim …” Marian’s feet were heavy, her body weary. She leaned against a tree and put her hand up to her pounding chest.
“What’s the matter?” He came back to her, a mixture of anxiety and annoyance in his face.
“I’m … I’m out of breath. I’ll have to rest a minute … just a minute.”
Jim wiped his forehead with the back of his left arm, and Marian saw the swelling in his right wrist as he let go of it. She didn’t say anything. She knew they must find Jill. There was no time for swollen wrists, or for being tired. She straightened up and tried to make her feet take her where she knew they must. Jim looked at the lowering sun, and then at the path that now began its steep climb over the hill to the other mine.
“Mother, I think you had better go back to the cabin … I can go faster by myself.”
“No, Jim. I can’t.”
“Then wait here. I’ll go for the men and when we come back, you’ll be rested.”
“No! I’ve got to go with you.”
“Mother, please. We are losing too much time.”
There was a new note in his voice. It was a note that hung somewhere between tolerance and anger. Marian knew he was right. She knew she must not slow him down, but how could she stay here alone? How could she just sit here on a rock and do nothing toward finding Jill? Finally her words came. Slowly she told him she would stay, but as he started to run up the path, she called him, called his name as though she were grabbing a floating log in the sea of bewilderment that swirled around her. Even as her words formed his name, she was sorry – ashamed. He stopped and turned. She lifted her hand and waved him on. He smiled briefly and waved in silent acknowledgment of what he must have known she felt, then went swiftly on his way, up the trail and out of sight in the underbrush.
For a long time Marian watched the place where he had vanished form her view. Too heartsick to think, too weary to move, she leaned there against the tree. Then realization began to take hold of her. She should have told Jim she would go back to the cabin. At least she could do something worthwhile there, get something for the other children to eat and comfort them. Here she could do nothing. It was too late to go now. She had said she would wait here. Why did she always make such poor choices, she wondered? Why did she seem to be so short-sighted?
She looked around her. The last flickers of sunlight struck the mine entrance at an odd angle, and lighted part of the way inside. The rail was rusty from idleness, and partly covered with dirt. The old brown boards that outlined the mouth of the mine looked rotted as though a push would send them crashing to the ground.
Marian’s gaze was about to move on, when something caught her eye. Something peculiar about the ground where the dampness had settled just outside the mine.
“It can’t be!” she said aloud.
Running to the spot which now revealed itself as truly the little girl’s footprints in the wet earth, she knelt down. There were many prints in all directions, and she was sure they were made by Jill. For a moment her thoughts came and went in almost hysterical unrealities. Then fear gripped her anew. Jill’s in the mine, she told herself. And though she had been terrified when she first knew her baby was somewhere in the woods, she was even more so now. The mine, to Marian, held even worse danger than the trees and underbrush.
From her honeymoon days she remembered the mine. David had coaxed so hard to get her to put on a pair of his coveralls and the heavy helmet with the light attached.
“We won’t go in very far,” he had told her. “Just let me tell you about the work I’m doing, and show you the streaks of ore.”
Marian only gave in to him to avoid making his fine brow wrinkle in disappointment … “Only because I love you very much,” she had told him.
Now, as she knelt in the warm dirt, near the damp place, she recalled how, after a few feet of flat ground with the rail and wooden ties running along, there was a sudden drop. David had led the way down a rickety old board ladder, to still another few feet of flat ground and then more ladders and everywhere old wood holding up the dirt ceiling, and dirt walls, and water mixed with green moss trickling down and running along, and blackness beyond the small circle of their lamps.
“Jill! Oh, Jill, can you hear Mommy?” Marian screamed into the mine, not being able to control her voice now, or the sobbing of it.
She took a few steps into the entrance and called over and over, but never the slightest sound came in return, only the odor of musty wood to annoy her nose, and the ominous silence of the darkness within gave answer.
Marian stepped back outside to do her thinking. She knew she had to make a plan … something, anything, but what? How long is Jim going to be? she wondered. I can’t just stand here and wait. Jill must be lying in there hurt … I’ve got to go in and find her, she thought, but it’s so dark … the carbide lights. Jim said they were back in the shed. Quickly Marian started towards the cabin to get a lamp.
She had gone but a few feet, not even out of the clearing, when she heard the voices, men’s voices, heavy and loud echoing against the mountains. She couldn’t believe they had come so soon.
“Jim, oh, Jim …” She ran up the path, and then, as the men came within her view, she stopped, stopped and stared in disbelief. It couldn’t be … but it was … Jim was carrying Jill piggyback, and she was laughing and Jim was grinning.
“Mom, look. Jill … safe and sound.”
“But she’s … she’s …”
“She wandered into our camp a little while ago,” Jake explained.
“She must have followed the road from our cabin,” said Jim. “I met them on the way. They were bringing her home.”
“Oh, Jill!” Marian took her from Jim and hugged her closely. “I found her footprints … I thought she was in the mine.” And when they got back to the mine, Marian showed them the tiny prints on the ground.
“She had gone in, all right,” one of the men said.
“It was dark in there,” Jill said.
“There are so many prints that you couldn’t see she came back out,” Jake said.
“Oh, Jim, let’s get back to the cabin fast. The other children will be so anxious.”
“Let me carry her back,” Jake offered.
“We can, thanks, anyway. And thanks to all of you for bringing her back …”
“That’s all right. I’m glad she followed that road,” Jake said. “When kids get lost in these mountains they are hard to find. Dangerous place for kids.”
Marian studied Jake. Was he trying to make polite conversation, or to frighten her? The look in his eyes confused her.
“Mommy, Spotty ran away,” Jill said.
“Oh, he did, did he?” said Marian. She hugged the little girl very close and said a silent thank you.
“Poor little Spotty,” said Jim. “I hope he’ll be able to take care of himself.”
Then Jim looked in the direction of the departing men, and Marian knew he was wishing there was something he could do about their killing the deer.
It was so good to get back to the cabin that for a moment Marian felt a warm glow all about her. She felt as though she had come home. Why, yes, she told herself, surprised, the cabin really feels like home. It must be because we are all together, she thought.
Jill couldn’t understand all the hugs and kisses, and she mildly protested.
“I’m hungry,” she finally announced, and that reminded the others that they were, too.
“We were so worried that we forgot we hadn’t eaten,” Sue said.
“Tell us how you found her, Jim,” Jed coaxed.
“We thought you wouldn’t find her,” Tommy said.
And while the children talked excitedly, Jim made a fire and Marian opened fruit and heated leftovers and cut thick slices of her homemade bread.
After the little ones were tucked into bed, Marian heated some water and helped Jim soak his painfully swollen wrist.
“Jim.” She didn’t want to say the words that she felt must be said. “Jim, we’ll have to go home now. You can’t do anything with your wrist like this.”
“No.” There was a finality to his voice that made Marian raise hers a little.
“But we have to! You can’t work now, and there are so many things that need to be done … and I’m frightened, Jim. If Jill or one of the little boys should wander away, we wouldn’t find them next time. We have to go back with Dick when he comes Saturday. That gives us two days to get all the clothes ready and packed.”
She finished wrapping his arm, then looked at him, sitting there, his head slightly forward, his chin firm.
“I’ll never let you sell out to Jake,” he said.
“We don’t have to. Maybe somebody else …”
“No, Mother. That mine should be mine.”
“Let’s not decide now.”
Marian went into her bedroom, with the unspoken words still hanging between them.
For a long time she lay there in the darkness. She knew she had hurt Jim by giving up the fight, but she knew it was the only thing they could do.
“If only I had listened to Charles in the first place,” she said to herself, “if only …”
“Mom.” Jim’s voice came to her from the darkness of her doorway. “You awake?”
“I’m not going home. If I have to do it all alone with my one hand, I’m not going home.”
Marian felt the determination in his voice there in the night. She also felt the disappointment and the hurt.
“Let’s talk about it in the morning, son,” she said.
But the morning was long in coming. The night was full of a number of little nightmares that blended into one frightening one. She woke up time and time again and went over to make sure Jill was still there. She heard time and time again the hurt in Jim’s voice, and felt the distasteful bitterness that was within her. Just before the light came into her window, she had made up her mind what she had to do.
(To be continued)