Journey's End by Will Lillibridge
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.
At last he awoke.
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 nerveonce
upon a time.
Stevethe voice was as soft as the wide brown eyes, as the dainty
oval chinSteve, tell me what it is.
The man's hand, palm outward, dropped wearily, eloquently. That was
But tell me, the girl's chair came closer, so that she might have
touched him, you went to see the doctor?
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 waswas in spite of himself, the speaker paused to
moisten his lipsa dead man.
Not a word this time; not even a shrug.
Steve, youyou're notnot 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 Springat least I won'tnever.... 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 rememberwhat 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 openunder 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 chancea fighting chance. Once more the hopeless,
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
We poor folks are like rats in a trap when they turn the water
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
We can't do anything but take our medicine, Molliejust take our
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 minutefive minutesshe 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, butah, 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.
Whatwhat 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
likelike 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
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.
I've been teaching for eight years, and living at home all the
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. Anotherfearful, dependent, the
look of a child in the darktook its place.
Butalone, 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 morningI don't know why I did it; it seems now like
Providence pointing the wayI 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.
ButStevewe can each take up a quarter-sectionthree 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.
Mollieyou don't mean itnow, when I'mthis way! He arose, his
breath coming quick, a deep blot of red in the centre of each cheek.
It can't be true whenwhen 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 youjust once?
No, nonot 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
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 forwardupand her two soft hands brought
his face down to the level of her own.
Deliberately, voluntarily, she kissed him fair upon the lips.
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 nextespecially 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?
Molliemore 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 meyour friendAnnie.
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
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
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
SusieJack christened her Susie because she's a Siouxbecause 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.
Of courseSteve. 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
And Mollie, I didn't tell you allalmost the best. We're going
home, Jack says; going right away; this very week, maybe.
For a moment the dressing halted. I am very gladfor 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.
OrorMollie, 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
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 knewthat it was mere chancewhat
You swear you didn't?the grip tightenedyou swear it?
I swearoh, you're hurting me!
Mollie Babcock let her hands drop.
I believe youwearily. It seemed that everybody knew. God help
me! She sank to the bed, her face in her hands. I believe I'm going
MollieMollie Babcock! You mustn't talk soyou 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 amam 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
Mollie advanced a step. Don't you?
Annie found her voice.
No, no, no! Oh, Mollie, no, of course not! YouMollie 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 ismeyour 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 understandthank God, you never will
understandwhat 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 II 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 noneabsolutely none.
Molliepleadingly, 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-haireduntil 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 hateoh, 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 herenever,
never, never! Oh, Annie, I'm homesickdesperately, 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.
Buthaltinglyfor Steve's sakecertainly, 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. Ioh,
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.
Gogo! 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.
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
The buffalo grass rustled with the passage of her skirts. His eyes
lighted, the man seemed to grow in staturesix feet of sun-blessed,
primitive health. Now was the time
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, girlhe did not advance, merely stood
as he wasaren't you glad to see me? Won't youcome?
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 gladoh, so
glad! You startled me, that was all.
Mollie, girliehe lifted her at arms' length, joying in this
testimony of his renewed strength and manhoodI rode all last night
to get hereto see you. Are you happy, girlie, happy?
Yes, Steveher voice was chastened to a murmurII'm very
That completes my happiness. Drawing her tenderly to him, he
kissed her again and againhungrily, passionately; then, abruptly, he
fell to scrutinizing her, with a meaning that she was quick to
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, mannever! 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 youI know
now, Steve. And I'm the happiest, most contented woman in all the wide
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 campto Journey's End. I must tell Annie Warren just
as soon as ever I can find her.