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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Lookout Man - Chapter 23. Grief, And Hope That Died Hard
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The Lookout Man - Chapter 23. Grief, And Hope That Died Hard Post by :jellon Category :Long Stories Author :B. M. Bower Date :May 2012 Read :1345

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The Lookout Man - Chapter 23. Grief, And Hope That Died Hard


During the months when she had hidden her shame in a sanitarium, Mrs. Singleton Corey first learned how it felt to be unsatisfied with herself. Had learned, too, what it meant to have her life emptied of Jack's roisterous personality. She had learned to doubt the infallibility of her own judgments, the justice of her own viewpoints. She had attained a clarity of vision that enabled her to see herself a failure where she had taken it for granted that she was a success. She had failed as a mother. She had not taught her son to trust her, to love her--and she had discovered how much she craved his love and his trust.

Now she was learning other things. For the first time in her sheltered life Mrs. Singleton Corey knew what it meant to be cold; bitterly cold--cold to the middle of her bones. As Murphy had predicted, a tree had fallen across the trail, so close to their passing that they had heard the crash of it and had come up to see the branches still quivering from the impact. Before then Mrs. Singleton Corey had learned the feel of biting cold, when she waited on a bald nose of the hill while three shovels lifted the snow out of the road so that they could go on. Her unaccustomed ears had learned the sound of able-bodied swearing because the horseman had taken a short-cut over the hill and so had not broken the trail here for the team.

Then, because the driver had not prepared for the emergency of fallen trees--rather, because the labor of removing a section would have been too long even if they had brought axes and a cross-cut saw--she learned how it felt to be plodding through snow to her aristocratic knees. She had to walk a mile and a half to reach Toll-Gate cabin, which was the only shelter on the mountainside, save the cabin of Murphy and Mike, which was out of the question. She had to walk, since she declined to ride one of the horses bareback; so she was tired, for the first time in her pampered life, and she knew that always before then she had merely played at being tired.

The driver, being unable to go farther with the sleigh, and having a merciful regard for his four horses, turned back when the men had lifted the sleigh around so that it faced townward. So Mrs. Singleton Corey had the novel experience of walking with the assistance of Murphy, whose hands were eager to help the lady, whose tongue was eager to while away the wearisome journey with friendly converse, whose breath was odorous of bad whisky. The other two men went ahead with the blankets and the gunny-sack of supplies, and broke trail for Murphy and the lady whose mission remained altogether a mystery, whose manner was altogether discouraging to curiosity.

Those of us who have never experienced hardships, never plumbed the black depths of trouble, never suffered desperate anguish, are too prone to belittle the suffering of others. Mrs. Singleton Corey had always secretly believed that suffering meant merely a certain bearable degree of discomfort. In exalted moments she had contemplated simple living as a desirable thing, good to purge one's soul of trivialities. Life in the raw was picturesque.

She changed her mind with a suddenness that was painful when she tottered thankfully into Toll-Gate cabin and found the main room unswept and with the breakfast dishes cold and cluttered upon the rough, homemade table. And Kate crying on a couch in the other room, close enough to the heating stove so that she could keep the fire up without putting her injured foot to the floor. She did not know this disheveled woman with swollen eyes and a soiled breakfast cap and an ugly bathrobe and one foot bandaged like a caricature of a gouty member of plutocracy. The Kate Humphrey she hazily remembered had been a careful product of refinement, attired in a black lace evening gown and wearing very good imitation pearls.

But Mrs. Singleton Corey gave no more than one glance at Kate, who hurriedly pulled her bathrobe together and made a half-hearted attempt to rise and greet her properly. The stove looked like a glimpse of paradise, and Mrs. Singleton Corey pulled up a straight-backed chair and sat down with a groan of thankfulness, pulling her snow-sodden skirts up above her shoetops to let a little warmth reach her patrician limbs. She fumbled at the buttons of her coat and threw it open, laid a palm eloquently upon her aching side and groaned again.

But the dauntless Mrs. Singleton Corey could not for long permit her spirit to be subdued, especially since she had not yet found Jack.

"Well, can you get word to my son that I am here and should like to see him?" she asked, as soon as the chill had left her a little. "This is a terrible storm," she added politely.

Even when Kate had explained how impossible it was to get word to any one just then, Mrs. Singleton Corey refused to yield one bit of her composure to the anxiety that filled her. She simply sat and looked at poor Kate like the chairman of a ways-and-means committee who is waiting to hear all the reports.

"You think, then, that the young woman went to meet Jack?"

"I know she did. She was furious because I had not concealed the fact of his being here, but I felt that I owed it--"

"Yes, to be sure. And where would she be most likely to meet him? Do you know?"

"I know where she did meet him," Kate retorted with an edge to her voice. "She couldn't have gotten lost, though, if she had gone there. It is close to the road you traveled. Doug--Professor Harrison has led a party up where Marion said Jack had his cave. If they are there, we shall know it as soon as they come back."

"Yes, certainly. And if they are not there?" Mrs. Singleton Corey held her voice firm though the heart within her trembled at the terrible possibility.

"Well--she didn't take the train, we know that positively. She _must be up there with Jack!"

Mrs. Singleton Corey knew very well that Kate was merely propping her hope with the statement, but she was glad enough to accept the prop for her own hopes. So they talked desultorily and with that arms-length amiability which is the small currency of polite conversation between two strange women, and Mrs. Singleton Corey laid aside her dignity with her fur-lined coat, and made tea for them--since Kate could not walk.

Late in the afternoon men began to straggle into the cabin, fagged and with no news of Marion. The professor was brought back so exhausted that he could not walk without assistance, and talked incoherently of being shot at, up near the peak, and of being unable to reach Taylor Rock on account of the furious wind and the deep drifts.

Hank Brown declared that he could make it in the morning, and one or two others volunteered to go with him. It began to seem more and more likely that Marion was up there and compelled by the storm to stay, in whatever poor refuge Jack might have. It seemed useless to make any further attempt at hiding Jack's identity and whereabouts, although Mrs. Singleton Corey, with a warning glance at Kate and a few carefully constructed sentences, managed to convey the impression that Jack had been hiding away from her, after a quarrel between them which had proved merely a misunderstanding. She was vastly relieved to see that her explanation was accepted, and to know that if Quincy had ever heard of the auto-bandit affair, it had forgotten all about it long ago.

Still, that was a small relief, and temporary. Until the next day they were hopeful, and the physical discomfort of staying in that crude little cabin with a lot of ungrammatical, roughly clad men, and of having no maid to serve her and not even the comfort of privacy, loomed large in the mind of Mrs. Singleton Corey. Never before in her life had she drunk coffee with condensed cream in it, or eaten burned bread with stale butter, and boiled beans and bacon. Never before had she shared the bed of another woman, or slept in a borrowed nightgown that was too tight in the arms. To Mrs. Singleton Corey these things bore all the earmarks of tragedy.

But the next day real tragedy pushed small discomforts back into their proper perspective. It still stormed, though not so furiously, and with fitful spells of sunlight breaking through the churning clouds. The men left the cabin at daylight, and Mrs. Singleton Corey found herself practically compelled to wash the dishes and sweep the floor and wait on the distracted Kate who was crushed under the realization of Mrs. Singleton Corey's disgust at her surroundings. Conversation languished that day. Mrs. Singleton Corey sat in a straight-backed chair and stared out of the window that faced the little basin, and waited for Jack to come. She had suffered much, and she felt that fate owed her a speedy return of the prodigal.

Instead of that they brought Hank Brown to the cabin, dead on a makeshift stretcher. When the shock of that had passed a little, so that her mind could digest details, Mrs. Singleton Corey learned, with a terrible, vise-like contraction of the heart, that Hank had climbed ahead of the others and had almost reached the place they called Taylor Rock, where Jack was said to have his cave. Those below had heard a rifle shot, and they had climbed up to find Hank stretched dead in the snow. Two men had searched the vicinity as well as they could, but they had found nothing at all. The snow, they said, was drifted twenty feet deep in some places.

They did not tell her what they thought about it, but Mrs. Singleton Corey knew. And Kate knew. And the two women's eyes would not meet, after that, and their voices were constrained, their words formal when they found it necessary to have speech with each other.

Mrs. Singleton Corey forgot the crudities and the discomforts of Toll-Gate cabin after that. She watched the trail, and her eyes questioned dumbly every man that came in for rest and food before going out again to the search. They always went again, fighting their way through the storm that never quite cleared. They went forth, with a dogged persistence and a courage that made Mrs. Singleton Corey marvel in spite of her absorption in her own anxiety.

Men with fresh horses and fresh supplies came up from the valley, and the search went on, settling to a loose system of signals, relief shifts and the laying out of certain districts for certain men to cover, yard by yard. The body of Hank Brown was lashed upon a horse and taken down to Quincy, and in the evening the mystery of his death was discussed in the kitchen, where the men sat in a haze of tobacco smoke. Mike had been reported absent from his cabin, the day that Murphy came up from the valley, and he had not returned. So there was mystery in plenty to keep the talk going. One man shot dead from ambush and three persons missing, were enough to stir the most phlegmatic soul--and Mrs. Singleton Corey, however self-possessed her manner, was not phlegmatic.

Stormy day followed stormy day, and still they found no trace of Marion, got no glimpse of Jack. There were days when the wind made it physically impossible to climb the peak and search for the cave under Taylor Rock, dangerous to be abroad in the woods. Hank had said that he knew about where the cave was--but Hank's lips were closed forever upon garrulous conversation. Two or three others were more or less familiar with that barren crest, having hunted bear in that locality. They led the parties that turned their faces toward the peak whenever the wind and the snow promised to hold back for a time.

They began to whisper together, out in the kitchen where they thought that Mrs. Singleton Corey could not hear. They whispered about the fight that had taken place up at the lookout station, last summer, when Hank had ridden into town sullen and with blackened eyes and swollen lips, and had cursed the lookout on Mt. Hough. It began to seem imperative that they locate that cave as soon as possible, and the man who had shot Hank.

Kate mourned because Fred was not there, and talked as though his presence would right nearly everything. That, and the whispering and the meaning glances among the men when she appeared in the room, exasperated Mrs. Singleton Corey almost beyond endurance. Why did they not find Jack and the girl? What possible use could Fred be, more than any other man? Why didn't somebody do something? She had never seen so inefficient a country, it seemed to her. Why, they had even let the trains stop running, and the telegraph lines were all down! Nobody seemed to know when communication with the outside world would be possible. She might have to stay here a month, for all she could learn to the contrary. There was just one cheerful thought connected with the whole thing, and that was the fact that this Fred, of whom Kate talked so much, could not be summoned. Mrs. Singleton Corey felt that another Humphrey in the house would drive her quite mad.

Then one day Murphy came stumbling in to the cabin, just after three or four disheartened searchers had arrived, and announced that he had got on the track of the man that shot Hank Brown.

"An' it's Mike, the crazy fool thot did it, an' I'll bet money on it," he declared, goggling around at his audience. "An' what's more, the rest of ye had betther be travelin' wit' yer eyes open, fer he's crazy as a loon, an' he'll kill anny one that crosses his trail. An' didn't I notice just this marnin' that his rifle was gone wit' him--me dom eyes bein' so near blind thot I c'uldn't see in the corner where it was, an' only fer wantin' a belt that hung on a nail there, I w'uldn't av been feelin' around at all where the gun sh'uld be standin'. An' it's gone, an' I mind me now the talk he was makin' about sphies in the woods, an' thot the gurrl had betther look out, an' the feller up on the peak had betther look out, an' me thinkin' he was talkin' becawse av the railroad tie thot hit 'im wanct, an' hushed 'im up whin I sh'uld 'a' been takin' 'im in to the crazy house, I dunno. An' if he's kilt the gurrl an' the missus' boy, like he kilt Hank Brown, it's like he's found the cave the lad was livin' in, an' is sthayin' holed up there, I dunno--fer he ain't been near the cabin, an' unlest a tree er a fallin' limb kilt him, he'd have to be sthayin' somewheres. Fer he's kilt the gurrl an' the boy, an' I'll bet money on it, I dunno."

"Looks that way, Murphy--" began one, but he was stopped by a cry that thrilled them with the terrible grief that was in the voice,--grief and hope that was dying hard.

Mrs. Singleton Corey, having stood just within the other room listening, made two steps toward Murphy and fell fainting to the kitchen floor.

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