A Life Partnership
A Life Partnership
BY ROY NORTON
FOR thirty years they had been "pardners," had worked or played, enjoyed or suffered, and fed or starved together. Neither the desert's vastness, the mountain's ruggedness, nor the forest's impenetrableness had been strong enough to separate them, but now that mightier thing, the love of woman, threatened to come between.
They were alike in everything, even to birthdays, and if one asked their ages, they responded in brave chorus: "Sixty-five. Yes, we're sixty-five," and then with grave jubilation they might volunteer the further information that they "were goin' on sixty-six; yes, goin' on sixty-six."
They looked alike, as do aged married couples who have long dwelt in complete community of thought and interest. Their voices had the high, thin, quavering pitch of age, and were in unison; each had white hair, white eyebrows, and white beards, carefully trimmed alike in a style of their own, with the long upper lip smooth and the cheeks shaven to the corners of the lower lip and downward.
They always dressed alike, as if they were twin boys whose mother bought everything in pairs; same blue denim overalls, faded to a spotted kind of whiteness by much washing, same "hickory" shirts, same everything—sometimes patched in the same places. And that they had acquired the habit of thinking alike was shown in this love-affair.
Singularly enough it all came about, as good old Hugh McCarthy, who owned the claim farther up the cañon, said, because of "the buttin' in of civilization." And Hugh ought to know, because for ten years he had been their only neighbor within a day's ride.
The Ahpalino, as it meandered along the line trying to find whether it flowed in California or Oregon, wasn't very rich in gold; "jest fair diggin's—yes, jest fair diggin's," the partners had truthfully told the forlorn-looking Jim Sands, when he first appeared on the scene with The Woman, then his wife.
Mr. and Mrs. Jim, "not hankerin' much fur riches," staked as their claim the regulation number of feet a mile below. Then, as Hugh said, "Jim had caused a heap of trouble by gettin' up and dyin'." That was less than a year after his arrival, before his ditch and flume for "piping" had been completed, and therefore before there was any gold-dust in any receptacle in any place in the Sands cabin.
Neither tears nor weeds were affected by the widow; she was a little too used to "tough luck" and a little too angular and sharp-featured for either. One of the kind of women who seem to take nearly everything as a matter of course and all in the day's work. But the partners were tender-hearted old fellows, as becomes men whose lives had been passed out in God's good open, and from the time of Sands's death their trouble began.
Life with them had assumed great method, passing along fixed lines and within definite times. It seemed natural to always arise at six o'clock in the morning, turn the stream of water for hydraulic mining hissing and roaring against the bank at seven-thirty, "shut her off" at eleven-thirty, and so on, until at just seven-fifteen each evening—in the summer when all this happened—they could be found pottering around the truck-patch back of the cabin on the hill.
This excellent routine being broken upon, through the necessity of "lookin' after the widder" each twilight after the day's toil, was really the first little crack within the fife. It isn't on record any—where whether Abner or Ezra was the one who first thought of going to her assistance, but it's most probable that both thought of it at the same time. The effect, however, was quite obvious.
Heretofore their cabin looked trimmer and neater. It was perched on a little flat where the gulch was broadest, and, with the big, solemn, companionable hills holding it in kindly fashion in their lap, it seemed part of the natural scene. They had taken much pains with it at odd times, had these two old fellows; had a kind of a lawn, and a gravelled walk, and old-fashioned flowers like hollyhocks and others that you don't know the names of any more; apple-tree or two, and lots of berry bushes.
Now that there was a widow a mile down the cañon, the grass didn't look so nice and the bushes weren't so trim, and it didn't take a pair of field-glasses to find a weed here and there in the garden. That's what Hugh said.
It went on this way quite a while, until after they had cut wood enough to run the Sands derelict through the winter and were ready to haul and pile it in her cache. And in the mean time the cumulative result was that both loved the widow, and both wanted to marry her, and each kept quiet because he didn't want to hurt his partner's feelings.
They nearly broke each other's heart getting along as far as the winter's-wood stage. Things went wrong that never had before; Abner would cook the tea too much, or forget that he was frying beans and let them singe. Ezra, in his abstraction, would forget to empty the tin wash-basin, and one night left his boots in the middle of the floor instead of in the corner where they had invariably gone for ten years.
The widow was a willing sort, and would probably have just as soon accepted one as the other. It was she who finally did the business. She cornered Abner alone, one evening, while Ezra was in her cabin mending a shelf. She "allowed" it would be pretty lonesome for her when snow fell, and wished she lived nearer them, where they could both use the same wood-pile. It got to Abner. He told her he'd ask Ezra about it, and he did.
That night, after they had trudged through the darkness to their own cabin, lighted the lamp and taken their regular seats in regular places on opposite sides of it, Abner broke silence.
"Ezry," he said, with an odd little quaver in his voice, "you've got to marry the widder. I give you my consent. 'Tain't fair to a woman to pay her as much attention as you have without marryin' her. Folks 'll talk."
Ezra nearly fell off his stool. The "talk" argument got him, although there hadn't been a living being up or down the cañon since Jim Sands died. Such fear hath scandal! And the worst of it was, although he wanted mightily to marry the widow, he didn't want to leave Abner, and it hurt his heart that Abner wanted to "marry him off that-a-way." His jaw dropped until his mouth hung open, his eyes filled to the brim with tears, and he looked really old. He sat for a long time and gazed at the floor, a picture of utter dejection.
"Abner," he said, after he could trust himself to speak, "I ain't done nothin' to you, hev I? Ye don't want to get shet of me—do you?"
Then they both broke down about as far as they could, neither wishing to show his emotions to the other, and ended by discussing the trying situation from all points of view. Abner wasn't altogether frank, though; he practised deception by insisting that he didn't love the widow. Their confidence brought forth one result, and that was—the partition. There had been so many mental reviews of the years past that both realized the impossibility of living under separate roofs.
They slept in a double-decked bunk, one above the other, over against the cabin wall, and long after the smiling moon had crept over the hillside to watch tenderly over them through the night and throw the light of her peering through their window, they tumbled and tossed in the shadow of the great adventure; Abner because he was losing a partner and not gaining a wife, and Ezra because of the trial before him, winning a wife but losing a partner.
Ezra didn't know much of women. The kind he had seen on the selvaged edges of the world were not the kind he had wanted for companions, and certainly all women outside of dance-halls looked like angels and were highly unapproachable.
At sixty-five this clean-minded old chap was bringing a boy's heart and ideals to lay at the feet of a woman, and—as a boy—he brought them timorously. He who had for more than forty years fought Indians and bears and nature, and in a hundred ways gazed with unflinching calmness into the very eyes of Death, was afraid.
So heavily sat the fear of the night upon him that on the following day he procrastinated, and in the end convinced Abner that preparations should be made at the cabin before he ventured out upon his errand to the widow. So they decided to first build across the cabin the partition which was to lend privacy to domestic affairs.
Perhaps, too, Abner was the more easily convinced because the partition afforded a little more delay; but he felt that each blow of the hammer as it sent a nail into the giving pine was helping to build up the barrier between him and Ezra and his old life.
The partners failed to enjoy their handiwork when night-time came. The sense of estrangement was upon them. They smoked in silence before the lamp was extinguished, leaving them to the renewed keeping of the moon.
It was a long four-mile walk up the cañon to McCarthy's claim, but the next day found them plodding up to the cut where he was at work. They sat down together on the bank above his head and watched him. The noise of their approach was drowned by the boom of the swishing, swirling torrents where Hugh stood in rubber boots, master of the hill's destinies. The pent waters of the mountain falling hundreds of feet through steel pipe and compressed into the small nozzle of the Giant was doing great work that evening. McCarthy's hands played with terrific power as he held the silvered stream against some great boulder and sent it hurtling out of the way, or cleverly cut into a bank until it fell.
Even the noise of his singing was lost in the rush. The partners forgot their trouble and admiringly watched the work and the running sluice-boxes where gathered the muddy gold. They chewed tobacco steadily, their jaws sending their beards in and out with regularity. It was a great innovation, this visit. They almost forgot their mission. McCarthy saw them and shut down the water.
"Hello!" he called. "Glad to see you."
"Glad to see you," said Ezra. "Yes, glad to see you," piped Abner. Then, "Works well," they said, in unison.
McCarthy was puzzled. Here was the unexpected. He wisely decided to ask no questions, so stood wiping the sweat from his forehead and looking down the gulch.
"We're goin' to git married," said Ezra, feeling the need of conversation and taking the formality of announcement on his own shoulders. "Yes, we're goin' to git married," came the echo from Abner.
McCarthy's hands came down to his sides with surprise.
"Well, I'll be ——!" he said, then caught his breath. "Who to?"
"Widder Sands," they said, in unison.
"Both of you?" McCarthy asked, in amazement.
Again the partners felt the blow. For once but one of them replied. Already they were separated. Abner pointed his thumb at Ezra, and said tersely, "Him."
"When's it to be pulled off?"
"Soon's we kin git the preacher from over the divide," Abner replied. "Yes, soon's we kin git the preacher," Ezra concurred, fearful of being left out.
McCarthy's eyes twinkled humorously as he climbed up the bank to where they were seated. "Give Mrs. Sands my regards," he said, as he took his perch alongside. "When did you fix this up?"
The partners looked at each other as though recalling something, their jaws stopped wagging, and in chorus they said, "We ain't exactly asked her yit."
When McCarthy, with a well-developed sense of humor, laughed, the partners looked grieved. Atonement was made for levity by an invitation to the cabin. They showed their acceptance of his hospitality by washing their hands and faces with loud splutterings, and then each drew from his pocket a short comb and gravely smoothed down his white thatch of hair. They sat in silence as the host fried the bacon, warmed the beans, and brought out the "sour-dough" bread. In equal silence they ate and allowed Hugh to do the talking. They weren't strong on conversation, even when inviting a man to their wedding.
Night had fallen before they arose from their stools, put their pipes in their pockets, and showed signs of departure. Although urged to forego the long return trip until morning, they agreed that it wouldn't do to "sleep away from hum when it was only four mile off," tacitly admitting the home-longing that always burned within them, and trudged away in the starlight.
Ezra and Abner proposed to the widow the next day, Abner accompanying Ezra to the bend of the road and waiting until he should return. The alders out by the stream kept him company; and the birds, who all seemed to know him and commiserate with him, chirped sympathetically at him from the underbrush. The world looked pretty gray. Loneliness was leering at him from the corners and preparing to rub shoulders. Thirty years of partnership, and then desertion! He bravely tried to whistle when he heard the footsteps returning, and it hurt a little that Ezra seemed so elated and looked so boyish, and stepped out with a kind of conquering-hero air. Yes, Ezra had won by putting the case before her in good, honest, old-time way. Had told her he and Abner had decided to marry her, and that if she would have him, he would be "mighty glad to take keer of her."
McCarthy gave the bride away. There wasn't any particular reason why he should, but somebody always has to give a bride away, and Abner, feeling that decorum should be observed, insisted on giving Ezra away. The giving wasn't as easy for him as it was for McCarthy, he had to swallow the lump in his throat several times before he could find speech. When he did find words he bravely said: "Missus Sands, this has always been my pardner; now he's your'n. Take him. There ain't now nor never has been a pardner like him."
It almost broke the ceremony off. Ezra showed signs of retreat. However, they got through with it all some way, and tried to make the situation a merry one, cracking the good old jokes of fifty years agone and smacking lips over a bottle of claret produced by McCarthy. Indeed, they didn't comprehend until after the preacher had gone up the cañon with McCarthy and bedtime came.
The empty upper bunk, the lonely lamp, the chair without occupant, the shadows of the night, and—a partition! The first of the lonely nights when there was nothing to do but dream of others. Others by camp-fire, on plain and hill, or off up in the great forests where the trees held watch and sang brooding lullabies while the wind flirted with them above. An inch partition of wood had cut Abner off from all his world save memory. Loneliness and he had clasped hands, and in the clasp was life robbed of sunshine.
Every one who knew Mrs. Ezra said she was a good housekeeper. That's so, because Mrs. Ezra said so. "There wa'n't goin' to be no more clutterin' of boots in this cabing." That, too, because she said so. Once in a while she said other things, and at those times her voice had the sweet melody of a Chinese fiddle. But, after all, she wasn't a. bad housekeeper. She scrubbed most of the time, as far as anybody ever knew.
Most wives are a great addition to the family. Mrs. Ezra certainly was.
Abner had checked off five months in the almanac, not having much else to do in the evenings, when the end came. In all those five months he had daily shrivelled in size, become repressed in spirit and sad of eye. From brooding at night he took to brooding in the day, and always was with him the feeling that now, at last, he was old. He seldom spoke in those days, and if one asked a question of the partners, it was Ezra who answered, in a falsetto solo. Duets were out of fashion. That is, Ezra answered unless his wife was around, on which occasions she answered enough for all three.
One day the remarkable happened. Abner was taken sick and couldn't work. It was the first time in at least fifty years, and naturally Ezra took note of it. The whole universe was upset. Like an astronomer chronicling the discovery of a new world, he took down the almanac and laboriously wrote on the margin, "On this day Abner was sick as Hell." Then he, too, brooded, and from Abner's side of the partition.
There was but one solution, and in great issues he was not wont to shirk. He went through the dividing line and softly but with firmness closed the door.
"We both love ye," he said to his bride, "and I don't want to do nothin' to hurt your feelin's, but if you don't mind, I guess you'll have to go. You see, Abner and me was fair to married before we met you, and we both feels as though we was committin' bigamy or burglary, or some other drefful thing. Abner's dyin' in there—of a broken heart. He ain't never been the same," and here he paused and with an unconsciously tragic gesture waved his arm at the partition, "since that thing was built." At last he was awake to the fact that it had divided their lives.
The former Mrs. Sands didn't seem to mind much. About the only divorce that could have jarred her, Hugh said, was from the scrubbing-brush.
About a hundred feet below their cabin the partners built one for her much more pretentious than their own. They devoted great time and care to its fitting—and wrought well. And with her went the partition from the older home—a menace destroyed. Then they dropped back as nearly as possible into the old life and tried to readjust themselves. They invariably passed a portion of the evening with her, and, as befitted gentlemen, worked for her happiness. It is doubtful if ever she had been as happy. Sometimes, like bad boys, they overslept in the morning hours, and then she was of real assistance. She would thrust open the door and admonish them.
"Nigh on to six o'clock," she would say, "and you two big lazy fellers ain't out o' bed yit." Four bare feet would hit the floor from the double bunk, and Ezra and Abner would hurriedly and shamefacedly thrust their hands in their pockets, draw huge jack-knives, and cut kindling and frantically thrust it into the stove. Then together they would fill the pails and pots and pans with water, together would eat breakfast, together would go to work, and sometimes together would cast furtive glances behind them.
One day she died. That was the first and only time Abner ever made the trip to McCarthy's alone. The three—Ezra and Abner and Hugh—builded a coffin, and gently laid her away where she had wished, up on the hillside back of the garden, where the little cross they afterward erected could always look down upon them in loving remembrance and gratitude for giving her the happiest days she had ever known. Hugh said the prayers, and they weren't very long, because he was kind of out of practice. "Keep her lovingly, dear Lord," he said, "because she wasn't a bad sort," then broke down and forgot to say "amen." But the partners didn't. "Amen, Lord," said Abner, in tears. "Yes, Lord, amen," faltered Ezra, after him.
The flowers of spring snuggled round her resting-place, nor did they lack care in their nurturing, for each night two loving old men carried water for their replenishing and wrenched away vagrant weeds.
It was on the anniversary of her death that they made the last obliteration. No one knows whether they had ever discussed it in words. It was as evening—the long quiet evening—came that together they walked to the cabin built for her, and occupied by none but her, and to it applied the torch.
They sat in silence, these two old men, until naught remained but a few glowing heaps of logs, and the moon had arisen, and the night was mellow with memories of the joys and tragedies of their lives.
"You kin see down the cañon jest the way we uster before we built it," said Ezra, with a great, gentle, longing tenderness.
"Yes, kin see down jest the way we uster before we built it," came the wistfully answering voice, softly. "Jest the way we uster."
And they silently entered their home, for the first time in their lives holding each other's hand. The door closed behind them, the embers died out, and the great sheltering Father of Night stretched shielding palms over the cabin, the little cross on the hill, and all those things which "looked jest as they uster."