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Journey's End by Will Lillibridge

I

“Steve!” It was the girl who spoke, but the man did not seem to hear. He was staring through the window, unseeingly, into the heart of his bitter foe, Winter. He sat silent, helpless.

“Steve!”

At last he awoke.

“Mollie!—girlie!”

An hour had passed since he left the doctor's office to reel and stagger drunkenly through the slush and the sleet, and the icy blasts, which bit cruelly into his very vitals.

Now he and Mollie were alone in the tiny library. Babcock had been warmed, washed, fed. Seemingly without volition on his part, he was before the hard-coal blaze, his feet on the fender, the light carefully shaded from his eyes. Once upon a time—

But Steve Babcock, master mechanic, had not lost his nerve—once upon a time.

“Steve”—the voice was as soft as the wide brown eyes, as the dainty oval chin—“Steve, tell me what it is.”

The man's hand, palm outward, dropped wearily, eloquently. That was all.

“But tell me,” the girl's chair came closer, so that she might have touched him, “you went to see the doctor?”

“Yes.”

“And he—?”

Again the silent, hopeless gesture, more fear-inspiring than words.

“Don't keep me in suspense, please.” A small hand was on the man's knee, now, frankly unashamed. “Tell me what he said.”

For an instant there was silence, then Babcock shrugged awkwardly, in an effort at nonchalance.

“He said I was—was—” in spite of himself, the speaker paused to moisten his lips—“a dead man.”

“Steve!”

Not a word this time; not even a shrug.

“Steve, you—you're not—not joking with me?”

Lower and lower, still in silence, dropped the man's chin.

“Steve,” in a steadier voice, “please answer me. You're not joking?”

“Joking!” At last the query had pierced the fear-dulled brain. “Joking! God, no! It's real, real, deadly real, that's what ... Oh, Mollie—!” Instinctively, as a child, the man's head had gone to the girl's lap. Though never before had they spoken of love or of marriage, neither noted the incongruity now. “It's all over. We'll never be married, never again get out into the country together, never even see the green grass next Spring—at least I won't—never.... Oh, Mollie, Mollie!” The man's back rose and fell spasmodically. His voice broke. “Mollie, make me forget; I can't bear to think of it. Can't! Can't!”

Not a muscle of the girl's body stirred; she made no sound. No one in advance would have believed it possible, but it was true. Five minutes passed. The man became quiet.

“Steve,” the voice was very even, “what else did the doctor say?”

“Eh?” It was the doddering query of an old man.

The girl repeated the question, slowly, with infinite patience, as though she were speaking to a child.

“What else did the doctor say?”

Her tranquillity in a measure calmed the man.

“Oh, he said a lot of things; but that's all I remember—what I told you. It was the last thing, and he kind of tilted back in his chair. The spring needed oil; it fairly screamed. I can hear it now.

“'Steve Babcock,' said he, 'you've got to go some place where it's drier, where the air's pure and clean and sweet the year round. Mexico's the spot for you, or somewhere in the Far West where you can spend all your time in the open—under the roof of Heaven.'

“He leaned forward, and again that cursed spring interrupted.

“'If you don't go, and go right away,' he said, 'as sure as I'm talking to you, you're a dead man.'”

Babcock straightened, and, leaden-eyed, looked dully into the blaze.

“Those,” he whispered, “were his last words.”

“And if you do go?”—very quietly.

“He said I had a chance—a fighting chance.” Once more the hopeless, deprecatory gesture.

“But what's the use? You know, as well as I, that I haven't a hundred dollars to my name. He might just as well have told me to go to the moon.

“We poor folks are like rats in a trap when they turn the water on—helpless. We—”

Babcock had wandered on, forgetting, for the moment, that it was his own case he was analyzing. Now of a sudden it recurred to him, cumulatively, crushingly and, as before, his head instinctively sought refuge.

“We can't do anything but take our medicine, Mollie—just take our medicine.”

Patter, patter sounded the sleet against the window-panes, mingling with the roar of the wind in the chimney, with the short, quick breaths of the man. In silence he reached out, took one of the girl's hands captive, and held it against his cheek.

For a minute—five minutes—she did not stir, did not utter a sound; only the soft oval face tightened until its gentle outlines grew sharp, and the brown skin almost white.

All at once her lips compressed; she had reached a decision.

“Steve, sit up, please; I can talk to you better so.” Pityingly, protectingly, she placed an arm around him and drew him close; not as man to maid, but—ah, the pity of it!—as a feeble child to its mother.

“Listen to what I say. To-day is Thursday. Next Monday you are going West, as the doctor orders.”

“What—what did you say, Mollie?”

“Next Monday you go West.”

“You mean, after all, I'm to have a chance? I'm not going to die like—like a rat?”

For a moment, a swiftly passing moment, it was the old vital Steve who spoke; the Babcock of a year ago; then, in quick recession, the mood passed.

“You don't know what you're talking about, girl. I can't go, I tell you. I haven't the money.”

“I'll see that you have the money, Steve.”

“You?”

“I've been teaching for eight years, and living at home all the while.”

The man, surprised out of his self centredness, looked wonderingly, unbelievingly, at her.

“You never told me, Mollie.”

“No, I never saw the need before.”

The man's look of wonder passed. Another—fearful, dependent, the look of a child in the dark—took its place.

“But—alone, Mollie! A strange land, a strange people, a strange tongue! Oh, I hate myself, girl, hate myself! I've lost my nerve. I can't go alone. I can't.”

“You're not going alone, Steve.” There was a triumphant note in her voice that thrilled the man through and through. She continued:

“Only this morning—I don't know why I did it; it seems now like Providence pointing the way—I read in the paper about the rich farm lands in South Dakota that are open for settlement. I thought of you at the time, Steve; how such a life might restore your health; but it seemed so impossible, so impracticable, that I soon forgot about it.

“But—Steve—we can each take up a quarter-section—three hundred and twenty acres, altogether. Think of it! We'll soon be rich. There you will have just the sort of outdoor life the doctor says you need.”

He looked at her, marvelling.

“Mollie—you don't mean it—now, when I'm—this way!” He arose, his breath coming quick, a deep blot of red in the centre of each cheek. “It can't be true when—when you'd never let me say anything before.”

“Yes, Steve, it's true.”

She was so calm, so self-possessed and withal so determined, that the man was incredulous.

“That you'll marry me? Say it, Mollie!”

“Yes, I'll marry you.”

“Mollie!” He took a step forward, then of a sudden, abruptly halted.

“But your parents,” in swift trepidation. “Mollie, they—”

“Don't let's speak of them,”—sharply. Then in quick contrition, her voice softened; once more it struck the maternal note.

“Pardon me, I'm very tired. Come. We have a spare room; you mustn't go home to-night.”

The man stopped, coughed, advanced a step, then stopped again.

“Mollie, I can't thank you; can't ever repay you—”

“You mustn't talk of repaying me,” she said shyly, her dark face coloring. It was the first time during the interview that she had shown a trace of embarrassment.

“Come,” she said, meeting his look again, her hand on the door; “it's getting late. You must not venture out.”

A moment longer the man hesitated, then obeyed. Not until he was very near, so near that he could touch her, did a vestige of his former manhood appear. He paused, and their eyes were locked in a soul-searching look. Then all at once his arm was round her waist, his face beside her face.

“Mollie, girl, won't you—just once?”

“No, no—not that! Don't ask it.” Passionately the brown hands flew to the brown cheeks, covering them protectingly. But at once came thought, the spirit of sacrifice, and contrition for the involuntary repulse.

“Forgive me, Steve; I'm unaccountable to-night.” Her voice, her manner were constrained, subdued. She accepted his injured look without comment, without further defence. She saw the perplexed look on his thin face; then she reached forward—up—and her two soft hands brought his face down to the level of her own.

Deliberately, voluntarily, she kissed him fair upon the lips.

II

The sun was just peering over the rim of the prairie, when Mrs. Warren turned in from the dusty road, picked her way among the browning weeds to the plain, unpainted, shanty-like structure which marked the presence of a homesteader. Except to the east, where stood the tents and shacks of the new railroad's construction gang, not another human habitation broke the dull, monotonous rolling sea of prairie.

Mrs. Warren pounded vigorously upon the rough boards of the door.

A full half-minute she waited; then she glared petulantly at the unresponsive barrier, and pounded upon it again.

Ordinarily she would have waited patiently, for the multitude of duties of one day often found Mrs. Babcock still weary with the dawning of the next—especially since Steve had allied himself with Jack Warren's engineering corps.

Funds had run low, and the two valetudinarians had reached the stage of desperation where they were driven to acknowledge failure, when Jack Warren happened along, in the van of the new railroad.

The work of home-building, from the raw material, had been too much for Steve's enfeebled physique; so it happened that Mollie performed most of his share, as well as all of her own. Yet Steve toiled to the limit of his endurance, and each day, at sundown, flung himself upon his blanket, spread beneath the stars, dog-tired, fairly trembling with weariness. But he soon developed a prodigious appetite, and, after the first few weeks, slept each night like a dead man, until sunrise.

This morning Annie Warren was too full of her errand to pause an instant. She stood a moment listening, one ear to the splintery, unfinished boards, then—

“Mollie,” she ventured, “are you awake?”

No answer.

“Mollie”—more insistent, “wake up and let me in.”

Still no response.

“Mollie,” for the third time, “it is I, Annie; may I enter?”

“Come.” The voice was barely audible.

Within the uncomfortably low, dim room the visitor impetuously crossed the earthen floor half-way to a rude bunk built against the wall, then paused, her round, childlike face soberly lengthening.

“Mollie, you have been crying!” she charged, resentfully, as if the act constituted a personal offence. “You can't deceive me. The pillow is soaked, and your eyes are red.” She came forward, impulsively, and threw herself on the bed, her arm about the other.

“What is it? Tell me—your friend—Annie.”

Beneath the light coverlet, Mollie Babcock made a motion of deprecation, almost of repugnance.

“It is nothing. Please don't pay any attention to me.”

“But it is something. Am I not your friend?”

For a moment neither spoke. Annie Warren all at once became conscious that the other woman was looking at her in a way she had never done before.

“Assuredly you are my friend, Annie. But just the same, it's nothing.” The look altered until it became a smile.

“Tell me, instead, why you are here,” Mollie went on. “It is not usual at this time of day.”

Annie Warren felt the rebuff, and she was hurt.

“It is nothing.” The visitor was on her feet, her voice again resentful; her chin was held high, while her long lashes drooped. “Pardon me for intruding, for—”

“Annie!”

No answer save the quiver of a sensitive red lip.

“Annie, child, pardon me. I wouldn't for the world hurt you; but it is so hard, what you ask.” Mollie Babcock rose, now, likewise. “However, if you wish—”

“No, no!” The storm was clearing. “It was all my fault. I know you'd rather not.” She had grasped Mollie's arms, and was forcing her backward, toward the bunk, gently, smilingly. “Be still. I've something to tell you. Are you quite ready to listen?”

“Yes, I'm quite ready.”

“You haven't the slightest idea what it is? You couldn't even guess?”

“No, I couldn't even guess.”

“I'll tell you, then.” The plump Annie was bubbling like a child before a well-filled Christmas stocking. “It's Jack: he's coming this very day. A big, fierce Indian brought the letter this morning.” She sat down tailor fashion on the end of the bunk. “He nearly ate up Susie—Jack christened her Susie because she's a Sioux—because she wouldn't let him put the letter right into my own hand. That's why I'm up so early.”

She looked slyly at the woman on the bed.

“Who do you suppose is coming with him?” she asked.

“I'm sure I don't know,” in a tone of not caring, either.

“Guess, Mollie!”

“Steve?”

“Of course—Steve. You knew all the time, only you wouldn't admit it. Oh, I'm so glad! I want to hug some one. Isn't it fine?”

“Yes, fine indeed. But you don't mean that you want to hug Steve?”

“No, goose. You know I meant Jack; but I—” She regarded her friend doubtfully. But Mollie Babcock was dressing rapidly, and her face was averted.

“And Mollie, I didn't tell you all—almost the best. We're going home, Jack says; going right away; this very week, maybe.”

For a moment the dressing halted. “I am very glad—for you,” said Mollie, in an even voice.

“Glad, for me!” mimickingly, baitingly. “Mollie Babcock, if I didn't know you better, I'd say you were envious.”

Mollie said nothing.

“Or weren't glad your husband is coming.”

Still no word.

“Or—or—Mollie, what have I done?” Annie cried in dismay. “Don't cry so; I was only joking. Of course you know that I didn't mean that you envied our good luck, or that you wouldn't be crazy to see Steve.”

“But it's so. God help me, it's so!”

“Mollie!” Mrs. Warren was aghast. “Forgive me! I'm ashamed of myself!”

“There's nothing to forgive; it's so.”

“Please don't.” The two were very close, very tense, but not touching. “Don't say any more. I didn't hear—”

“You did hear. And you suspected, or you wouldn't have suggested!”

“Mollie, I never dreamed. I—”

Of a sudden the older woman faced about. Seizing the other by the shoulders, she held her prisoner. She fixed the frightened woman's eyes with a stern look.

“Will you swear that you never knew—that it was mere chance—what you said?”

“Yes.”

“You swear you didn't?”—the grip tightened—“you swear it?”

“I swear—oh, you're hurting me!”

Mollie Babcock let her hands drop.

“I believe you”—wearily. “It seemed that everybody knew. God help me!” She sank to the bed, her face in her hands. “I believe I'm going mad!”

“Mollie—Mollie Babcock! You mustn't talk so—you mustn't!” The seconds ticked away. Save for the quick catch of suppressed sobs, not a sound was heard in the mean, austere little room; not an echo penetrated from the outside world.

Then suddenly the brown head lifted from the pillow, and Mollie faced almost fiercely about.

“You think I am—am mad already.” Then, feverishly: “Don't you?”

Helpless at a crisis, Annie Warren could only stand silent, the pink, childish under-lip held tight between her teeth to prevent a quiver. Her fingers played nervously with the filmy lace shawl about her shoulders.

Mollie advanced a step. “Don't you?”

Annie found her voice.

“No, no, no! Oh, Mollie, no, of course not! You—Mollie—” Instinct all at once came to her rescue. With a sudden movement she gathered the woman in her arms, her tender heart quivering in her voice and glistening in her eyes. “Mollie, I can't bear to have you so! I love you, Mollie. Tell me what it is—me—your friend, Annie.”

Mollie's lips worked without speech, and Annie became insistent.

“Tell me, Mollie. Let me share the ache at your heart. I love you!”

Here was the crushing straw to one very, very heartsick and very weary. For the first time in her solitary life, Mollie Babcock threw reticence to the winds, and admitted another human being into the secret places of her confidence.

“If you don't think me already mad, you will before I'm through.” Like a caged wild thing that can not be still, she was once more on her feet, vibrating back and forth like a shuttle. “I'm afraid of myself at times, afraid of the future. It's like the garret used to be after dark, when we were children: it holds only horrors.

“Child, child!” She paused, her arms folded across her breast, her throat a-throb. “You can't understand—thank God, you never will understand—what the future holds for me. You are going back home; back to your own people, your own life. You've been here but a few months. To you it has been a lark, an outing, an experience. In a few short weeks it will be but a memory, stowed away in its own niche, the pleasant features alone remaining vivid.

“Even, while here, you've never known the life itself. You've had Jack, the novelty of a strange environment, your anticipation of sure release. You are merely like a sightseer, locked for a minute in a prison-cell, for the sake of a new sensation.

“You can't understand, I say. You are this, and I—I am the life-prisoner in the cell beyond, peering at you through the bars, viewing you and your mock imprisonment.”

Once more the speaker was in motion, to and fro, to and fro, in the shuttle-trail. “The chief difference is, that the life-prisoner has a hope of pardon; I have none—absolutely none.”

“Mollie”—pleadingly, “you mustn't. I'll ask Jack to give Steve a place at home, and you can go—”

“Go!” The bitterness of her heart welled up and vibrated in the word. “Go! We can't go, now or ever. It's death to Steve if we leave. I've got to stay here, month after month, year after year, dragging my life out until I grow gray-haired—until I die!” She halted, her arms tensely folded, her breath coming quick. Only the intensity of her emotion saved the attitude from being histrionic. In a sudden outburst, she fiercely apostrophized:

“Oh, Dakota! I hate you, I hate you! Because I am a woman, I hate you! Because I would live in a house, and not in this endless dreary waste of a dead world, I hate you! Because your very emptiness and solitude are worse than a prison, because the calls of the living things that creep and fly over your endless bosom are more mournful than death itself, I hate you! Because I would be free, because I respect sex, because of the disdain for womanhood that dwells in your crushing silence, I hate—oh, my God, how I hate you!” She threw her arms wide, in a frantic gesture of rebellion.

“I want but this,” she cried passionately: “to be free; free, as I was at home, in God's country. And I can never be so here—never, never, never! Oh, Annie, I'm homesick—desperately, miserably homesick! I wish to Heaven I were dead!”

Annie Warren, child-woman that she was, was helpless, when face to face with the unusual. Her senses were numbed, paralyzed. One thought alone suggested itself.

“But”—haltingly—“for Steve's sake—certainly, for him—”

“Stop! As you love me, stop!” Again no suggestion of the histrionic in the passionate voice. “Don't say that now. I can't stand it. I—oh, I don't mean that! Forget that I said it. I'm not responsible this morning. Please leave me.”

She was prostrate on the bed at last, her whole body a-tremble.

“But—Mollie—”

“Go—go!” cried Mollie, wildly. “Please go!”

Awed to silence, Annie Warren stared helplessly a moment, then gathered her shawl about her shoulders, and slipped silently away.

III

Mollie Babcock was listlessly going about some imperative domestic task, behind the mean structure which represented home for her, when Steve came upon her.

She was not looking for him. He had been gone so long, out there somewhere, in that abomination of desolation, building a railroad, that the morbid fancy had come to dwell with her that the prairie had swallowed him, and that she would never see him more. So he came upon her unawares.

The buffalo grass rustled with the passage of her skirts. His eyes lighted, the man seemed to grow in stature—six feet of sun-blessed, primitive health. Now was the time—

“Mollie!”

There was a sudden gasp from the woman. With a hand to her throat, she wheeled swiftly round, confronting him.

“I'm back at last. Aren't you glad to see me?”

She was as pallid as an Easter-lily; pallid, despite the fact that she had decided, and had nerved herself for his coming.

Steve was puzzled. “Mollie, girl”—he did not advance, merely stood as he was—“aren't you glad to see me? Won't you—come?”

There was a long space of silence; the woman did not stir. Then a strange, inarticulate cry was smothered in her throat. Swiftly, all but desperately, she stumbled blindly forward, although her eyes were shining with the enchantment of his presence; close to him she came, flung her arms around his broad chest, and strained him to her with the abandon of a wild creature.

“Steve!” tensely, “how could you? Glad? You know I'm glad—oh, so glad! You startled me, that was all.”

“Mollie, girlie”—he lifted her at arms' length, joying in this testimony of his renewed strength and manhood—“I rode all last night to get here—to see you. Are you happy, girlie, happy?”

“Yes, Steve”—her voice was chastened to a murmur—“I—I'm very happy.”

“That completes my happiness.” Drawing her tenderly to him, he kissed her again and again—hungrily, passionately; then, abruptly, he fell to scrutinizing her, with a meaning that she was quick to interpret.

“Isn't there something you've forgotten, Mollie?”

“No, I've not forgotten, Steve.” She drew the bearded face down to her own. Had Steve been observant he would have noticed that the lips so near his own were trembling; but he was not observant, this Steve Babcock. Once, twice and again she kissed him.

“I think I'll never forget, Steve, man—never!” With one hand she indicated the prairie that billowed away to the skyline. “This is our home, and I love it because it is ours. I shall always have you—I know now, Steve. And I'm the happiest, most contented woman in all the wide world.”

She drew away with a sudden movement, her face aglow with love and happiness. She was pulling at his arm with all her might.

“Where are you going?” he asked, surprised.

“Over to the camp—to Journey's End. I must tell Annie Warren just as soon as ever I can find her.”

 
 
 

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