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. She is found by Jake and his friends and returned to Marian. After this experience and the problems of work at the mine, Marian feels that she must leave the wilderness and return to the city.
Sue came out of the bedroom and rubbed her eyes. “You’re making so much noise I woke up. What are you doing, Mother?”
“Lots of things,” Marian said, trying to sound normal.
“But it’s so early. Not even light yet.”
“I know it’s early. I have a lot to do.”
“Go wake the others, and I’ll tell you.”
Marian went from the table to the cupboard to the stove. Her feet felt heavy and her heart even heavier. She had been asking herself questions all morning, but no answers came. It was as though the decision she made in the night had fastened a chain to her soul.
Jim came in, barefoot, buttoning his shirt. He looked at his mother and she knew he must be misunderstanding all the preparations she was making.
“How’s your wrist this morning?” she asked him.
“Fine! Just fine.”
“Let me see it.”
“It’s all right, Mom, really.”
“Jim, it’s still swollen. Take the binding off and let’s soak it. Then we’ll wrap it again. I’ll make a sling so you won’t forget and use it. By letting it rest a few days, it will get well.”
“Going to start packing today?” he asked her, trying to sound casual.
“No. The only thing I’m going to pack is a lunch. We’re going to need a big one.”
“Now tell me,” Sue said, coming in, “everyone is awake.”
Marian looked at the sleepy-eyed youngsters coming out of the bedrooms, and couldn’t help smiling. There’s always something special about children just waking, she thought.
“Tell us, Mom,” Ted pleaded. “Sue said we’re going on a picnic.”
“Are we, Mom? Are we?” Tommy asked.
“Oh, boy, a picnic!” Jed did a little dance around the kitchen floor in his pajamas.
“Oh, boy, a picnic,” said Jill, dancing, too.
“Well, I am packing a lunch,” Marian said, “but it’s to take with us to the mine.”
“The mine? What are we …?” Jim’s eyes searched is mother’s face.
“We are going to go to work. All of us. Jim’s going to be the boss and tell us what to do.”
“Are we going to be miners?” Ted asked.
“What’s miners?” Jill wanted to know.
“Yes, we’re going to be miners.” Marian handed the bucket to Jed. “Go get the water, Jed, and Sue, you help the little ones get dressed.”
“Oh, Mother, really.” Sue made a face. “I don’t know how to be a miner.”
“Your job will be mainly to watch Tommy and Jill, while the rest of us work. Now, let’s hurry, I want you all to eat a good breakfast. Miners always eat a good breakfast.”
Jim didn’t say anything, but when he looked at Marian, she read the silent tribute in his eyes.
Marian locked the cabin door and hung the key by its string around Sue’s neck. As they started along, single file, Jim laughed.
“You know,” he said, “we must look like the seven dwarfs.”
“They were miners, too, weren’t they?” asked Ted.
“Hi ho, hi ho, it’s off to work we go,” Sue began, and in a few minutes, all the children were singing at the top of their voices and keeping time with their feet as the sun came up over the ridge and greeted them. Marian didn’t sing. She was too busy trying to keep her hurt where it belonged. She didn’t want Jim to know how painful her decision had been to her.
“I like to be a miner,” said Jill, singing louder than all the rest.
In the days that followed, Marian and her family were more than miners. They were gardeners and painters, and, as Marian put it, “We’re getting to be pretty good fixer-uppers.”
They took turns weeding the garden and irrigating it with the water from their little stream. Marian and Sue washed the clothes and ironed and painted the kitchen bright yellow. When Dick brought her the paint, he teased her.
“Trying to bring the city to the mountains?” he asked. But she knew he approved of the things she was accomplishing, and always he left with a handful of fresh peas from the garden to shell and eat on his way back to town.
Jim helped his mother build some more shelves in the kitchen, and a closet in the corner of her bedroom. But mostly they went to the mine and cut down small trees for lumber and tied ropes on them to drag them to the clearing. They hauled dirt to the road and smoothed it and tramped it down firmly to make the road flat.
Night after night Marian went to bed so tired she couldn’t go to sleep for hours, but she knew she was doing what had to be done, and was almost glad of the work to keep her mind busy. Whenever she was tempted to be overcome with a feeling of drudgery, she needed only to look at Jim to be rejuvenated. He was so happy, he beamed all over. The other children were happy, too, and this made Marian feel somewhat justified.
The evenings were pleasant. After the supper was over and the dishes washed, Sue and Jim or Marian took turns reading aloud to the others, or they worked on their Remembrance Books, or read. Sometimes they just talked. But the loneliness that came to Marian sometimes sickened her deep inside, and only another day of accomplishment could chase it away.
One day Marian and the small children stayed at the cabin. It was her baking day and she wanted to paint the bench Jim had made from half a log.
“Now everyone will be able to sit on a chair of his own,” he had proudly announced as he finished it. There were only four chairs in the cabin when they came.
“That’s nice, Jim. This will seat the three littlest members of our family just fine,” Marian told him.
Marian took the paint and brushes out in the dooryard. She loved to be outside as much as possible, where she could keep an eye on the children, and look up now and then from her work to the inspiring skyline. Somehow this was an especially lovely morning. She was painting, and humming a little tuneless song of her own composing, when the sound of a car coming up the canyon road made her pause. Jill and Tommy came running to her.
“We’ve got company.”
“Dick, I suppose,” Marian said, though it wasn’t Saturday.
Then, as the car rounded the bend, she let her breath out in surprise. It was Charles. She thought of running into the cabin to change her clothes and do something with her face, but what? She didn’t have any better clothes with her, and there wasn’t much she could do in a minute with a sunburned, peeling nose, and skin that had had more weather and less care than at any other time in her life. She did pull the bandana from her hair, and tried to smooth the falling locks back from her forehead, as Charles got out of his car and started towards her.
“Marian!” his eyes were searching deep into her own.
“Oh, Marian, what has happened to you? You look …”
“Like a weatherbeaten old pioneer?” she supplied the missing words.
“No … but you do look tired, worn out. What have you been doing?”
“Oh, that’s not so important. What brings you to the wilderness?”
She was teasing him now, teasing to cover up her embarrassment. He was so clean shaven, and white collared. He wore a tie, and his shoes were so shiny she could almost see herself in them.
“I came to … Oh, Marian, I’ve been so worried about you. No word … You haven’t written to anyone.”
“Haven’t had time, really. I have dropped a line or two to Mother.”
“Marian, I came to take you back …”
“We don’t want her to go back.” They had forgotten the children.
“I mean you, too, Tommy.” Charles patted him on the head.
“Me, too?” said Jill.
“Yes, all of you.”
“We don’t want to go back.” Tommy was emphatic.
“Marian, has it been too awful? You look so …”
“We’ve been working hard, and accomplished a lot. You will have to let me show you want we have done.”
She managed a sort of smile, but her thoughts kept saying, Charles, why didn’t you let me know you were coming, so I could have been prepared? It isn’t fair for you to find me here like this, with paint on my hands, and skinned knuckles, and shiny nose. Are you laughing at what you see? Are you feeling sorry for me? That is even worse.
But aloud she said, “Tommy, take Charles and show him our little stream and our well while I put the paint away. Then we will walk to the mine and …” She stopped. Suddenly she wasn’t sure she wanted him to see what she had been doing at the mine. She was sure he wouldn’t understand. He will probably think I’ve lost my mind, she thought.
“We used to have a baby deer, but he ran away.”
Tommy took Charles’ hand and led him toward the path. Marian stood there for a moment, the tears stinging her eyes, the paint brush still in her hand. Then she went inside and tried to put cream on her face and brush her hair, and give herself a manicure all at the same time. When they came back, she felt a little better, and from the look in his eyes, she guessed Charles thought she looked a little better, too.
The walk to the mine was pleasant, and they saw squirrels scamper and heard them scold. They walked slowly and talked of the tall trees and white clouds, rather than saying what was really waiting to be spoken between them. And the two children ran and skipped ahead.
“It is very beautiful here,” Charles said. “Too bad it has to be so far away from everything.”
“Maybe that’s part of its charm,” Marian defended.
“But the silence, especially at night, would get on my nerves. I’ve tried to vacation in the mountains several times … no television, no telephone, not even any lights …”
Marian was silent. Two months ago she would have agreed with him, why not now? She was homesick. She longed to see a show, or to listen to her favorite records, but it wasn’t a painful longing …
They came to the mine, and saw Jim dragging a tree to the clearing.
“Hi, Jim. Look who came to visit.”
Marian was glad Charles was seeing Jim drag the tree, and hadn’t caught her doing it. Not that she was ashamed of the work she’d been doing, but … well, she was just glad he had found her painting, instead.
“Hello, Charles.” Jim came over to where they stood, his wide grin telling of his satisfaction and of his pride in his work.
“Hi, Jim. Looks like you are doing quite a job here.”
“We’re trying to fix the place up a bit. Not much time left, and still lots to do.”
“Jim has been slowed down a bit with a sore wrist, but it’s better now,” Marian said. “Would you like to look inside the mine? We have been retimbering the first level, that is, Jim has.”
Charles went over and looked inside. He didn’t step inside, just looked.
“You can’t see much from here. We haven’t done the front yet. Jim started quite far back and worked forward. Here, put this helmet on, and I’ll show you.”
Charles stepped back from the mine. “It’s all very interesting,” he said. “But why? I mean, why all this work? From what David told me long ago, I gathered there is no ore left.”
“Oh, yes, there is, it’s just too expensive to ship.” Jim was quick to explain.
“You see, there isn’t a mill nearby. If someone were to build one, we could start mining again.” Marian was surprised that she remembered what Jim had told her.
Charles shook his head. “Learn something new every day,” he said, and Marian could see that he had dismissed the subject. She knew that he didn’t intend to go inside the mine or want to hear any more about it. Two months ago she would have understood, but now, suddenly, it was her mine, too, her logs, her nice, smooth dirt road.
“Jim, why not quit for today?” Marian suggested. “We’ll go on a picnic.” Then she said to Charles, “There is a little lake on the other side of that hill. I think you would enjoy the scenery there. You stay here while Jim finishes up, and Sue and I will go back and prepare some food.”
They stayed longer by the lake than they should have. It was so good to have someone to talk to. Charles told of what had been going on with all the people back home, and of what was going to take place in the future.
“The big teen dance is coming up next week, Sue,” he said, “and, Marian, there is a dinner and fashion show next week. Why don’t you come home with me? Looks to me as if you have all earned a rest.”
“The garden would die and some of the things aren’t ripe yet,”Sue said.
Marian looked at Sue, then at Jim. They exchanged an unspoken question and answer.
“We can’t leave now, Charles, we haven’t finished our work.”
That’s what she said, but inside she was saying, yes, we will go … right now, right this minute. She was remembering the good programs that were always held in the fall of the year, and the garden show, in which she had taken such an active part, and she longed for a visit to the beauty shop, or just to walk along the smooth pavement to the grocery store.
“Please, Marian. You could have your things shipped. It would be so much easier than to go alone on the train.”
“I know, but I can’t, really, Charles.”
“Marian, there’s a special reason why you must come with me now.”
“We’ll be home in only a few weeks …”
Marian sensed what he was about to say, and didn’t want him to say it … not now. She called the little children, who were playing close by, and told them to start gathering the things together. She hoped Sue and Jim hadn’t guessed what Charles had almost said to her.
On the way back, Marian was glad for the evening canyon breeze as it cooled her hot face, and gave her a subject for conversation. They also talked of the long shadows the trees made and the way the leaves were beginning to turn red and gold on the higher trees, but they didn’t talk of what was in their hearts, not right then.
When they reached the cabin they talked of the old-fashioned stove, and how long it had been since he had seen one like it. And Charles looked at Tommy’s rock collection and at Sue’s finished pillowslips while Marian put the little children in bed. It was all quite homey, only Marian could feel the tidal wave within Charles.
When he stood up to leave and asked her to walk out to the car with him, she knew she would have to listen to him now, and to find an answer from within her heart.
“Marian,” he said, and she watched the huge moon peek from a cloud before she answered.
“Please, Charles, don’t say anything now … I’ll be home in just a little while, then we can decide …”
“No, Marian, it has to be decided now. I have to leave right away for a two months’ business tour. I want it to be our honeymoon.”
“But the children …”
“Your mother said she would take care of them. I won’t get any more time off for at least another year … Please, Marian.”
“I’ll make you happy. You’ll never have to do anything like this again … leaving the city … working so hard.”
“It hasn’t been so bad. I’ve learned to love the mountains.”
“Don’t you care for me?”
“I … I don’t know, Charles. I thought I did just before I left home, but now … things are different.”
“We can come back here for a little while each summer. A week to fish and rest …”
“But if we don’t finish the work we’re doing, we’ll lose the place. I don’t want that.”
“You don’t want it? Or is it Jim you’re thinking about?”
Marian searched within herself a moment. “Charles, I can’t go. I can’t marry you …not now, maybe not ever. I’ve felt so close to David here, and it will take time …”
“Marian, you need someone.”
“Please give me time.”
He looked at her a long while. “Goodbye, Marian,” he said, then turned and got into the car.
As the flicker of the red taillights disappeared in the night, she said his name. Over and over she said it, “Charles. Oh, Charles, I do need someone.”
(To be continued)