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ERNEST HAYCOX

CALL THIS LAND HOME

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First published in The Saturday Evening Post, 4 Dec 1948

This e-book edition: Roy Glashan's Library, 2019
Version Date: 2019-08-14
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The Saturday Evening Post, 4 December 1948, with "Call This Land Home"



ONE at a time, the emigrant families fell out where the land most pleased them, and at last only two wagons of the overland caravan moved southward along the great green valley of Oregon; then the Potters discovered their fair place and John Mercy drove on with his lone wagon, his wife in unhappy silence beside him, and Caroline and young Tom under the canvas cover behind. Through the puckered opening at the wagon's rear young Tom saw the Potters grow dim in the steaming haze of this wet day. Rain lightly drummed on the canvas; he listened to the talk of his people.

"Have we got to live so far from everybody?" his mother asked.

In his father's voice was that fixed mildness which young Tom knew so well. "The heart of a valley's always better than foot or head. I want two things—the falls of a creek for my mill and plenty of open land roundabout."

She said, "Rough riding won't do for me much longer."

"I know," he said, and drove on.

In middle afternoon two days later, the wagon stopped and his father said, "I believe we're here." Crawling over the tail gate, young Tom—Thomas Jackson Mercy, age eight—saw the place on which he was to spend the rest of his long life. In three directions the fall-cast green earth ran away in gentle meadow vistas, here and there interrupted by low knobs and little islands of timber, and cross-hatched by the brushy willow borders of creeks. On the fourth side a hill covered by fir and cedar ran down upon the wagon. A stream smaller than a river but bigger than a branch came across the meadows, dropped over a two-foot rock ledge like a bent sheet of glittering glass, and sharply curved to avoid the foot of the hill, running on toward some larger stream beyond view.

John Mercy turned toward the wagon to give his wife a hand, and young Tom noted that she came down with a careful awkwardness. Then his father stamped the spongy earth with his feet and bent over and plunged his tough fingers into the soil and brought up a sample, squeezing and crumbling it and considering it closely. He was a very tall man, a very powerful man, and all his motions were governed by a willful regularity. A short curly beard covered his face as far as the cheekbones; a big nose, scarred white at the bridge, stood over a mouth held firm by constant habit. He seemed to be smiling, but it was less a smile than a moment of keen interest which forced little creases around mouth and eyes. To young Tom, his father, at twenty-eight, was an old man.

John Mercy said, "It will take a week of clear weather to dry this ground for plowing." He turned, looking at the timber close by, and at the rising slope of the hill; he put his hands on his hips, and young Tom knew his father was searching out a place for the cabin. A moment later Mercy swung to face his wife with a slightly changed expression. She had not moved since leaving the wagon; she stood round-shouldered and dejected in the soft rain, reflecting on her face the effect of the gray day, the dampness and the emptiness which lay all around them. Young Tom had never seen her so long idle, for she was brisk in everything she did, always moving from chore to chore.

Mercy said, "In another two years you'll see neighbors wherever you look."

"That's not now," she said.

"The Willamette's beyond this hill somewhere. There's settlers on it."

She said, "I long for back home," and turned from him and stood still again, facing the blind distance.

John Mercy stepped to the wagon and lifted the ax from its bracket. He said to young Tom, "Go cut a small saplin' for a pole, and some uprights," and handed over the ax. Then he got into the wagon and swung it around to drive it under the trees. When young Tom came out of the deeper timber with his saplings, the oxen were unyoked and a fire burned beneath the massive spread of a cedar. The tail gate was down and his father had reversed an empty tub to make a step from wagon to ground. Between them, they made a frame for the extra tarpaulin to rest on, thereby creating a shelter. His mother stood by, still with her unusual helplessness on her and he knew, from his father's silence, that there was trouble between them.

His father said, "Water, Tom," and went on working. When Tom came back with the big camp kettle filled, his father had driven uprights at either side of the fire, connected by a cross-piece on which the hook hung. He lifted the camp kettle to the hook and listened a moment to the fire hissing against the kettle's wet bottom. The grub box was let down from the wagon box, but his mother was idle at the fire, one arm around Caroline, who stood by her. His father was at the edge of the timber, facing the meadow; he went over.

"Now, then," his father said, "it's sickly weather and we've got to get up a cabin. It'll go here. We'll cut the small trees yonder, for that's where the good house will stand someday. So we'll be doing two things at the same time—making the cabin and clearing the yard." His eyes, gray to their bottom-most depths, swung around, and their effect was like heavy weight on young Tom. It was seldom that he gave young Tom his undivided attention. "We've got everything to do here, and nothing to do it with but our hands. Never waste a lick, and make every lick work twice for you if you can. No man lives long enough to get done all he wants to do, but if he works slipshod and has got to do it over, then he wastes his life. I'll start on that tree. You trim and cut."

The blows of the ax went through the woods in dull echoing, not hurried—for his father never hurried—but with the even tempo of a clock's ticking. His mother worked around the grub box with her disheartened slowness. First shadows were sooty in the timber and mist moved in from the meadows. He listened to the sounds of the empty land with fascination; he watched the corridors of the timber for moving things, and he waited for the tree to fall.

The rains quit. Warmed by a mild winter sun, the meadows exhaled fleecy wisps of steam which in young Tom's imagination became the smoke of underground fires breaking through. They dropped trees of matched size, cut and notched and fitted them. When the walls were waist high, Mercy rigged an incline and a block and tackle, but even with that aid his body took the weight of each log, his boots sank deep into the spongy soil and his teeth showed in white flashes when hard effort pulled back his lips.

After supper, with a fire blazing by the cabin, Mercy adzed out the rough boards for window and doorframe and inner furniture, and late at night young Tom woke to hear his father's froe and mallet splitting the cedar roof shakes, and sometimes heard his mother fretfully calling, "Mercy, come now! It's late enough!" Lying awake, he listened to his father come into the wagon and settle down upon the mattress with a groaning sigh and fall at once asleep. The dying yellow of the firelight flickered against the wagon canvas; strange sounds rustled in the windy woods, and far off was the baying of timber wolves. Caroline, disturbed by that wild sound, stirred against him.

The rains held off and the meadows dried before the roof of the cabin was on. John Mercy said, "It might be the last clear spell all winter. I have got to stop the cabin and break that meadow and get the wheat in." He looked at his wife. "Maybe you won't mind living in the wagon a week longer."

"I mind nothing," she said, "except being here."

John Mercy turned to his son. "Go round up the animals."

The two brindled oxen were deep in the meadow. Driving them back to the cabin, Tom saw his people at the campfire; they were saying things not meant for him, his mother with her arms tight across her breasts and her head flung up. Presently his father turned away to yoke the oxen, hitch on the breaking plow and go into the meadow.

The ancient turf became coiled, gloss-brown strips. John Mercy watched the sky as he plowed and worked until the furrows grew ragged in the fading day; and ate and built his fire and hewed out the cabin rafters, and by morning's first twilight shadows he was at work again, harrowing the meadow into rough clods, into pebbled smoothness. The gray clouds thickened in the southwest and the wind broke and whirled them on. With the wheat sack strapped before him like an apron, John Mercy sowed his grain, reaching for the seed, casting with an even sweep, pacing on, and reaching and casting again. Young Tom sawed out the top logs, shortening and angling each cut meant for the cabin's peak; and at night, by the bonfire's swaying glow, he laid his weight against the block-and-tackle rope while his father heaved the logs up the incline into place.

On Sunday his father said, "Take the gun, Tom, and go over this hill and keep on till you find the Willamette. See what you can see. Come back around the side of the hill and tell me which is the short way."

Within a hundred yards the cabin vanished behind the great bark-ribbed firs whose trunks were thicker through than the new cabin. They ran far to the sky and an easy cry came out of them as they swayed to the wind. Pearly shafts of light slanted into this fragrant wilderness place, like the shafts of judgment light shining from heaven to earth in Redway's old geography book. Fern and hazel stood head high to him, and giant deadfalls lay with their red-brown rotted wood crumbling away.

He climbed steadily, now and then crossing short ravines in whose black marsh bottom the devil stock stiffly grew, and stung him as he passed; and down a long vista he saw a buck deer poised alertly at a pool. His gun rose, but then he remembered the cool voice of his father saying, "Never kill meat far from home," and he slapped his hand against the gun stalk and watched the deer go bounding into the deeper forest gloom.

A long two miles brought him to the crest of the hill, from which he saw the surface of a big river showing between the lower trees. Another half mile, very rough, brought him down to the river's margin; he turned to the right and presently the timber and the hill rolled out into the meadowlands. Directly over the river he saw a cabin in a clearing, and saw a girl at the break of the bluff watching him. He looked at her and suffered his short shock of disappointment to find a house and people here, for he had been until this moment a lone explorer pushing through a wild and empty place.

At such a distance he would not clearly see her face; she was about his size, and she stared at him with a motionless interest. He stirred his feet in the soft earth and he raised his hand and waved it, but she continued to look at him, not answering, and in a little while he turned and followed the open meadows as they bent around the toe of the dark hill and reached home before noon.

His father said, "What did you see?"

"The river's on the other side of the hill, but it's easier to go around the hill. I saw a deer."

"That's all?"

"And a cabin across the river," said Tom. "There was a girl in the yard."

John Mercy looked to his wife. "Now," he said quietly, "there's one neighbor," and waited for her answer.

She looked at him, reluctant to be pleased. "How far away?"

Young Tom said, "More than an hour, I guess."

His mother said, "If they saw you, they'll come to visit...and it's a terrible camp they'll see...Caroline, go scrub and change your dress. I've got to fix your hair." Suddenly she was irritably energetic, moving around to put away the scattered pans and the loose things lying under the canvas shelter.

John Mercy went toward a pile of saplings roughly cut into rafters; he cast a secret glance of benevolence at young Tom. Something had pleased him. He said, "We'll get these on in short order."

The saplings went up and crosspoles were set across them. The first row of shakes was laid when a man's strong halloo came ringing in from the meadow and a family moved through the trees, man and wife, two tall boys carrying sacks, and the girl young Tom noticed across the river.

The man said in a great, grumbling voice, "Neighbor, by the Lord, we could of saved you sweat on that cabin if we'd known you were here. Teal is my name. Iowa."

Talk broke through this quiet like a sudden storm. The two women moved beyond the wagon, and young Tom heard their voices rush back and forth in tumbling eagerness. The men were at the cabin.

Teal said, "Boys, you're idle. This man needs shakes for his roof. Go split 'em. It's a-going to rain, Mercy, and when it rains here, it's the world drowned out. The drops are big as banty eggs. They bust like ripe watermelons, they splatter, they splash. You're soaked, your shoes squash, you steam like a kettle on a fire. Boys, don't stand there. Mercy and me will lay on what shakes that's cut."

The Teal girl stood in front of young Tom and stared at him with direct curiosity. She was not quite his height; she was berry brown, with small freckles on her nose, and her hair hung down behind in one single braid. Caroline cautiously moved forward and looked to the Teal girl, and suddenly put out a hand and touched her dress. The Teal girl took Caroline's hand, but she kept her eyes on young Tom.

"I saw you," she said.

"What's your name?"

"Mary," said the Teal girl, and turned with the quickest motion and walked toward the older women.

The Teal boys worked on shakes, one splitting, one drawing the cedar panels down with the knife. The wind lifted and the roar of it was the dashing of giant cataracts all through the deep places in the forest; the men talked steadily as they worked. The smell of frying steak—brought by the Teals—was in the air to tantalize young Tom. He leaned against a tree and watched Mary Teal from the corner of his eye, then turned and walked away from the trees to the falls of the creek and squatted at the edge of the pool, his shadow sending the loafing trout into violent crisscross flight. Gray clouds ran low over the land and a deepening haze crawled forward. He hunched himself together, like a savage over a fire; he listened into the wind and waited for the scurrying shapes of the enemy to come trotting in war file out of the misty willow clumps. He sat there a long while, the day dull around him. The wind increased and the pool's silver surface showed the pocking of rain. His mother's voice called him back to mealtime.

He ate by the fire, listening to the voices of the older people go on and on. His mother's face was red from the heat of the fire, and her eyes were bright and she was smiling; his father sat comfortably under the cedar tree, thawed by the company. It was suddenly half dark, the rain increasing, and the Teals rose and spoke their farewells and filed off through the trees, Mr. Teal's last cheerful call returning to them.

Silence returned; loneliness deepened.

His mother said, "It was good to see people."

"They'll be fine neighbors," his father said.

His mother's face tightened. She looked over the flames and suddenly seemed to remember her fears. "Four miles away," she said, and turned to the dishes on the camp table. She grew brisk. "Tom, I want water. Stack these dishes, Caroline, and come out of the rain."

John Mercy went into the darkness beyond the cabin and built his work fire; lying awake in bed, young Tom heard his father's mallet steadily splitting out shakes, and he continued to hear the sound in his sleep.


BY morning a great wind cried across the world. John Mercy lighted the campfire and cooked breakfast for the women within the wagon. He laid on heavy logs for the fire's long burning and took a piece of rope and the ax and hammer and nails. "We have got a chore to do at the river," he said to young Tom. "You pack the gun." They skirted the foot of the hill, trailing beside a creek stained muddy by the storm. The meadow turf was spongy underfoot and the southwest wind roughly shoved them forward through sheets of fat raindrops sparkling in the mealy light. When they reached the river they saw a lamp burning in the window of the Teal house, but John Mercy swung to a place where the hill's timber met the bluff of the stream.

"There will come a time," he said, "when I'll have to send you to the Teals' for help. You'll need a raft to cross."

They cut down and trimmed six saplings for a raft bed, bound them with two crosspieces nailed in. A pole, chipped flat at one end, made an oar. Then John Mercy tied the rope to the raft and towed it upstream a hundred yards beyond the Teal house. He drew it half from the water and secured the rope to an overhanging tree and laid the oar in the brush. "You'll drift as you paddle," he said.

Homeward-bound, the wind came at them face on. Young Tom bent against it, hearing his father's half-shouted words, "It ought to be a month or more before the baby's due. But we're alone out here, and accidents come along. We've got to expect those things. No sensible man watches his feet hit ground. He looks ahead to see what kind of ground they'll hit next."

They came around a bend of the creek and heard a massive cannon crack of sound in the hills above them, and the ripping fall of a tree; its jarring collision with the earth ran out to them. They pressed on, John Mercy's pace quickening as though a new thought disturbed him. High in the air was an echo like the crying of a bird, lasting only a moment and afterward shredded apart by the storm, but it rose again thinner and wilder and became a woman's voice screaming.

John Mercy's body broke from its channeled steadiness and he rushed around the last bend of the hill, past the pool of the falls and into the cabin clearing. Young Tom followed, the gun across his chest. Through the trees he saw a figure by the campfire, not his mother's figure, but a dark head and a dark face standing above some kind of cloak. His father stopped at the fire before the stranger; reaching the scene, young Tom discovered that the stranger was an Indian. His mother stood back against the wagon with a butcher knife in her hand; her face shocked him, white and strange-stretched as it was.

He lifted the gun, waiting. The Indian was old and his cheeks were round holes rimmed by jawbone and temple. His eyes were sick. His hand, stretched through the blanket, was like the foot of a bird, nothing but bone and wrinkled dark flesh. He spoke something, he pointed at the food locker. For a moment—for a time-stopped space in which the acid clarity of this scene ate its way so deeply into young Tom's memory that ninety years of living neither changed nor dimmed a detail of it—he watched the latent danger rise around his father's mouth and flash in his eyes; then, with complete unexpectedness, his father turned to the grub box and found half a loaf of bread. He laid it in the Indian's fingers—those fingers closing down until they almost disappeared in the bread. His father pointed at the gun in young Tom's hand and pointed back to the Indian, snapping down his thumb as though firing; he seized the Indian at the hips, lifting him like a half-emptied sack, walked a few steps and dropped him and gave him an onward push. The Indian went away without looking behind him, his shoulders bent.

His mother's voice, high-pitched and breathless, drew young Tom's attention. She was shaking, and in her eyes was great wildness. "I don't want to be here! I didn't want to come! Mercy, you've got to take me home! I want my old house back! I want my people! I'll die here!"

John Mercy said, "Tom, take your sister for a walk."

Caroline stood in the doorway of the cabin, frightened by the scene. Young Tom went over to catch her hand. The half-covered roof kept Caroline dry, and he stood indecisively under this shelter disliking to leave it, yet compelled by his father's order.

John Mercy lifted his wife into his arms, speaking, "The creature was harmless. There are no bad Indians around here. I know the weather's poor and there's no comfort, but I'll have the roof on the cabin by tonight." He carried her into the wagon, still talking.

Young Tom heard his mother's voice rising again, and his father's patient answering. He clung to Caroline's hand and watched the rain-swept world beyond the cabin and saw no other shelter to which he might go. He was hard pressed to make up his mind, and when his father came out of the wagon, he said in self- defense, "Caroline would get awfully wet if I took her for a walk."

John Mercy said, "You did right. Caroline, go keep your mother company." He looked to the unfinished roof, he drew a hand down across his waster-crusted beard, and for a moment he remained stone-still, his whole body sagged down with its accumulation of weariness. He drew a long breath and straightened. "Soon as I finish the roof, Tom, we'll line the fireplace with clay. I'll need some straw to mix with the clay. You go along the creek where the old hay's rotted down. Bring me several swatches of it."

The rain walked over the earth in constant sheets, beating down grass and weeds and running vines; the creek grew violent between its banks and the increased falls dropped roaring into its pool. Bearing his loads of dead grass to the cabin, young Tom watched his father lay the last rows of shakes on the roof and cap the ridge with boards hewn out earlier by the late firelight; afterward John Mercy, working faster against the fading day, went beside the creek to an undercut bank and shoveled out its clay soil, carrying it back to the cabin by bucket. He cooked a quick supper and returned to the cabin, mixing clay and dead grass stems, and coated the wood fireplace and its chimney with this mortar. He built a small fire, which, by drying the mud, would slowly season it to a brick-hard lining.

Throughout the night, fitfully waking, young Tom heard the dull thumping of a hammer, and twice heard his mother call out, "Mercy, come to bed!" At daybreak young Tom found a canvas door at the cabin; inside, a fire burned on the dirt hearth and a kettle steamed from the crane. The crevices between logs were mud-sealed, the table and grub box and benches had been brought in. Standing before the fire, young Tom heard the wind search the outer wall and fall away, and suddenly the warmth of the place thawed the coldness which lay beneath his skin. He heard his mother come in, and he turned to see his parents standing face to face, almost like strangers.

His mother said, "Mercy, did you sleep at all?"

His father's answer was somehow embarrassed. "I had to keep the fire alive, so the mud would dry right. Today I'll get the puncheons on the floor and we can move the beds in." In a still gentler voice, the uncertainness of apology in it, his father added, "Maybe, if you shut your eyes and think how all this will look five years from now—"

She cut him off with the curt swing of her body, and walked to the fire. Stooping with a slowness so unlike her, she laid the Dutch oven against the flame and went to the grub box. She put her yellow mixing bowl on the table, she got her flour and her shortening and her salt. She stood a moment over the mixing bowl, not looking at John Mercy. "As long as I can do my share, I'll do it. Tom, fetch me the pail of water."


HE stood with his father at the break of the trees, viewing the yellow-gray turf of the meadow, and the plowed ground beyond it, and the valley floor running away to the great condensed wall of mist. He knew, from the dead gentleness of tone, that his father was very tired; it was not like him to waste time speaking of the future. "The orchard will go right in front of this spot," his father said. "That will be pretty to look at from the house. The house will stand where we're standing. These firs will go down." He was silent, drawing the future forward and finding comfort in it. "All this is free—all this land. But it's up to a man to make something out of it. So there's nothing free. There never is. We'll earn every acre we get. Don't trust that word 'free.' Don't believe it. You'll never own anything you didn't pay for. But what you pay for is yours. You've got it while other men wait around for something free, and die with nothing. Now, then, we have got to cut down some small firs, about eight inches through. We'll split them in half for floor puncheons."

He turned, walking slower than usual; he searched the trees, nodding at one or the other, and stopped at a thin fir starved by the greater firs around it; its trunk ran twenty feet without a branch. "That one," he said, and went to the cabin wall for his ax. "Tom," he said, "I want you to go up in the hills and see how close you can find a ledge of rock. That's for the fireplace floor." He faced the tree, watching the wind whip its top; he made an undercut on the side toward which he wished the tree to fall, and squared himself away to a steady chopping.

Young Tom passed the cabin, upward bound into the semi- darkness of the hill; the great trees groaned in their swaying, and their shaken branches let down ropy spirals of rain. It was like walking into a tunnel full of sound. His overcoat grew heavy with water which, dripping on his trousers legs, turned them into ice-cold bands; his shoes were mushy. Behind him he heard the first crackling of the tree going down, and he turned and saw his father running. The tree, caught by the wind, was falling the wrong way. He shouted against the wind; his father looked behind, saw the danger and jumped aside. The tree, striking a larger fir, bounced off, and young Tom saw its top branches whip out and strike his father to the ground. His father shouted, buried somewhere beneath that green covering.

His mother came crying out of the cabin. "Mercy! Mercy!" She stumbled and caught herself, and rushed on, fighting the branches away as she reached the tree.

When he got there, he saw his father lying with both legs beneath the trunk. The branches, first striking, had broken the force of the trunk's fall; and then they had shattered, to let the trunk down upon his father who lay on an elbow with his lips the color of gray flour paste. Young Tom never knew until then how piercing a gray his father's eyes were.

His mother cried, "Your legs! Oh, God, Mercy!" She bent over him, she seized the trunk of the tree and she stiffened under her straining. John Mercy's voice was a vast shout of warning, "Martha, don't do that!" His arm reached out and struck her on the hip. "Let go!" She drew back and laid both arms over her stomach, a shock of pain pressing her face into its sharp angles. "Oh, Mercy," she said, "it's too late!" and stared down at him in terror.

Young Tom raced to the cabin wall, got the shovel and rushed back; a branch interfered with his digging. He found the ax, thrown ten yards away by Mercy in his flight; he returned to cut the limb away. Mercy lay still, as though he were listening. He watched his wife, and he put a hand over his eyes and seemed to be thinking; the impact of the ax on the trunk threw twinges of pain through him, but he said nothing until young Tom had finished.

"Give me the shovel," he said. "Now go get Mrs. Teal."

Young Tom stood irresolute. "You got to get out of there."

"Those legs," said John Mercy, and spoke of them as though they didn't belong to him, "are pinched. If they were broken, I'd know it...and they're not." He paused and a dead gray curtain of pain came down on his face; he suffered it and waited for it to pass. "Do as I tell you." Young Tom whirled and started away at a hard run, and was almost instantly checked and swung by his father's command, "You've got a long way to go, and you'll not do it starting that fast. Steady now. I've told you before. Think ahead."

Young Tom began again, trotting out upon the meadow; he looked back and saw his father awkwardly working with the shovel, sheltered by the outstretched apron of his mother. But even before young Tom ceased to look, she dropped the apron, put both hands before her face and walked toward the wagon.

The scene frightened him, and he broke into a dead run along the margin of the creek, and began to draw deep into his lungs for wind; he ran with his fists doubled, his arms lunging back and forth across his chest. A pain caught him in the side, and he remembered his father's advice and slowed to a dogtrot. He grew hot and stopped once to crawl down the bank of a creek for a drink, and was soon chilled by the wet ground against his stomach and the rain beating on his back.

After a rest of a minute he went on, stiffened by that short pause. The river willows at last broke through the rain mist forward, and the low shape of the Teal cabin. He crossed the last meadow and came to the bank; he hadn't forgotten the raft, but he wanted to save time. The wind was with him, carrying his shrill call over the water. He repeated it twice before the cabin door opened and Mrs. Teal stepped to the yard. Young Tom raised his arm, pointing behind him toward his home. Mrs. Teal waved back at him immediately and ran into the house.

Squatted on the bank, young Tom saw the three Teal men come out, lift a boat and carry it to the water; in a moment Mrs. Teal joined them, and the four came over the river. Mrs. Teal had a covered basket in her hand. She said, "Your mother, Tom?"

"My father's caught under a sapling that fell on him. That made mother sick."

Teal turned on his lank, Indian-dark sons. "Grit ahead and help him."

"Oh, Lord, Lord," said Mrs. Teal. "Take the basket, Nate. We've got to go fast. It's going to be unnatural."

Young Tom started after the Teal boys, they running away with a loose and ranging ease. "No," said Teal, "you stay with us. You've had runnin' enough. The boys are a pair of hounds; let 'em go."

They went forward, Mrs. Teal now and then speaking to herself with a soft exclamation of impatience. Otherwise there was no talk. The wind was against them and the rain beat down. Young Tom opened his mouth to let the great drops loosen his dry throat, and silently suffered the slow pace. The coming baby never entered his mind; it was his father lying under the tree that he thought of with dread, and when the creek began to bend around the toe of the hills, close by the falls, he ran ahead and reached the house.

His father had dug himself out from the trap; there was a little tunnel of earth where he had been. The two boys stood silently at the fire, and one of them motioned toward the cabin. Young Tom drew the doorway canvas back from the logs, looking in; his father had moved the bedstead from the wagon and had set it up near the cabin's fireplace. His mother was on it, groaning, and his father knelt at the bedside and held her hands. Young Tom retreated to the fire, watching the Teals come through the trees. Mrs. Teal seized the basket from her husband and went at once into the cabin; a moment later his father came out.

John Mercy said to Teal, "It's a good thing to have neighbors. I'm sorry I can't offer you coffee at this minute." He let his chin drop and he spread his hands before the fire and gravely watched it. The sockets of his eyes seemed deep and blackened; his mouth was a line straight and narrow across his skin.

"My friend," said Teal, "the first winter's always a bad one. Don't work so hard or you'll be twenty years older by spring."

He turned to the taller of his two sons. "Joe, take Mercy's gun and go fetch in a deer."

Young Tom heard his mother's sharp cry from the cabin. He moved away, he stood by the tree and stared at the trench in which his father had been, and noticed the marks scrubbed into the soft ground by his father's elbows. He walked along the tree and gave it a kick with his foot, and continued to the millpond. Here he squatted, watching the steamy rain mists pack tight along the willows of the creek. In the distance, a mile or so, a little timbered butte stood half concealed by the fog, seeming to ride free in the low sky. He tightened his muscles, waiting for the enemy to come single file through the brush, but then he thought of the old savage, so bony and stooped and unclean, who had seized the half loaf of bread, and his picture of a row of glistening copper giants was destroyed. He heard voices by the cabin, and rose and saw Mrs. Teal by the fire. He went back.

Mrs. Teal looked at him with her kindness. "Your mother's all right, Tom. You had a brother, but he wasn't meant to stay. You understand, Tom? It's meant that way and you oughtn't sorrow."

She meant the baby boy was dead. He thought about it and wanted to feel like crying, but he hadn't seen this boy and he didn't know anything about him, and didn't know what to cry for. It embarrassed him not to feel sad. He stood with his eyes on the fire.

Teal said to his other son, "That Methodist preacher is probably down at Mission Bottom, Pete. You go home, get the horse and go for him." He walked a little distance onward, speaking in a lower tone to his son. Then the son went on, and Teal turned back to the cabin and got the saw standing by the wall and went over to the fallen log. He called to young Tom, "Now then, let's not be idle men. Puncheons he wanted, wasn't it? We'll just get 'em ready while we wait."

A shot sounded deeper in the forest—one and no more, "There's your meat," said Teal. "You've seen the trout in the creek, ain't you? Mighty fat. Next summer there'll be quail all through those meadow thickets. What you've got to have is a horse for ridin'. Just a plain ten-dollar horse. I know where there's one."


THE minister arrived around noon the next day, and out of this wet and empty land the neighbors began to come, riding or walking in from all quarters of the mist-hidden valley, destroying forever young Tom's illusion of wilderness. They came from the scattered claims along the river, from French Prairie, from the upper part of the La Creole, from strangely named creeks and valleys as far as twenty miles away; the yard was filled with men, and women worked in the cabin and at the fire outside the cabin. Young Tom stared at strange boys running through the timber, and resented their trespassing; he heard girls giggling in the shelter of the wagon. It was a big meeting. A heavy man in buckskins, light of eye and powerfully voiced, strolled through the crowd and had a word for everyone. People visited and the talk was of the days of the wagon-train crossing, of land here and land there, of politics and the Hudson's Bay Company. A group of men walked along the break of the hill until they reached a knoll a hundred yards from the cabin. He watched them digging.

In a little while they returned, bringing quietness to the people. The minister came from the cabin, bareheaded in the rain. Mr. Teal followed, carrying a small bundle wrapped within a sheet and covered by a shawl; they went on toward the grave, and young Tom, every sense sharpened, heard the knocking of a hammer and the calling of a voice. The crowd moved over and his father walked from the cabin, carrying his mother. Young Tom saw Caroline alone at the cabin's doorway, crying; he went to her and got her hand and followed his father.

A little box stood at the grave, the minister by it; he had a book in his hand which he watched while the rain dripped down his long face. Young Tom's mother was on her feet, but she wasn't crying, though all the women around her were. The minister spoke a long while, it seemed to Tom. He held Caroline's hand and grew cold, waiting for the minister's words to end. Somebody said, "Amen," and the minister began a song, all the people joining.

Looking at his feet, young Tom felt the coldness run up his legs, and his chest was heavy and he, too, cried. As soon as the song was done, his father carried his mother back to the house and the crowd returned to the fire. A woman dumped venison steaks into a big kettle on the table, and cups and plates went around and the talk grew brisker than it had been before.

Young Tom said, "Caroline, you go into the wagon." From the corners of his eyes he saw men shoveling dirt into the grave; he thought about the grave and imagined the rains filling it with water, and the shawl and the white sheet growing black in the mud. He went over to the fallen log and sat on it.

He remained there, wholly lost in the forest of his imagination while the round-about neighbors, finished with eating and finished with visiting, started homeward through the dulling day. They went in scattered groups, as they had come, their strong calling running back and forth in the windy rain; and at last only the Teals remained. He saw Caroline and Mary Teal watching him through the front opening of the wagon. He rose and went around to the cabin, hearing the older Teals talking.

Mrs. Teal said, "I'm needed. We'll stay tonight."

Teal looked at his two tall sons. "You had best get at those puncheons. Mercy's legs will trouble him for a while. Tomorrow we are agoin' to knock down some trees for a barn lean-to."

Young Tom quietly drew back the canvas covering of the cabin's doorway. He was troubled about his mother and wanted to see her, and meant to go in. But what he saw suddenly shut him out and brought great embarrassment to him.

His father stood beside the bed, looking down, and young Tom heard him say, "I can't stay here when your heart's not in it. There is no pleasure in this work, and no point in looking ahead to what it'll be someday, if you don't feel it too. Well, you don't. We'll go home in the spring when it's possible to travel. That's what you want, I clearly know."

She was pale and her eyes were stretched perfectly round; her head rolled slightly, her voice was very small. "I couldn't leave now. I've got a baby buried here. It's a mighty hard way to come to love a country...to lose something in it. Mercy, put a railing round that grave. I have not been of much use, I know, and it's hurt me to see you work the way you've done. It will be better when I can get up and do what I can do."

John Mercy bent down and kissed his wife, and suddenly in young Tom the embarrassment became intolerable, for this was a thing he had never seen his people do before, and a thing he was to see again only twice so long as they lived. He pulled back and let the canvas fall into place; he thought he heard his father crying. He walked by the big kettle with its remaining chunks of fried venison steak. He took one, eating it like a piece of bread. Caroline and Mary Teal were now at the back end of the wagon, looking at him.

He said, "I know a big cave up on the hill."

Mary Teal came from the wagon, Caroline following; and the three walked into the woods, into the great sea swells of sound poured out by the rolling timber crowns. Mary gave him a sharp sidewise glance and smiled, destroying the strangeness between them and giving him a mighty feeling of comfort. The long, long years were beginning for Tom Mercy, and he was to see that smile so many times again in the course of his life, to be warmed and drawn on by it, to see tears shining through it, and broken thoughts hidden by it. To the last day of his life far out in another century, that smile—real or long after remembered—was his star, but like a star, there was a greater heat within it than he was ever to feel or to know.


THE END


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