THE children were up at daybreak. Eunice and Ted, in the next room, could hear them waking Uncle Luke. ‘Will it be good weather, Uncle Luke? Do you think we can go to the party?’ And then came Uncle Luke’s grunting waking-up noises, and his high-pitched voice.
‘Well, my hearties, got to take our position. Mmmm. Not so good. Red sky at mornin’, sailors take warnin’. Snow, likely.’
‘But we’re thousands of miles from the sea,’ Oliver protested, and Bobby exclaimed, ‘This is Montana!’
‘Then again,’ Uncle Luke’s voice went on, ‘maybe your mother don’t mind snow. But me, I’d not put foot out today. No, not for a new ship’s compass.’
Eunice made an impatient sound. ‘Uncle Luke getting on your nerves?’ Ted whispered to Eunice.
‘It’s his everlasting humbugging seagabble,’ she whispered in reply. ‘Those endless lies of his! And the way the boys hang on his words!’
’Not lies, exactly. Yarns. Won’t hurt the youngsters.’
‘And his voice, going on and on. No escaping it. And you’ll be away, now, for two whole days.’
‘Can’t be helped, my girl. You’re a homesteader’s wife.’
‘Oh, I know, darling. I’m not really complaining. It’s only that the weather has sewed us up so, this winter. I’m famished for folks. I’m as crazy to see Eda Bantling as the boys are to go to Peter’s party.’
‘Look, Eunice. If I get a decent price for the steers, we’ll buy a radio. It’s been our best winter. Lost the fewest cattle ever.’
Eunice crossed her fingers and put them against his lips. ‘There’s still April. . . . I’ll make popovers for breakfast,’ she added irrelevantly.
At breakfast Oliver said urgently to Uncle Luke, ‘Daddy thinks maybe it won’t snow.’
Uncle Luke squinted toward the window. ‘Don’t ask me. Maybe out here, where folks let their cattle range wild and the temperature likely to plumb down to thirty below — well, maybe out here them clouds don’t mean nothin’. But if anyone should ask me — ‘
Any other time the boys would have clamored for his prophecy. Now an awkward silence fell.
Suddenly the sun shone. Bobby and Oliver dashed to the window, shouting, ‘The sun! The sun!’ But almost immediately the sun was gone.
‘Open and shet, sign of wet,’ said Uncle Luke. He gulped a swallow of hot coffee, and went on, ‘Only good use for snow, melting it down to make coffee with. Flat to drink raw, but better than the alkali well water you haul half a mile. Why, a man could pass his whole life out here and never slake his thirst, except during snow time.’
After breakfast, Eunice and the boys went out to see Ted off. He would have a three-hour ride to Sweetweather, where he would catch the stage for Miles City. Three hours, that is, if it didn’t snow or thaw. For if the ground softened, his horse would have to pick his way, avoiding not only the old snowdrifts but even the shallow coulees, where the wet gumbo would stick so thick to his hoofs that they’d have to suck themselves off the ground with great pancakes of clay at every step.
The sun was shining again and bits of feeble blue appeared between the lowlying clouds. The rolling plains stretched like an unpatterned quilt, dun and brown, with great patches of white snow. The country could cheat an unfamiliar eye into believing it level, partly because of its vastness, partly because the snowdrifts had filled up the coulees and the shallower depressions.
Ted, swinging to his saddle, sniffed the air. ‘No wind. Watch it, Eunice. Skip the party, rather than take chances. Boys, don’t nag your mother if she decides to stay home. Spring is coming, and you’ll be seeing Peter and Jimmy often.’
They watched him canter off. Presently he disappeared into one of the hollows which the eye could not detect from a distance. In a few minutes he reappeared, farther along, waved, and vanished again.
Back in the living room, Uncle Luke was sitting on the floor before the stove, cleaning his pipe. He was a slight old man, with a pointed face and pointed ears. Eunice, seeing him bending over his work, the tip of his tongue between his teeth, felt a flash of affection for him, for there was something endearingly childlike in his posture and expression. But the feeling changed immediately Uncle Luke began to talk.
‘Take this pipe, now,’ he said without looking up. ‘ Got her just after I took the Sarah Suzannah through a hurricane in the Bay of Biscay.’
‘I must bake some cookies,’ Eunice interrupted before he should get the story too well launched, ‘to take to the Bantlings — if we go.’ She hurried into the kitchen.
‘Uncle Luke, there’s some blue in the sky,’ Oliver said. ‘ Maybe it won’t snow.’
‘Blue in the sky.’ Uncle Luke glanced up from his pipe-cleaning. ‘Mmmm. You think you know what blue is. The blue sky, when it’s summer-clear — maybe you think that’s blue. But you have to see the sea from the coast of Maine when the wind’s sharp nor’west to know how blue blue is. Why, it’s so blue, even while you look at it you can’t believe it’s that blue.’
‘Is the wind blue in Maine?’ Bobby asked.
‘Nope. Knew a Irish sea captain once, used to say pigs was the only creatures that knew the color of the wind, and it was pink. But ‘tain’t. It’s no color. Still, I can tell which way the wind is blowin’, just from the color of the sea. Out here, now,’ Uncle Luke made a scornful gesture towards the window, ‘there’s no color you could rightly call color, to go by. Out here a seafarin’ man’s as good as rudderless. I could get lost and never reach port. Except maybe by dead reckoning.’
‘What’s dead reckoning?’ Bobby inquired.
‘It’s the way you keep a ship to its course with no stars to steer by and no instruments except a compass. You figger how far you’ve come, the direction you’ve took, allowin’ for the push of the wind and the pull of the tide. Least, so folks say. Me, I do my dead reckonin’ by instinct. It’s like I got a compass in my heart, tells me how to find my way. Except,’ Uncle Luke added, ‘in snow. Then my heart goes dead as a herrin’, and the ship could sink to Davy Jones’s locker for all of me.’
Why, thought Eunice, stirring the cookie dough in the kitchen, should Uncle Luke’s chatter so exasperate her?
She ought to be glad to have him, with Ted away so much. She remembered other winters, when the nights ached with stillness, accented by the howl of a coyote; fear-swept nights when she lay listening to the frantic winds clawing and tearing at the house; blizzard nights, when tales of men lost in the snow crowded her heart, as she lay clenched with terror that Ted might not have made shelter. Surely it was better now, with Uncle Luke for company!
Could it have been only seven months ago that Uncle Luke’s letter had come, and Ted had tossed it to her, with ’Read this, my girl, and tell me a polite way to say no.’ And she had read: —
Dear Nevew Ted, I’m not one to say what a small world knowing diffrunt but I went to the circus in Portland and got talking to a Wild West Boy and ast him did he know my Great nevew out west and he says no, but danged if he didn’t Whip out a Paper where it says Ted Monroe of Sweatweather won a steer Roping contest. Well I got thinking Time I dropped anchor being near 80. What money I’ve seined up will be yours in the end you being my only kin unless you’ve married and Hatched me some more. The Doctor says a dry Climate would Go Good with my Rumatisem and Bloods thicker than water even Salt water. So how if I was to Come and Live with you? I get board here in Knife Ledge Harbor for $6 a week, if Your married I’ll pay your Wife the same, if not how much would it cost in your Boarding house. Yours truly Luke Monroe.
If only she had taken Ted’s advice and let him say no! But she had exclaimed: ’Wonderful! You never told me the children had a great-great-uncle!'
‘I never knew him. He used to work in the shipyards at Bath. Carpenter, I believe. Let’s see, there was some story — how he took a trip down to Norfolk once, and got so seasick he wouldn’t sail back. Turned up afoot, two years later.’
‘And now he’s your long-lost uncle! You’re his heir, Ted!’
‘Don’t make up storybook stuff, my girl. He’s an old man with rheumatism. Be practical.’
‘Oh, but practical is exactly what I am! Listen, Ted. Oliver’s going on seven and Bobby’s five. In ten or twelve years they’ll be ready for college. How are we going to make it? Oh, I know if it weren’t for the drought we’d clean up. But there’s been a drought every year but two, and one of those half our cattle were winter-killed. And his six dollars a week will make the difference between scrimping and what’ll feel like luxury.’
‘But we’ve no room for him.’
That had given her pause. For the house consisted of the living room, — finished only last year, — the kitchen, their bedroom, and the dugout room, where the boys slept; and a shed room for water barrels and fuel and tools and ropes and saddles, and miscellaneous gear, and their car tires in winter. (The car itself, propped up on jacks, spent the winter out of doors, swathed in old tarpaulins.) Then there was a root cellar, for storing supplies. And some corrals.
‘Maybe,’ Eunice had suggested, ‘he’d bunk in with the boys. It’s a good-sized room. Why, Ted, when we came, it was parlor, bedroom, and kitchen, all in one!’
Well, Uncle Luke had come. Not the hearty, white-haired patriarch she had expected, but a small creature, who looked as if he had been whittled out of a bent stick. He brought with him an iron-handled pine chest, stuffed with hip boots, an oilskin, a sou’wester, great lengths of rope, fishing tackle, an old ship’s lantern, a compass, all manner of small tools, six horseshoes, and some peach stones.
The peach stones, transformed into three sailing sloops, a kitten washing its face, and a dog sitting up to beg, now were ranged along the top of the livingroom desk, and represented Uncle Luke’s winter. But Eunice, looking at them, could not think of their delicate jewelerlike carving, but only of the constant chatter which had accompanied their creation.
‘If I can only hold out till summer!’ she thought, as she rolled the cookie dough. In good weather, Uncle Luke spent a little time out of doors, teaching the boys to pitch horseshoes, and helping with the chores. And in good weather she herself could get away.
But since the first snowfall he had stayed indoors. And talked.
‘Some folks,’ he was saying now, ‘get seasick. Me, I get snow-sick. Been that way, man and boy, seventy-odd years. Once fit a lion single-handed in Africa. Didn’t even feel scared. Once got shipwrecked six miles off the Azores and swum ashore calm as a dead herring. But put me out in a snowstorm, and my innards slip sidewise, and my head spins round so fast I couldn’t catch a plate of fried mackerel set down before me. Had a cat once, felt same as me. Marthy, her name was. First snow every winter, she’d touch one paw to it, and pull it back like it was a hot stove, and spit!’
‘But didn’t it snow sometimes when you were at sea?’ Oliver asked.
‘I did my winter sailing in southerly waters. Nope, I wouldn’t set foot out in a snowstorm, not if you’d give me a full new set of limbs, free and clear of rheumatism. And corns,’ he added.
Eunice, sliding the last pan of cookies into the oven, called, ‘Two bowls and a spoon to be licked,’ and immediately Uncle Luke and the boys appeared. She left the kitchen to them, and set about her other work, but Uncle Luke’s voice followed her.
‘Nothin’ smells up a house nicer than chocolate cookies, except maybe lobster. D’I ever tell you ‘bout the time off Cuba — before I bought the Sarah Suzannah? The cap’n, he says, “Mate, a lobster would go good down my gullet. Too bad there ain’t none in these waters.” I says, “Cap’n, look down at them rocks to starboard.” It was so clear you could see plumb to the bottom. “I’ll nip down there and pick you up a lobster.” “What about alligators?” he says. But I took my jackknife in my teeth and dove. Because there’s one place, if you prick a alligator in it, he’ll scare off. It’s the fore left armpit. Well, sure enough, there were two good eatin’-sized lobsters, and I grabbed them careful, because they pinch. But I’d brung some rubber bands to snap round their claws, and I was just coming up when a alligator slides along.’
Eunice, coming to take the cookies from the oven, stopped, against her will, to hear the end of this nonsense. But it wasn’t nonsense to the boys. They stood, their bowls unlicked, gazing at Uncle Luke.
‘What did you do?’ Bobby breathed.
‘It was nip and tuck. I tuck the lobsters under one arm, and got the knife ready for the nip. But it was hard to swim nimble that way. Besides, that alligator seemed to know I had the secret where to prick him. Well, I come up to the surface for a new breath, but I’d only got half a breath when there he was, within gnawin’ reach of my foot. But I side-swum, and then wheeled, like I was going straight into his jaws. But I ducked under him, stead of into him, and zip, up went my knife into his armpit. Well, you oughta heard that, alligator scream. Funniest sound, bein’ under water. A scream with bubbles in it.’
Uncle Luke paused to lick some cookie dough off his spoon, but the boys made no corresponding attack upon their bowls. ‘Well,’ continued Uncle Luke, ‘I tossed the lobsters into the boat, and says, dead calm, “Two lobsters comin’ up, cap’n.” Only one of them rubber bands had worked loose, and danged if a claw hadn’t chunked a inch of flesh out of my arm, though in the excitement I never felt it. And that’s how I got the mark that looks like a vaccination. I’ll show it to you, come bedtime.’
Eunice felt she could not endure the sound of his voice another second. She stepped out of doors, to consider the weather. No change. All week the sky had looked much as it now looked, and it had not snowed. ’If I don’t get away,’she cried to herself, ‘I’ll explode! I’ll blurt out to him, “You’ve never been to sea in your whole life, you humbug you!”’ Then she stood stock-still, appalled at the thought. ‘I’m becoming a monster! ‘
But when, as she returned to the house, the children clamored, ‘It isn’t going to snow, is it, Mother? Is it?’ she had made up her mind. She was going to take them to the Bantlings’ that afternoon, unless it actually began to snow before they left.
They were hilarious. But Uncle Luke fell strangely silent. She tried to ignore his repeated trips to the window, his weather-wise squinting at the sky. Once he asked, ‘What does Ted do, when he gets caught in a snowstorm’
‘Makes for the nearest house and stays till it’s over.’
‘But how can he find his way to the nearest house?’
‘I don’t know, but he always does, Uncle Luke.’
‘Maybe,’ said Oliver, ‘the way you brought the Sarah Suzannah round Cape Horn in the storm and blind fog, by dead reckoning.’
Eunice felt a pang of doubt. Suppose they should get caught in a blizzard? But almost at once Uncle Luke began another story, and she beat down her doubt. She just had to get away.
When they were ready to leave, Uncle Luke asked, ‘Takin’ your snowshoes?’
‘If I thought it would snow,’ Eunice retorted, ‘I’d not go.’ Then, regretting her sharpness, she added, ‘We’ll be back before dark, Uncle Luke.’
‘Don’t hurry. Glad to have the house to myself. A little peace and quiet.’
Eunice closed the door behind her and laughed aloud.
It wasn’t going to snow. True, the clouds hung low, but the air was clear. ... If only Uncle Luke’s penetrating voice didn’t linger so persistently in her ears. ‘Clear air under cloud’s a bad sign,’ he had said a hundred times that winter. And often he had been right.
The boys ran ahead. ‘Not so fast!’ she called, but wanted to run herself. ‘And keep away from the snow — you might fall into a drift.’
The air felt sweetly cold against her face. Not too cold. The low clouds were smoke-color, rounded with a pearly gray, and the sky at the horizon all around almost white. The sun, fitfully breaking through the clouds here and there, scattered a brittle gayety over the plains. Cloud shadow and sunlight played upon the snow patches, now touching them blue, almost purple, now leaving them a blank white, now — especially where the snow had melted a little during the last thaw and frozen again — making a glitter of silver.
Funny, she thought, some people — Uncle Luke — could see no beauty in this country, because it lacked trees. Even in summer Uncle Luke hated it. ‘The sun sucks all the life out of it. And when you do see a green patch like that flax field, why, it might as well be a sore thumb.’ And during the winter snows he would complain, ‘Snow’s bleached all the health out of the country.’ But then, Uncle Luke had expected motion-picture stuff—mountains, canyons, bad men, wolves, Indians; and Ted, dressed in chaps, summer or winter, with two guns in his belt, shooting a villain, or breaking a bronco every other minute. Well, you couldn’t expect Uncle Luke to like what he found. . . . For that matter, hadn’t she herself made up a movie uncle — half Santa Claus?
The boys had run ahead. ‘Let’s play we’re heroes like Uncle Luke,’ Bobby shouted. ‘I’ll be Uncle Luke and rescue you.’ ‘No, I’m the oldest, I’m going to be Uncle Luke,’ Oliver insisted.
Eunice thought impatiently, ‘Can’t I ever get away from Uncle Luke? Must he persist in my thoughts, even when I leave him at home? Must the boys forever talk about him?’ Aloud she called,
‘Not so fast, boys. Keep away from the snow patches — the drifts may be deep.'
‘Oh, we could find our way in the dark,’Oliver shouted back. ‘We’ve come this way a hunnerd million times.'
They stopped out of custom when they reached the halfway butte, from which they could see both their own house and the Bantlings’. The smoke from the two houses curled straight upward, and both seemed deceptively near. Indeed, as the crow flies, less than a mile separated them. But, as they had to travel, it was a good two miles, and most of it up and down, to circle the various stretches of badlands, where wind and weather had hacked the earth with treacherous crevices and sudden drops. In summer, when the ground was dry and hard, they could take short, cuts, and make the little journey in an hour. Today, however, it took nearly two hours.
‘ Wait till Peter and Jimmy hear about Uncle Luke and the alligator!’ Bobby exclaimed. ‘And about the time Uncle Luke scared the whale off,’Oliver added, ‘and how the whale scared all the little fishes up on the rocks and the people just came out and scooped them into pails.'
Perhaps this visit would give them something to talk about for a while besides Uncle Luke!
‘When we get beyond the next cutbank,’she told them, ‘you can run ahead, if you like.'
They reached the Bantlings’ in high glee. Eda exclaimed, ‘It’s grand that you came! I didn’t, expect you, it looked so like snow.'
‘Oh, you don’t really think it will!’ Eunice felt a fresh pang of guilt. ‘It’s looked this way all week.'
‘Probably won’t amount to much, if it does. You could stay overnight. Jim’s away; you could sleep with me, and the boys would love to pile in together.’
‘Oh no, I couldn’t leave Uncle Luke alone. Anyhow, I don’t believe it will snow.'
The children played out of doors for a while, and Eda and Eunice had a good talk — about what they had done and read during the weeks since last they had met; about the children; about the radio Ted was going to buy if he got a good price for the steers; about sending Peter and Oliver to school next year.
‘I don’t know what I’ll do without Peter,’Eda complained. ‘Even with two, it’s lonely enough when Jim’s away, and no adult conversation for a week at a time, maybe! You at least have your uncle to talk to.’
‘Not to talk to-to listen to!’ Eunice groaned. ‘You can’t think what it is to have his voice going on and on, every single minute. Sometimes I feel as if I could jump out of my skin.’
When the children came indoors, Oliver was recounting the end of the alligator story. ‘But the lobsters didn’t taste as good as Maine lobsters. That is, caught fresh and fresh eaten in Maine. Funny thing, Uncle Luke says, even in the best New York hotels, where they show you the lobster alive before they cook it, it don’t taste the same. Reason is, it’s been out of its nave ellerment, and nothing to eat for maybe a day. And how happy can a lobster be, that way?’
‘I see what you mean,’ Eda said parenthetically to Eunice. ‘It’s as if I heard your uncle telling it!’
Then it was time for the birthday cake and Eunice’s chocolate cookies, and cocoa with a marshmallow in each cup.
’Now make a wish and blow out the candles, Peter,’ Eda said. And Peter screwed up his eyes and blew out the six candles all at once.
‘Candles give pretty good light,’ said Bobby. ‘It’s all dark now.’
And sure enough a sudden darkness had settled upon the afternoon.
Eunice jumped up in panic. ‘Maybe it will snow! Children, get on your things. We’ve got to get home before it starts.’
The children protested, ‘But the party’s just begun!’ and Eunice relented to the extent of letting them swallow their cake and cocoa. Then she bundled them up and hurried them off. ‘I don’t really believe it’s going to snow,’ she called back to Eda — but she was trying to reassure herself. ‘Anyhow, not before we get to the halfway butte. The worst of the badlands will be behind us then.’
But they had hardly left the Bantlings’ when the first snowflake fell — a large lazy flake, which Bobby caught on his mitten.
‘Look, Mother, it’s like a million tiny stars. And here’s another.’
‘Millions of them,’ said Oliver. ‘Gee, I’m glad we came. You never let us play out in a snowstorm. Come on, Bobby.’ And he raced ahead.
But Eunice called him back. ‘Stay right beside me, both of you, or we’re likely to step into a drift.’
‘Not me,’ Oliver boasted. ‘I’m like Uncle Luke. I can find my way by dead reckoning.’
‘Not in the snow, you can’t,’ Bobby said. ‘Even Uncle Luke can’t do it in the snow.’
‘Betcha I could. Betcha a million dollars I could close my eyes and find the way home.’
‘Betcha a million dollars you can’t.’
‘Stop that nonsense, children. Here, take my hand, one for each of you. Now!’
Reluctantly the boys obeyed, and they walked that way for a while. Eunice peered ahead, her eye marking the old snow patches, to remember in case the new snow should conceal them. ‘I shouldn’t have come,’ she scolded herself silently. ‘I really knew it was going to snow—I smelt it in the air. I just wanted to get away!’ And she clutched the children’s hands so tight that Bobby cried out, ‘You’re hurting me, Mother!’
No need to be panic-stricken. Of course she knew the way by heart. She could almost close her eyes and find the way home . . . but not in a snowstorm, without snowshoes, and without a stick to make sure they weren’t walking into a drift. . . . Why, if the new snow covered everything, there would be no sure way of avoiding the drifts. And already the snow was beginning to cover everything. And the afternoon was so strangely dark. . . . But not really dark. Why, there would be two good hours before dark.
‘Mother, why do we have to hold on, like sissies?’ Oliver protested. ‘Besides, it would be safer to go single file. They did in the moving picture, that time we went to Miles City.’
‘Oh, we’re safe, darling!’
‘ Well, could n’t we pretend we weren’t? ‘
Safer single file. Of course. Especially in the badland stretch where the way lay along ridges, some of them not over four feet wide, with steep cutbanks falling away on either side.
‘All right, Oliver. We’ll play it that way. Bobby, stand still. I’ll take the tape that runs through your sleeves, for your mittens.’ She tore one mitten off the tape. ‘Now look, I’ll tie this end to my belt, and you hold on to it. Only I’ve nothing to tie to you, Oliver. Do you think you could keep one hand on Bobby’s shoulder, just as tight as if you were tied?’
‘Of course.’ But Oliver looked at her searchingly.
‘We’ll pretend we’re climbing a glacier. Remember, in that moving picture, how they roped the climbers together?’
Bobby laughed. Good, then she had managed to keep the panic out of her voice.
But it coursed through her body. Because the snow no longer fell in fat lazy flakes. A wind had risen, and was breaking them up, whirling them dizzily.
She looked back toward the Bantlings’, but could no longer see the house through the whirling air. But surely, surely they were on the right path!
Bobby said, ‘This is fun. Wait till we tell Uncle Luke about this. Only we ought to pretend to slip and fall and get lost, to make it a good game. Shouldn’t we, Oliver?’
‘No,’ said Oliver.
But it had been Oliver, only a little while ago, who suggested the pretense of danger. She turned and smiled reassuringly at him, and hoped he did not guess that the assurance was counterfeit.
The wind blew harder now, and in freakish gusts. And the ground felt unfamiliar,
‘It’s just the snow,’ she told herself. Of course they were going the right way. Why, it was broad daylight. . . . Or anyhow, daylight. A narrow, gray daylight, like fog.
But surely they had come far enough to see the halfway butte. They might even have passed it, for the snow swirled so thickly one could hardly see twenty feet ahead.
But it was all right! Just remember what Ted so often said: ‘You hardly need eyes on a familiar path. Your feet remember it.’ Ah yes, but Ted had said something else: ‘Skip the party, rather than take chances.’
They must be coming to the badland stretch now.
The children were talking, but the wind blew their voices away. She turned to ask what they had said.
‘I said I wish Uncle Luke was here,’ Bobby shouted. ‘Except he’d be snowsick.’
‘I wish Father was here,’ Oliver said, without smiling.
So Oliver was frightened. She must say something to encourage him. But what?
‘It’s like a storybook, isn’t it?’ she tried desperately. ‘Fun, danger, struggle. Then the happy ending.’
She was enormously relieved when Oliver laughed. ‘This is the struggle part.’
She felt as if she had been struggling for hours. Yet it couldn’t have been much over an hour, for they hadn’t reached the halfway butte. And, despite all the windings and ups and downs, the distance was short. ‘Don’t forget that,’ she admonished herself. ‘At most three hours, even in a snowstorm.’
Bobby was calling again. She turned. ‘What is it, dear?’
‘ Uncle Luke says a man can drown in a pint of water, if he falls down just the right way into it.’
Oliver said, ‘Keep going, Bobby.’
She put each foot down tentatively, before trusting her weight to it. Of course the old drifts might be frozen over — it was getting awfully cold. But you couldn’t be sure. Besides, this new snow was drifting, too. Once or twice, forgetting to test the ground, she went in knee-deep.
Once Bobby jerked at her belt. ‘I don’t like this any more. I’m tired.’
‘So what?’ Oliver demanded. ‘Did Uncle Luke ever let being tired stop him? Not even when the alligator chased him.’
‘That was in warm water,’ Bobby replied crossly. ‘I’m cold. I’m snowsick.’
‘Come, come, darling. Think what a good story you’ll have to tell Uncle Luke. Oliver, are you all right?’
‘Sure. Only can we stand still a minute, Mother?’
‘Of course, dear. Here, come close to me, both of you. Put your faces against my skirt and get warm. And let me brush off some of this snow. You look like little Eskimos.’
She resisted the impulse to hug them frantically to her. Instead she kissed them each lightly on the tip of the nose, and said, ‘Let’s go.’
‘We must be past the badlands now, mustn’t we, Mother?’ Oliver asked.
‘I think so. But we’ll still go carefully, one step at a time.’
Lucky that they were such sturdy children. Why, they must have been ploughing through the snow for nearly two hours. Longer, because it was really dark now!
But that meant that they had lost their way! Or else that they were right near home. . . . She tried to push out of her mind the story of a woman and her three babies who had been frozen to death in the snow within thirty feet of their own door. . . . That might happen to other people — not to one’s self, not to one’s own children!
Why, in a minute now they would see the light of their own lamp.
Twice Bobby sat down in the snow, and had to be coaxed to go on. ‘But I don’t want to play this game any more,’ he whimpered. ‘Please carry me, Mummy.’
‘Sissy! Tenderfoot!’ Oliver jeered. But suddenly his tone changed. ‘Mother, look over there. Look where we are! ‘
Just to the left of them, three white shapes loomed up — huge mushrooms of wind-sculptured rock, covered with snow. And these rocks stood in another stretch of badlands, almost as far from their house as the Bantlings’, but in another direction.
She wanted to cry out. She wanted to have Ted there, and to cry against him, and to have him hold her tight. But she gave no sign of her panic.
‘Well, at least we know where we are,’she said. And then, seeing the unconcealed fright in Oliver’s eyes, she added, ‘You’re a great comfort to me, Oliver. We’ll keep our heads, won’t we?’
Oliver nodded. A moment later he said, ‘Sure.’
‘I’m a great comfort too,’ Bobby insisted.
‘Of course you are, darling. Ready now. We’ll circle round these rocks. Be sure you step exactly in my footsteps, Bobby.’
At first she tried to pick her way, but almost at once she knew it was useless. For any step might be the wrong step, and, familiar as they were with the way to and from these rocks, it was impossible to know where, under the snow, the safe twists and windings lay. The thing to do was to stop thinking, to let her feet choose their own direction, compromising only to the extent of not putting her weight down all at once.
Once she found herself side-stepping suddenly, and knew that her feet must be remembering a bad place — knew that she must be on the right track, in this trackless land. Every little while she would turn to encourage the children. ‘We’re on the right track, darlings. It can’t be long now.’
She stopped frequently, for breath, and to let the children rest a moment or two. Bobby was becoming intractable. ‘I won’t play any more. I can’t!’ He burst into tears.
‘Stop that nonsense. You don’t hear Oliver acting like a baby, do you?’ And Bobby’s surprise at her scolding carried him on another little bit.
Endless, endless. One foot and then another foot. ‘Come along, boys!’ Endless. Endless.
Then the tug on her belt was gone. She turned. Bobby had sat down in the snow.
‘Bobby! Get up at once. It won’t be far now, darling.’
But Bobby was fast asleep.
She shook him. ‘Oliver!’ she cried. ‘Help me wake him!’
And then she saw that Oliver wasn’t there.
But he must be — he must be! ‘Oliver!’ Why, surely she had spoken to him not one minute ago. ‘Oliver! Oliver!’
She tied one end of the tape about Bobby’s wrist, and stepped about him in a great circle, shouting for Oliver. She tried to see through the mad whirling snow. There, that hump, surely that was Oliver. ‘Oliver!’ But no, the hump was gone.
She screamed his name, but she knew that the wind wiped away the sound.
There must be something she could do besides shout. But her very brain seemed a blizzard of panic and confusion.
Bobby. She must wake Bobby — or he’d freeze to death. And yet they must not go farther. The only chance of finding Oliver or having Oliver find them was to stay where they were.
Why, he couldn’t be three minutes away!
She picked Bobby up and shook him roughly. ‘Wake up, Bobby. We have to find Oliver.’
Bobby murmured, ‘I’m too tired to brush my teeth,’and toppled back into sleep.
Nothing for it but to carry him. Ten steps in one direction, and then back. Ten steps in another direction, then back. ‘Oliver! Oliver!’ . . . Must keep moving. Because it was getting colder. Bitterly cold. Bobby made a warm band across her shoulder. But he was heavy, heavy.
Ten steps . . Oliver I . . . Thrust forward again, another ten steps. . . . And another ten steps. . . .
After a while all feeling went out of her body, and her mind was a laborious daze. She knew only that she must stagger on and shout Oliver’s name.
. . . Ten more steps.
Then her foot struck something, and she fell, and a flash of pain in her ankle wakened the rest of her body to its pain. A thumping of her heart. A crowding in her chest. ‘Bobby, Bobby, did it hurt you when I fell?’ But Bobby was still asleep, and her foot was caught under something.
She jerked herself to sitting position, and reached down, and felt of her ankle. Her hand touched a bar . . . wood. A corral — it must be a corral. There, she could pull her foot out.
A corral. That meant a house! Why, it must be her own house!
New strength flowed into her. She got up, but at once her ankle buckled, and she fell again. . . . But if this was her own corral . . . let’s see, which side was it on? She must think carefully, before she picked Bobby up. Of course, over there. And now there was even a light!
She crawled to where Bobby had fallen, managed somehow to heave him over her shoulder, and then crawled on toward the light.
It seemed years. But here it was. Reach the doorknob. Pull yourself up . . . good, she could stand on one foot.
She could open the door.
There was Uncle Luke, his back to the door, sitting on the floor, before the stove. The clock said a quarter to nine.
‘ Close the door — bad for my rheumatism,’ Uncle Luke began without looking round. ‘Puts me in mind of the time —
‘Oliver!’ she gasped, and toppled to the floor.
And then Uncle Luke was bending over her, shaking her, shouting ‘Where’s Oliver?’
‘A flashlight,’ she gasped. ‘Get me a flashlight. He can’t be far. I’ve carried Bobby all the while since. Get the flashlight!’ she screamed, but her voice seemed like somebody else’s voice. Under water. A scream with bubbles in it. You could drown in a pint of water. . . .
‘Stop babbling!’ Uncle Luke was shouting at her. ‘Did he go into a drift? Just tell me whereabouts! I’ll find him!’
But she couldn’t tell him. She didn’t know. All she could do was to shout Oliver’s name.
The last thing she remembered was Uncle Luke, fantastic in his oilskin and sou’wester, dashing out of the house with his ship’s lantern, coils of rope, and a broom.
The clock struck eleven. She tried to sit up. There was something she must tell Oliver. . . . Funny, she seemed to be lying on the floor, and there, beyond her on the floor, lay her coat and hat in a puddle of water. And Bobby’s coat. . . . Maybe Ted was right. Skip the party rather than take chances. Only, if she had to listen to Uncle Luke one more day . . .
Funny, that looked like Bobby on the floor, too, asleep. That meant Uncle Luke hadn’t got back yet. And that proved it was a dream. Because Uncle Luke wouldn’t put foot out in snow, not for a whole new set of limbs. . . .
Then the whole terrible truth surged over her. Oliver was lost! And Uncle Luke had gone to look for him. And she was lying on the floor, doing nothing!
She struggled to her feet, but sank back with a moan of pain.
And then the door opened, and Uncle Luke, carrying Oliver, staggered into the room. And Oliver was alive. She heard him murmur ‘Mummy!’ as he used to, when he was a baby.
Now she could rest.
The afternoon sun was slanting into the room when she woke up. A murmur of voices lapped her round. Eda Bantling’s voice: ‘You think she’ll be all right, doctor? Oh, it was lucky you happened to come on the stage with Ted as far as Sweetweather! I sent him back for you the minute he came into the house.’ But a sharp pain in her ankle blurred the voices away. Fingers, feeling, pressing, hurting. And then Dr. Steele’s: ‘Nice job.’
And then the voice she knew she had been listening for, all through her sleep and delirium, Oliver’s voice. ‘Uncle Luke’s set many a bone in his seafaring days. Once, on the Sarah Suzannah —
Ted interrupted him. ‘Tell me just what happened the other night.’
‘It snowed when we were coming from the party. And once I took my hand off Bobby’s shoulder just for a minute, to change hands, and the wind blew me over. And when I stood up they were gone. I began running and shouting. And I fell into a drift, and after a while something poked me, and it was the handle of Uncle Luke’s broom. And when we got home he let me help him lift Mother on to the bed. And then I guess I fell asleep, because Aunt Eda was here when I woke up.’
‘I was worried,’ Eda’s voice took up the story. ‘So the next morning, when it cleared, I took the children and we came over. I’ve been feeding her hot milk. She swallows it without waking up.'
The voices began to run together again. And there was a burning sensation in her throat. And then she opened her eyes. And now Bobby was there shouting angrily, ‘Mother! Don’t go to sleep again! You’ve been asleep three days. Mother!'
‘I’m all right, darling,’ she whispered. ‘Everything’s going to be all right now.’
And then she was smothered in Ted’s arms. And then she slept again.
But something wasn’t all right. She missed something. She dozed and waked and dozed again, tortured all the while by the thing that was missing.
Suddenly she knew. Uncle Luke. He wasn’t talking. Why, it was as if the very weather had stopped!
The notion jerked her awrake. ‘Uncle Luke!’ she cried.
There he was, in the doorway, his throat muffled up in a bath towel. ‘Puts me in mind of the time—’ he began in a whisper.
‘You don’t have to whisper, Uncle Luke. I’m all right.’
‘And that’ Uncle Luke whispered on, ‘reminds me of another time. My grandma says to my ma, — I was about Oliver’s age, — “Why don’t you stop that boy talkin’?” And my ma says, “I can’t seem to interrupt him.” Well, seems like nothin’ ever interrupted me till your little snow flurry.’
‘Please don’t whisper,’ Eunice begged again.
‘Can’t help it,’ said Uncle Luke. ‘I’ve lost my voice.’
‘Mother!’ Oliver was at her side now. ‘Wasn’t it wonderful? Uncle Luke found me by dead reckoning!’
‘Wonderful.’ And Eunice said it with all her heart.