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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Lookout Man - Chapter 22. The Miserere Of Motherhood
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The Lookout Man - Chapter 22. The Miserere Of Motherhood Post by :jellon Category :Long Stories Author :B. M. Bower Date :May 2012 Read :1010

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The Lookout Man - Chapter 22. The Miserere Of Motherhood


The up-train came shrieking out of the last tunnel in Feather River Canyon, churned around a curve, struck a hollow roar from the trestle that bridges the mouth of Toll-Gate creek, shrieked again when it saw, down the white trail of its headlight, the whirling snow that swept down the canyon, and churned up the stiff grade that would carry it around through the Pocket at the head of the canyon and to the little yellow station just beyond. A fight it would have to top the summit of the Sierras and slip down into the desert beyond, but it climbed the grade with a vicious kind of energy, twisted around the point of the hill where the Crystal Lake trail crossed and climbed higher, and with a last scream at the station lights it slewed past the curve, clicked over a switch or two and stood panting there in the storm, waiting to see whether it might go on and get the ordeal over with at once, or whether it must wait until the down train passed.

A thin, yellow slip ordered it to wait, since it was ten minutes behind time. The down train was just then screaming into Spring Garden and would come straight on. So the up train stood there puffing like the giant thing it was, while the funny little train from Quincy fussed back upon a different siding and tried its best to puff as loud as its big, important neighbor while it waited, too, for the down train.

Two men and a woman plowed through the wind and the snow and mounted wearily the steps of the little coach which comprised the branch line's passenger service. The two men took it all as a matter of course--the bare little coach with plush seats and an air of transient discomfort. They were used to it, and they did not mind.

The woman, however, halted inside the door and glanced around her with incredulous disdain. She seemed upon the point of refusing to ride in so crude a conveyance; seemed about to complain to the conductor and to demand something better. She went forward under protest and drew her gloved fingers across the plush back of a seat, looked at her fingers and said, "Hmh!" as though her worst fears were confirmed. She looked at one of the men and spoke as she would speak to a servant.

"Is there no other coach on this train?"

"No, ma'am!" the man said, accenting the first word as though he wished to prevent argument. "It's this or walk."

"Hmh!" said the lady, and spread a discarded newspaper upon the seat, and sat down. "Thank you," she added perfunctorily, and looked out of the window at what she could see of the storm.

The down train thundered in, just then, and with a squealing of brakes stopped so that its chair car blotted her dismal view of the close hillside. Between the two trains the snow sifted continuously, coming out of the gray wall above, falling into the black shadows beneath. Two or three bundled passengers with snow packed in the wrinkles of their clothing went down the aisle of the chair-car, looking for seats.

It was all very depressing, wearisome in the extreme. The lady settled herself deeper into her furs and sighed.

She continued to sigh at intervals during the remainder of the trip. The last and the heaviest sigh of all she heaved when she settled down to sleep in a hotel bedroom and thought miserably of a certain lovable, if somewhat headstrong, young man who was out somewhere in these terrible mountains in the storm, hiding away from the world and perhaps suffering cold and hunger.

Thoughts of that kind are not the best medicine for sleeplessness, and it was long after midnight before Mrs. Singleton Corey drifted insensibly from heartsick reflections into the inconsequent imaginings of dreams. She did not dream about Jack, which was some comfort; instead, she dreamed that she was presiding over a meeting of her favorite club.

She awoke to the chill of an unheated room during a winter storm. The quiet lulled her at first into the belief that it was yet very early, but sounds of clashing dishes in a pan somewhere in a room beneath her seemed to indicate breakfast. She would have telephoned down for her breakfast to be served in her room, but there was no telephone or call bell in sight. She therefore dressed shiveringly and groped through narrow hallways until she found the stairs. The mournful _whoo-ooing of the wind outside gripped at her heartstrings. Jack was out somewhere in this, hiding in a cave. She shivered again.

In the dining room, where two belated breakfasters hurried through their meal, Mrs. Singleton Corey tried to pull herself together; tried to shut out sentiment from her mind, that she might the better meet and handle practical emergencies. It would not do, of course, to announce her motive in coming here. She would have to find this Miss Humphrey first of all. She unfolded her napkin, laid it across her lap and waited.

"They can't do much till this storm lets up," a man at the next table observed to his companion. "Uh course, I s'pose they'll make some kinda bluff at trying--but believe me, these hills is no snap in a snowstorm, and don't I know it! I got caught out, once,--and I like to of stayed out. No, sir--"

"How's the trains, Barney?" the other called to a man who had just come in from the office.

"Trains! Ain't any trains, and there won't be. There's four slides between here and Keddie--Lord knows how many there is from there on down. Wires are all down, so they can't get any word. Nothing moving the other, way, either. It's the rain coming first, that softened things up, and then the weight of the snow pulled things loose. Take your time about your breakfast," he grinned. "You'll have quite a board bill before you get away from here."

"Anybody starting out to hunt that girl?" the first speaker asked him. "Can't do much till the storm lets up, can they?"

"Well, if they wait till the storm lets up," Barney retorted drily, "they might just as well wait till spring. What kinda folks do you think we are, around here? Forest Service started a bunch out already. Bill Dunevant, he's getting another party made up."

"It's a fright," the second man declared, "I don't know a darn thing about these mountains, but if somebody'll stake me to a horse, I'll go and do what I can."

"When was it they brought word?"

"Fellow got down to the station about an hour ago and phoned in, is the way I heard it," Barney said. "He had to wait till the office opened up."

Mrs. Singleton Corey laid her unused napkin on the table beside her unused knife and fork, and rose from her chair. She had a feeling that this matter concerned her, and that she did not want to hear those crude men pulling her trouble into their talk. With composed obliviousness to her surroundings she walked out into the office, quite ignoring the astonishment of the waitress who held Mrs. Singleton Corey's butter and two biscuits in her hands by the table. She waited, just within the office, until the man Barney sensed her impatience and returned from the dining room.

"I should like to go to a place called Toll-Gate cabin," she told him calmly. "Can you arrange for a conveyance of some kind? I see that an automobile is out of the question, probably, with so much snow on the ground. I should like to start as soon as possible."

The man looked at her with a startled expression. "Why, I don't know. No, ma'am, I'm afraid a rig couldn't make it in this storm. It's halfway up the mountain--do you happen to know the young lady that was lost up there, yesterday?"

"Has a young lady been lost up there?" The eyes of Mrs. Singleton Corey dwelt upon him compellingly.

"Yes, ma'am, since yesterday forenoon. We just got word of it a while ago. They're sending out searching parties now. She was staying at Toll-Gate--"

"Is Toll-Gate a town?"

"No, ma'am. Toll-Gate is just the name of a creek. There's a cabin there, and they call it Toll-Gate cabin. The girl stayed there."

"Ah. Can you have some sort of conveyance--"

"Only conveyance I could promise is a saddle horse, and that won't be very pleasant, either. Besides, it's dangerous to go into the woods, a day like this. I don't believe you better try it till the weather clears. It ain't anything a lady had ought to tackle--unless maybe it was a matter of life and death." He looked at her dubiously.

Mrs. Singleton Corey pressed her lips together. Any recalcitrant club member, or her son, could have told him then that surrender was the only recourse left to him.

"Please tell your searching party that I shall go with them. Have a saddle horse brought for me, if you can find nothing better. I shall be ready in half an hour. Tell one of the maids to bring me coffee, a soft-boiled egg and buttered toast to my room." She turned and went up the stairs unhurriedly, as goes one who knows that commands will be obeyed. She did not look back, or betray the slightest uneasiness, and Barney, watching her slack-jawed until she had reached the top, pulled on a cap and went off to do her bidding.

Mrs. Singleton Corey was not the woman to let small things impede her calm progress toward a certain goal. She proved that beyond all doubt when she ordered a saddle horse, for she had last ridden upon the back of a horse when she was about fourteen years old. She had a vague notion that all horses nowadays were trained from their colthood to buck--whatever that was. Rodeo posters and such printed matter upon the subject as her eye could not escape had taught her that much, but she refused to be dismayed. Moreover, she was aware that it would probably be necessary for her to ride astride, as all women seemed to ride nowadays: yet she did not falter.

From her beautifully fitted traveling bag she produced a pair of ivory-handled manicure scissors, lifted her three-hundred-dollar fur-lined coat from a hook behind the door and proceeded deliberately to ruin both scissors and coat by slitting the back of the coat up nearly to the waist-line, so that she could wear it comfortably on horseback. Her black broadcloth skirt was in imminent danger of the same surgical revision when a shocked young waitress with the breakfast tray in her hands uttered shrill protest.

"Oh, don't go and ruin your skirt that way! They've got you a four-horse team and sleigh, Mrs. Corey. Mercy, ain't it awful about that poor girl being lost? Excuse me--are you her mother, Mrs. Corey?"

Mrs. Singleton Corey, sitting now upon the bed, lifted her aloof glance from the mutilated coat. "Set the things on the chair, there, since there is no table. I do not know the girl at all." And she added, since it seemed necessary to make oneself very plain to these people: "I think that will be all, thank you." She even went a step farther and gave the girl a tip, which settled all further overtures toward conversation.

The girl went off and cried, and called Mrs. Singleton Corey a stuck-up old hen who would freeze--and serve her right. She even hoped that Mrs. Singleton Corey would get stuck in a snowdrift and have to walk every step of the way to Toll-Gate. Leaving her breakfast when it was all on the table, just as if it would hurt her to eat in the same room with people, and then acting like that to a person! She wished she had let the old catamaran spoil her skirt; and so on.

Mrs. Singleton Corey never troubled herself over the impression she made upon the servant class. She regretted the publicity that seemed to have been given her arrival and her further journey into the hills. It annoyed her to have the girl calling her Mrs. Corey so easily; it seemed to imply an intimate acquaintance with her errand which was disquieting in the extreme. Was it possible that the Humphrey woman had been talking to outsiders? Or had the police really gotten upon the trail of Jack?

She hurried into her warmest things, drank the coffee because it would stimulate her for the terrible journey ahead of her, and went down to find the four-horse team waiting outside, tails whipping between shivering hind legs, hips drawn down as for a lunge forward, heads tossing impatiently. The red-faced driver was bundled to his eyes and did not say a word while he tucked the robes snugly down around her feet.

The snow was driving up the street in a steady wind, but Mrs. Singleton Corey faced it undauntedly. She saw the white-veiled plaza upon one side, the row of little stores huddled behind bare trees upon the other side. It seemed a neat little town, a curiously placid little town to be so buffeted by the storm. Behind it the mountain loomed, a dark blur in the gray-white world. Beautiful, yes; but Mrs. Singleton Corey was not looking for beauty that day. She was a mother, and she was looking for her boy.

Two men, with two long-handled shovels, ran out from a little store halfway down the street and, still running, threw themselves into the back of the sleigh.

"Better go back and get another shovel," the driver advised them, pulling up. "I forgot mine. Anything they want me to haul up? Where's them blankets? And say, Hank, you better go into the drugstore and get a bottle of the best liquor they've got. Brandy."

"I've got a bottle of rye," the man standing behind Mrs. Singleton Corey volunteered. "Stop at the Forest Service, will you? They've got the blankets there. We can get another shovel from them."

The driver spoke to his leaders, and they went on, trotting briskly into the wind. Blurred outlines of cottages showed upon either hand. Before one of these they stopped, and a young man came out with a roll of canvas-covered bedding balanced upon his bent shoulders. Hank climbed down, went in and got a shovel.

"Ain't heard anything more?" questioned the driver, in the tone one involuntarily gives to tragedy.

The young man dumped his burden into the back of the sleigh and shook his head. "Our men are going to stay up there till they find her," he said. "There's a sack of grub I wish you'd take along."

He glanced at Mrs. Singleton Corey, whose dark eyes were staring at him through her veil, and ran back into the house. Running so, with his back turned, his body had a swing like Jack's, and her throat ached with a sudden impulse toward weeping.

He was back in a minute with a knobby sack of something very heavy, that rattled dully when he threw it in. "All right," he called. "Hope yuh make it, all right."

"Sure, we'll make it! May have to shovel some--"

Again they started, and there were no more stops. They swung down a straight bit of road where the wind swept bitterly and the hills had drawn back farther into the blur. They drew near to one that slowly disclosed snow-matted pine trees upon a hillside; skirted this and ploughed along its foot for half a mile or so and then turned out again into a broad, level valley. Now the mountains were more than ever blurred and indistinct, receding into the distance.

"Do we not go into the mountains?" Mrs. Singleton Corey laid aside her aloofness to ask, when the valley seemed to stretch endlessly before them.

"Sure. We'll strike 'em pretty soon now. Looks a long ways, on account of the storm. You any relation to the girl that's lost?"

"I do not know her at all." But trouble was slowly thawing the humanity in Mrs. Singleton Corey, and she softened the rebuff a little. "It must be a terrible thing to be lost in these mountains."

"Far as I'm concerned," spoke up Hank from behind them, 'they're either two of 'em lost, or there ain't anybody lost. I've got it figured that either she's at the camp of that feller that's stayin' up there somewheres around Taylor Rock, or else the feller's lost too. I'll bet they're together, wherever they be."

"What feller's that, Hank?" the driver twisted his head in his muffled collar.

"Feller that had the lookout on Mount Hough las' summer. He's hidin' out up there somewheres. Him an' the girl used to meet--I know that fer sure. Uh course I ain't sayin' anything--but they's two lost er none, you take it from me."

The driver grunted and seemed to meditate upon the matter. "What did that perfessor wade clear down to Marston through the storm for, and report her lost, if she ain't lost?"

"He come down to see if she'd took the train las' night. That's what he come for. She'd went off somewheres before noon, and didn't show up no more. He didn't think she was lost, till Morton told him she hadn't showed up to take no train. That's when the perfessor got scared and phoned in."

The driver grunted again, and called upon his leaders to shake a leg--they'd have walking enough and plenty when they hit the hill, he said. Again they neared the valley's rim, so that pine trees with every branch sagging under its load of snow, fringed the background. Like a pastel of a storm among hills that she had at home, thought Mrs. Singleton Corey irrelevantly. But was it Jack whom the man called Hank referred to? The thought chilled her.

"What's he hidin' out for, Hank? Funny I never heard anything about it." The driver spoke after another season of cogitation, and Mrs. Singleton Corey was grateful to him for seeking the information she needed.

"Well, I dunno what _fur_, but it stands to reason he's on the dodge. All summer long he never showed up in Quincy when he was relieved. Stayed out in the hills--and that ain't natural for a young city feller, is it? 'N' then he was ornery as sin. Got so't I wouldn't pack grub up to him no more. I couldn't go 'im, the way he acted when a feller come around. 'N' then when they closed up the station, he made camp up there somewheres around Taylor Rock, and he ain't never showed his nose in town. If I knowed what _fur_, I might 'a' did something about it. They's a nigger in the woodpile somewheres, you take it from me."

"Well, but that ain't got anything to do with the girl," the driver contested stubbornly. "I know her--she's a mighty fine girl, too; and good-looking as they make 'em. I hauled their stuff up last summer--and them, too. They seem like nice enough folks, all of 'em. And I saw her pretty near every time I hauled tourists up to the lake."

Hank chuckled to himself. "Well, I guess I know 'er, too, mebby a little better'n what you do. I ain't saying anything ag'inst the girl. I say she was in the habit of meeting this feller--Johnny Carew's the name he went by--meetin' him out around different places. They knowed each other, that's what I'm sayin'. And the way I figure, she'd went out to meet him, and either the two of 'em's lost, er else they're both storm-stayed up at his camp. She's mebby home by this time. I look for 'er to be, myself."

"You do, hey?" The driver twisted his head again to look back at Hank. "What yuh going up to help hunt her for, then?"

"Me, I'm just goin' fur the ride," Hank grinned.

They overtook Murphy, plodding along in the horse-trampled, deep snow, with a big, black hat pulled down to his ears, an empty gunny sack over his shoulders like a cape, a quart bottle sticking out of each coat pocket. They took him into the sleigh and went on, through another half mile of lane.

After that they began abruptly to climb through pine forest. In a little they crossed the railroad at the end of a cut through the mountain's great toe. Dismal enough it looked under its heavy blanket of snow that lay smoothly over ties and rails, the telegraph wires sagging, white ropes of snow. Mrs. Singleton Corey glanced down the desolate length of it and shivered.

After that the four horses straightened their backs to steady, laborious climbing up a narrow road arched over with naked oak trees set amongst pines. Here, too, the deep snow was trampled with the passing of horses--the searching party, she knew without being told. The driver spoke to the two behind him, after a ten-minute silence against the heavy background of roaring overhead.

"Know that first turn, up ahead here? If we don't have to shovel through, we'll be lucky."

From the back of the sleigh where he was sitting flat, Murphy spoke suddenly. "A-ah, an' av ye don't have to saw yer trail through a down tree, ye'll be luckier sthill, I dunno. An' it's likely there ain't a saw in the hull outfit!" He spat into the storm and added grimly, "An' how ye're to git the shled around a three-fut tree, I dunno."

"Sure takes you to think up bad luck, Murph," Hank retorted. "We ain't struck any down timber so fur."

"An' ye ain't there yet, neither--not be four mile ye ain't."

Mrs. Singleton Corey, wrapped in her furs, with snow packing full every fold and wrinkle of her clothing left uncovered by the robe, did not hear the aimless argument that followed between Hank and Murphy. The sonorous _shwoo-oosh of the wind-tormented pine tops surged through the very soul of her, the diapason accompaniment to the miserere of motherhood. Somewhere on this wild mountainside was Jack, huddled from the wind in a cave, or wandering miserably through the storm. Wrapped in soft luxury all her life, Mrs. Singleton Corey shuddered as she looked forth through her silken veil, and saw what Jack was enduring because she had never taught her son to love her; because she had not taught him the lessons of love and trust and obedience.

Of the girl who was lost she scarcely thought. Jack was out here in the cold and the snow and the roaring wind; homeless because she had driven him forth with her coldness; friendless because she had not given him the precious friendship of a mother. Her own son, fearing his mother so much that he was hiding away from her among these terrible, mourning, roaring forests! Behind her veil, her delicately powdered cheeks showed moist lines where the tears of hungry motherhood slid swiftly down from eyes as brown as Jack's and as direct in their gaze, but blurred now and filled with a terrible yearning.

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