O. Henry Memorial Award Prize Stories of 1924/Progress
EACH of the epochal changes in Jem Brown’s life coincided with a milestone on the road of progress. The first came on that day when, with the rest of the settlers in a southwestern hamlet, he went out to view the arrival of the United States Government’s camel herd—advocated and sponsored by Secretary of War Jefferson Davis to overcome the difficulties in the transportation of war materials to isolated military posts on the Western plains.
Jem was so small that he did not scorn the support offered by his mother’s draggled calico skirt, as he stumbled along beside her over the deeply rutted road to the edge of the town. As always, his mother paid no attention to his breathless endeavour to match her headlong speed. Meg Brown was generally alluded to by the men of the settlement with the lenient adjective of flighty; the women were not so tolerant.
Commented storekeeper Smith to his wife: "Quit pickin' on Meg, Sallie! She can’t help it that she ain't bright!"
"She's bright enough to get along without doin' enough real work to keep her blood circulatin'," replied his wife, grimly—and spoke the truth. Mrs. Brown’s methods of graining a livelihood were as vague as her explanations concerning her former habitation, her widowed state, and Jem's paternity.
"She can't remember her own stories," Mrs. Smith had asserted more than once when her husband attempted to laugh away Meg Brown’s erratic behaviour.
"Well, I reckon Jem's pa must a-been a pretty good sort, 'cause Jem had to take after somebody—an’ he’s too steady to favour his ma. Have you ever noticed how crazy that little kid is about mountains?"
Childless Mrs. Smith nodded and wistfully voiced an old wonderment: “How come such a triflin’ woman to have such a good child?”
She wondered it again on this morning when, with the rest of the townsfolk, she awaited the arrival of the first camel train. Jem had sidled shyly over to her, slipping a small grimy hand into hers. His mother, lost in the enjoyment of vociferous argument concerning the camels’ origin, had completely forgotten his existence.
‘Bill Smith told me they come to America on a navy ship from foreign parts, an’ they got a parcel o’ black drivers with ’em!” Meg Brown quoted, shrilly. “Bill says as how they couldn’t never build a railroad ’cross the country, ’count of the desert, an’ it bein’ too far between waterin’ places—but camels don’t need no water!”
“There ain’t nuthin’ livin’ that don’t need some water!” commented Mrs. Bill Smith with an emphasis entirely disproportionate to the subject under discussion.
Meg Brown instantly agreed with her adversary: “‘That’s what I told Bill—but you know how he is!”
Ensued a silence, broken by someone’s discovery of the first glimpse of the approaching camels; and as they came slowly nearer silence again descended. There was about the strange beasts nothing American—nothing to strike an answering chord of real or fancied resemblance. Only the brand of the United States upon their sides linked them up with any vestige of usualness—even the copper bells on the straps about their necks gave out an alien unfamiliar tinkle. . . Jem Brown, observing four dark-skinned Arab drivers, strengthened his grasp upon the hand of his friend, the store-keeper’s wife, as he watched the cameleers dismount.
Meg Brown boldly approached the blond Texan in charge: “Helloa! Glad to see youl! . . . Say, what’re they a-chewin’? . . . Ain’t they proud-lookin’?” She smiled with ingratiating friendliness.
The man in charge recognized her type. “Sure, sister! They’ve been haughty an’ set-up ever since we branded ’em!” She welcomed his pleasantry with loud laughter. “Say, wasn’t there no new camels where them came from? These look so kinda rough an’ ragged—didn’t they have no sleek ones?”’
“You’re smart, ain’t you?” His tone was resentful. “These is the pick of the camel crop! That big feller there was a present to the United States from the King of Tunis—and kings don’t give away no second-handed camels!”
Meg was properly impressed. “I never seen none before. I don’t know a thing about ’em,” she apologized.
“Your talk showed that! I guess you’re like the Turk camel doctor in Tunis that tried to come along with the herd; he aimed to cure colds with cheese, an’ swelled legs with tea an’ gunpowder; if they didn’t get better then, he tickled their noses with chameelyuns’ tails,”’ he commented, loftily, then unbent: “A sailor who came over on the ship with ’em did tell me that them heathens in Tunis worked off two camels that had the itch, on us.”
“For the land’s sake! . . . How can you tell the itchin’ ones? They all look so kinda fretted an’ mussed up!”
He stiffened again. ‘The partic’lar reason is, that neither of ’em was brought home; soon’s they found out what was their complaint they sold ’em to a Turk butcher who’s cust’mers wasn’t int’rested in peddygrees.” He paused to glance down at the fascinated Jem. “Say, young feller, how’d you like for me to lift you up on one of the camels?” Then, as the little boy drew back, the camel man addressed the storekeeper’s wife: ‘Your kid’s shy, ma’am.”
Meg Brown had no intention of relinquishing any advantage she might gain with the masterful stranger: “He ain’t hers. He’s mine!”
“Well, bein’ shy, he sure don’t favour you!” commented the Texan, and turned away to give some directions concerning the care of the camels for the night.
Having looked their fill, the people began to disperse. Meg Brown stayed on. The man in charge had attracted her vagrant interest; she hung about him laughing and talking. And since the youthful tinge of abundant health was in her colouring, the gleam of bronze in her heavy shining hair, her evident preference for the stranger’s society found response.
Late that evening, half aroused from deep sleep, small Jem heard the voice of the man in charge raised in argument with: his mother: “You say that you don’t like it here, that the women is uppish with you—why d’you stay? . . . I always say: when you only have one life to live, have a good time while you can! . . . What? .. . The boy? . . . If that’s all you’ve got to bother you, you’re in luck! . . . That woman who’s husband keeps the store’ll be glad to get Jom—-—” There followed a confused jumble of detached directions concerning an early departure. And when, shortly after dawn, Jem awakened, it was to find the cabin deserted, his mother gone; the fascinating stranger’s lure of riding forth to new untroubled fields, upon a camel’s back, had been too much for Meg Brown to resist.
What became of her, her son never learned. Wistfully he wondered why, if she had gone toward the mountains, she had not taken him along. But the settlement was not disturbed again by her.
. . . With the outbreak of the Civil War, the United States Government retired from the camel industry; the herds were scattered, strayed away. Quite recently one of the camels, bearing the old brand, was seen in a Mexican circus but otherwise—like Meg Brown—they have disappeared into oblivion—superseded milestones upon the highway of progress.
The next years were busy uneventful ones for Jem Brown. The man in charge of the camel train proved himself to be an expert in passing snap judgment; the storekeeper’s wife took immediate and affectionate charge of the little boy—and never regretted it. Jem more than paid his way, carrying water in pails which increased in size with his own growth; running endless errands upon willing feet; planting and weeding Mrs. Smith’s vegetable garden and helping her in the kitchen; working behind the counter of the store—but always, when he had a little time to himself, he went out beyond the edge of the town to stare, hungry-eyed, toward the mountains rimming the wide valley.
He was nineteen when an epidemic of typhoid carried off the Smiths within two days of each other and left him, without ties or funds, to face the future. His foster-father’s partner urged him to stay on in the store, offered inducements, but Jem was not to be beguiled; restlessness had overtaken him. “It’s gettin’ crowded-like here; too many folks.” Unconsciously he made a gesture toward the rainbow-tinted mountain peaks swinging up through the bright air under a sky of ineffable blue. ‘“Long’s the Smiths was alive an’ wanted me, I figgered I owed it to ’em to stay. But now they’ve went, you oughta see that I got to be a-movin’ toward the hills!’’ explained Jem Brown, querulously.
What he sought—the means for sustaining life among the mountains—he did not immediately achieve; instead, for several years, he drifted: clerking in remote stores and trading posts, driving mail and stage coaches, working about the mines. All through the West during those strenuous days the talk and fever of gold waxed as steadily persistent as the lilt of wind through the pines. Fortunes were made and lost with an ease and frequency which bred conversational unconcern. Jem Brown, drifting with the ebb and flow, clerking behind counters at which prospectors bought their coffee and bacon, swinging his whip from the driver’s seat of stage-coaches, listened carefully to the unceasing talk of lodes and strikes, of faults and contacts. Pocket hunting for small rich deposits of ore near the earth’s surface was, he early learned, the most possible and profitable form of gold mining for an amateur without capital; thoughtfully he studied the rules for this endeavour until the day when, having achieved a small surplus, he bade farewell to the settlements and went on his own account toward the mountains.
His progress was a leisurely business of working down the ranges; in time he covered a surprisingly large area of wandering, became impervious to weather or hardship, lived almost entirely off the land. There were trout in abundance in all the deep pools, quail and doves everywhere for the snaring, edible plants and roots along all the water-courses. Sometimes, swinging into sight of the gleaming hedge of tin cans encircling a town, Jem Brown smelled the aroma of boiling coffee or sizzling bacon and succumbed to early memories by patronizing an eating-house or the store; but, as the years went by, he found walls and a roof increasingly unbearable, was happy only when he was among the wind-tilted cedars of the high country or panning out gravel in the rocky shallows of some mountain stream; inevitably, with so much looking, he made occasional finds which were always more than sufficient to supply his few needs. And as, with his primitive equipment, he washed down the loose floating gold against a sheepskin, Jem Brown did not know that the famed Golden Fleece of the Argonauts was obtained through the same manipulations.
It was after one of these profitable finds that, journeying down toward the settlement with his ore, he fell in with other prospectors and heard the new talk of a railroad over which the first transcontinental train was soon to make its triumphal progress. The whole account was so amazing and incredible that Jem Brown determined to see it for himself; laboriously he notched off on a stick the number of days which would ensue before the great event.
Through some error in his checking system he arrived at the nearest railroad town a day late; the epoch-making train had passed, but reliable witnesses testified to having seen it, and led him out to look at the shining rails. Frowning, he pondered over the advisability of lingering about until the performance should be repeated, and decided in favour of it.
He was influenced in his decision by the presence of a small circus operating, for a week, in a cleared field at the town's edge, and by the discovery that among the chief exhibits was a frowsy camel, bearing upon its side the brand of the United States, counterbranded by a subsequent purchaser. But by no stretch of imagination could he connect the swarthy Mexican who rode the camel with the tall and blond young Texan of the cavalcade of his early memories; nor could his close observation of the circus folk off duty reveal any woman who might be his mother. This possibility being dismissed, he went conscientiously through the attractions offered, commencing with the tent performances and working slowly down to the last of the side-shows. Gravely he inspected the cherry-coloured horse, the laughing duck, the cow with four hind legs, the cat with three tails, the bearded lady; but through two afternoons it was the armless woman with the trained feet who completely fascinated him; breathlessly he watched her through the achievement of threading a needle and darning a sock, writing her name and the name of the town and State, fanning herself. Then, taking up a small saw, she commenced with some effort to demolish a plank. It was a most arduous procedure. Jem Brown, worriedly observing the exertion expended, forgot his shyness and offered advice:
"Ma'am, if you'd get that saw filed—if you'd just only get that saw filed——"
She paused in her undertaking to eye him grimly: "Young feller, I guess maybe you're right, because you're about the seventieth man thats told me that this week——" She sighed heavily. "What'd you think if I told you that I've been a-exhibitin' ever since early this mornin', and ain't had a bite to eat?"
He was immediately sympathetic. "Ain't that too bad! Could I bring you a hot bologna, ma'am?"
"I don't eat bolognas," answered the lady, austerely. "But I guess there wouldn't be no kick, if I was pressed to go to the eatin'-house before I drop in my tracks. Talk about your feet gettin' tired——"
He was divided between panic at the thought of escorting the celebrity through the crowd and utter horror over the possibility of having to watch her eat, or feeding her himself. Even as he hesitated, glancing frantically about in search of an avenue of escape, someone behind him spoke:
"Couldn't you go get somethin' an' bring it in here to her? I know the folks that run the eatin'-house an' they'll loan you the dishes to fetch it on, if I say so."
Jem Brown turned thankfully to face a young girl, small and very frail, with hollow eyes and a hectic colour.
"Maybe you'd be willin' to go with me?" he stammered.
She agreed. "I live at the eatin'-house—wait on tablethere. My name's Jenny—Jenny Burke——" She broke off in a paroxysm of violent coughing; when she had finished there was a bright stain on the handkerchief she held against her lips. "Ain't it. . . awful . . . to be sick? I'm so scared I can't hold my job—but it's gettin' to be more than I can do to lift the trays," she confided to him.
Again he forgot his shyness: "You oughtn't to be a-tryin' to lift trays. Where's your folks? Why don't someone look out for you?"
"I ain't got no folks. And Mis' Flynn at the eatin'-house is a widow woman with a big fam'ly of children. . . . Here it is!"
She quickly made the arrangements for the armless wonder's food, took the money to Mrs. Flynn, and returned with the message that she was to go with him and bring back the dishes. "We're short on plates, an' those show people is careless an' forgetful-like."
Together they returned toward the side-show. “I ain’t met you before. I suppose you come to see the railroad train go past? Where do you live?” inquired Jenny Burke, politely. Above the tray he carried Jem Brown indicated the distant peaks with a motion of his head: “In the mountains——”
“Do you now? . . . Way off there! . . . Ain’t it lonely?”
“Not so lonely as the towns. An’ the air’s clear an’ clean an’ smells sweet of pine-trees. I’d die—if I had to live down here.”
She sobered. ‘I'd like the smell of pines an’ the clear air, too. I don’t sleep nights for worryin’ over what’s to become of me when I can’t work no more. Mis’ Flynn can’t feed her own fam’ly. . . . Say, what happens to girls that ain’t got no money, nor folks, when they lose their jobs?” She stopped to wipe her eyes. But when they reached the side-show tent her gaiety had returned; briskly she approached the armless lady. “Gee! She ain’t got halfway through that plank yet!” cried Jenny Burke, and interrupted herself with another spasm of dreadful coughing.
‘‘No’m, I ain’t got no other wife anywhere. An’ I ain’t marryin’ Jenny to get a wife. Once, when I was a kid, I got left in the lurch, an’ some folks looked out for me. I’m handin’ it on to her. She’s too sick to work, an’ I’m a-figurin’ I can make her comfort’ble in one of them cabins the Guayule outfit abandoned when their lode petered out. . . . It’s a real pretty place—high up, with a good spring near. I’ve got money enough to buy all the bacon an’ coffee an’ stuff she wants. . . . Ma’am? ... Yesm. .. . I don’t mind gettin’ married—even if it don’t meas nothin’ to me. Ma’am? . . . Well, you see, I can make more money’n I can use, an’ Jenny can’t make enough to get on with. Seems like—if I expect to have luck—it’s only square for me to go shares with her.”
Jem Brown stayed in the town long enough to see a train go by upon the shining rails, then returned to the hills. But this time he did not go alone, the girl Jenny rode beside him on a pack burro. And this drastic change in his life had come about so simply. Even weary Mrs. Flynn’s conscientious unwillingness to be rid of Jenny “unless it was all right” was overcome by Jem’s readiness to be married by Father Collins.
Mrs. Flynn’s eyes were suspiciously bright. ‘If ev’ry one felt that way life’d be—not so hard,” was her only comment.
And so, immediately after the ceremony, they departed toward the mountains. Besides the bride’s slight weight the burro carried supplies, Jenny’s small bundle of clothing, and her one treasure, a book.
"A dude prospector left it at the eatin’-house—said he didn’t want it no more—so Mis’ Flynn gave it to me.” Jenny spelled out the title: “‘Seven Lamps of Ar-chi-tec-ture.’ Ain’t that a queer name?”
He nodded. ‘Real queer. I ain’t never owned a book. Couldn’t make sense out of it if I had.”
“T’ll read it to you,” she promised. ‘ Now tell me more ’bout the mountains.”
This was familiar ground. All day, while the trail mounted steadily upward, he told her of the beasts and birds and trees, of the mother bear and her lame cub in Hell Roaring Canyon, the bluejays at Cypress Falls. “You can count on their bein’ there sure’s you can count on its bein’ spring!”
“The reason you ain’t never felt lonely’s because you’ve got such lots of friends!” said Jenny, wistfully.
“You'll like ’em, too. Animals ain’t same’s folks, they don’t disappoint you.”
He was right. During the few months that remained to her she knew. the happiest days in all of her short and pinched existence. The little cabin was a marvel of spacious comfort to her, the plentiful food an epicurean indulgence. It was already too late, when Jem Brown found her, to do more than make the remainder of her life easier; and though each day she achieved less and less, her hold on living slipped gently from her slight grasp.
She kept her word about reading aloud. Winter evenings when, outside the cabin, the snow blurred and drifted and the trail disappeared in a white smudge, she conscientiously took up their one book. True, much of it was unintelligible to both reader and listener, but, like some appealing theme in a classic overture, they came upon intervals which captured their attention.
“Ain’t ita nice book, Jem? It says that if you can’t afford much-money things, you should buy the best of stuff that you can afford—an’ that’s real comfort’ble ’cause it works right down the line. . . . What is it that that is? . . . Sincerity! . . . I like that! . . . Just like sayin’, ‘Jenny, you buy good calico ’stead of sleazy poplin!’”
Jem, lounging by the fireplace, proffered comment: “When you live outdoors you don’t have to bother ’bout what’s good or bad, it’s all the best.”
“I s’pose so—but ev’ry one ain’t tough enough to stay out winter’n summer, the way youdo. They have to come in to sleep at least.”
“‘That’s where they begin makin’ theirselves lots of trouble! Read it again—where it tells about the houses folks build.”
She opened the book. “‘As regards domestic buildings, there must always be certain limitations to views of this kind in the power, as well as in the hearts of men, still I cannot but think it an evil sign of a people when their houses are built to last for one generation only.’”
He interrupted: ‘‘I’ll bet the thin shacks down to the railroad town don’t last no generation! They commence to sag ’fore they’re finished!”
“That’s true. I used to want to run outside the eatin’-house ev’ry time the wind blowed.” She took up the book in. "Don’t this sound like it was tellin’ ’bout places we could put the name to?
"’And I look upon those pitiful concretions of lime and clay which spring up, in militant forwardness, out of the kneaded fields about our capital—upon those thin, tottering, foundationless shells of splintered wood and imitated stone—upon those gloomy rows of formalized minuteness, alike without difference and without fellowship, as solitary as similar—not merely with the careless disgust of an offended eye, not merely with sorrow for a desecrated landscape, but with a painful foreboding that the roots of our national greatness must be deeply cankered when they are thus loosely stuck Into their native ground, that those comfortless and unhonoured dwellings are the signs of a great and spreading spirit of popular discontent, that they mark the time when every ‘man’s aim is to be in some more elevated sphere than his natural one, and every man’s past life is his habitual scorn—’” She stopped to cough, then glanced further down the page: “Here’s some about you, Jem,” she laughed; “‘—the crowded tenements of a struggling and restless population differ only from the tents of the Arab or the Gypsy by their less healthy ess to the air of heaven, and less happy choice of their spot of earth’—you’re an Arab an’ a a Gypey if she teased.
“If likin’ the air of heaven proves it, I am!”
Her expression became frightened and wistful: “Say, Jem d’you know what I think heaven” s a-goin’ to be like? Well, there ain’t a-goin’ to be no towns there—just lots of mountains, an’ pines an’ space where folks can live the way they like, not the way someone else says! An’ I wouldn't want no hard gold pavements an’ streets to walk on—not if I could have a sunshiny trail instead—would you?”
Jem shook his head. “If there’s such lots of good folks that it’s crowded, I don’t want to go there nohow.” He thought it over. ‘Wherever there’s plenty of folks, there’s plenty of talk about progress. Know what progress is? . . . Well, it’s inventin’ somethin’ to carry you over the country so fast that you can’t see nothin’ you’re a-passin’. That’s progress!”
‘‘Like the railroad train!”
“Yes. I’m a-hopin’ they’ll be satisfied with that an’ not go on a-inventin’ any further.”
“They can’t never catch us—way up here!’’ she exulted. He agreed to that. “‘We’ve stumped em!”
Jenny glanced down at the illustration of a tracery from the Campanite of Giotto at Florence. ‘‘Of course alJ the things them progressers have done ain’t bad. Look at this! . . .
Say, Jem, if ever you make a big strike let’s us go an’ see these places in the book.” She hesitated. “An’ if I ain’t . . .
around . . . just remember I would a-been if I could—an’ you go anyhow. Promise!”
He laughed at such a preposterous idea, then, as she stubbornly insisted, indulgently agreed. “Pm perf’ctly safe in sayin’ yes!”
“Remember, you've promised. I'll ha’nt you if you break your word!”
“Sure!” said Jem Brown.
“I don’t want to go off by myself among strangers, Jem!
Jenny died in the autumn; for weeks before the end Jem devoted his entire time to her, heartening her against the hours of panic which preceded the Great Adventure.
All my life, ’til you came, I ain’t never had no one that b’longed to me! I don’t want to start all over again!”
After she was gone, and he had awkwardly smoothed over the small mound under the wind-tilted cypresses, he shouldred his pick and shovel, packed his gold pan, coffee-pot, bread-tin, and frying-pan, and wandered lonesomely forth to face the most arduous winter of his experience.
He had spent the money gained through his last find on small luxuries for Jenny. For the first time since he started upon a career of pocket hunting, his luck did not hold. Perhaps his wistful memories and preoccupations made him dull and careless, but several times during that long winter of roaring winds, deep drifts, and bitter, blue-white cold he staggered back to the cabin on Guayule more dead than alive from hunger and exhaustion. It came to him during those months—when his thoughts turned homesickly toward the little hut—that the first thing he would do when he made another strike would be to buy the Guayule; Jenny’s grave and the small house should be his. But three springs of long rains had followed three difficult winters before his luck turned, and he was able to make a small initial payment against the claims held by the defunct and bankrupt Guayule Mining Company.
“Thinkin’ of kyotein’ into that hill, stranger?” inquired the clerk at the nearest court-house. “Don't do it! That d—— Guayule formation’s volcanic: the lode breaks off sharp when you'd least expect it, an’ commences again three miles farther up, ten miles farther down, or ’round the corner on the next mountain, that’s how the comp’ny sunk all they took out’n more, too. I know all about it, an’ I bought my knowledge through investin’ the legacy my wife got from her gran’pap in the Guayule just before it finally busted. Darned near busted my married life—we don’t joke on that subject at my house to this day! . . . There’s high-grade ore in the Guayule, but it’s prob’ly somewhere where it’d cost billions to get it out!”
Jem denied any such ambition. ‘No kyotein’ into a hill for me! Pocket huntin’s better; keeps you outdoors. ”
The clerk agreed. “Wanderin’s fun—if you haven’t got a fam’ly,”’ he said, and made out the documents.
And then, almost as if fate had awaited his possession of the papers, Jem Brown, listlessly investigating an iron stain on the rock wall below the spring, came upon his first appreciable find; for several days he examined certain details of his discovery and stood at last scowling down at the mat of floating gold particles in his pan, or staring with narrowed eyes at the place from which he had taken it. Here was fortune knocking! What answer should he make?
Irrelevantly half-forgotten scraps of overheard conversations between gold-hungry prospectors loitering about the trading-posts came back to him: cities, women, liquor, shop-worn girls, grimy pleasures. These were the prizes purchasable when money was plentiful; easy gifts of easy gains; frowning, he thought it over. Some instinct, which had made him detest towns and crave the austerities of the mountains, drew fastidiously back from contemplation of the proposed orgy. Meg Brown had only been his mother.
A little breeze stirred the trees and moved the blue gentians at his feet and, like a message, Jenny’s eyes looked up at him. "Remember—you promised!" came back her voice.
What had he promised? Oh, yes! To visit those palaces and cathedrals of which she had read to him. "But, Jenny, I was only a-jokin'! I wouldn't a-promised if I'd thought I'd ever a-found this!" he expostulated aloud.
The gentians fluttered their fringed edges in the breeze. Jem Brown groaned. "I won't be bullied! . . . But if I go back on my word I s'pose you'll be a-remindin' me of it from every foot of ground!"
The gentians were very still, very blue. "Oh, well, I'll go!" he said, resignedly.
So commenced a pathetic odyssey. Amazed clerks in railroad and steamship offices listened to his terse stipulations, glimpsed his abundant moneys—and quickly arranged his itinerary.
He made a strange figure against the Old World backgrounds; his baggy readymade clothes attracted curious glances in the hotels which he patronized, accepting without comment, paying without question, for the quarters assigned him; and all the time dumbly enduring the smothering restrictions of four walls and a ceiling, or wandering, confused and miserable, through the clamorous babel of the cities. Of the other frequenters of fashionable hostelries he was entirely oblivious; the women belonged to no species with which he was cognizant; to him they were not human beings but strange exotics, unfitted for the storm and stress of out-of-doors.
Only with the guides who piloted him about the palaces and cathedrals did he exchange conversation, and from them, since he was generous with tips, he won especial attention and privileges. And though Angelo, Giotto, Correggio, and Giorgione were less than names to Jem Brown the sincerity of their achievements were as a bridge to carry him back home; a sculptured tracery of leaves reminded him of certain trees on the windy ridges above Guayule and brought a lump in his throat; details of clear colour in a world-famous window danced like the deep sparkle of sunlight in the pool at Cypress Falls—and blurred before his gaze; the starred ceiling of an Italian chapel was but a pale imitation of the night sky above Guayule; the gentle eyes of a painted madonna were not so gentian-blue as Jenny's. . . . In a moment of panic he wondered if she was safe beneath the cypresses—coyotes were such inquisitive marauders—then sternly dismissed the thought. Jenny had planned this visit, had wanted him to see the cathedrals; he must go back to her with the assurance of their beauty—and what was it that the book had named as indivisible from true beauty? . . . Sincerity? . . . Truth? . . . Power? . . . Ah, yes: Sacrifice!
But at dawn on the morning after his return to Guayule he awakened to see the first pure light filter down through the pine branches, to smell the incense of the balsams, and to hear the lilting ecstasy of a choir of meadow-larks; looking and listening, Jem Brown breathed a deep sigh of ineffable content. He was safe at last, safe. He never reopened the cache below the spring—from which he had taken out the ore which paid for his journey abroard; in his mind that gold was consecreated to cities, to confusion, to progress. Jem Brown had done what Jenny asked—but he had finished forever with progress.
Ruskin had said in Jenny's book: "Men tire as they finish"; and Jem Brown, stumbling up the slope of Guayule, was increasingly convinced of the truth and wisdom of this statement. He, who had thought himself immune and impervious to any whim of wind or weather, had come to discover nature too boisterous for him; like some injured animal, seeking refuge, he was crawling home at last to the protection of a roof and four walls. True, forty years had passed since he came back from his one journey away from the mountains—but what were forty years? . . . And yet . . . during that final climb of his life, the unnoted years caught up with him; he was almost ready to compromise. Sharp pain stabbed and nagged at him as, with sobbing breath, he came out upon the wide clearing around the little cabin and glanced apprehensively up to see whether the circling buzzards had marked his plight.
In the doorway he stopped again and turned to look out across the wide valley—rimmed with range after range of rainbow-tinted peaks—noting, far away, dim blue smoke and visualizing the forlorn settlement. The gold-fever had run its course in that locality; veins of ore near the surface had been exhausted, leaving the working of deep-seated lodes to future necessity, capital, and scientific exploitation. Long since, nature had healed the ugly scars of man’s brief desecration of her slopes and had forgotten him. Boom towns, sprung up mushroom-wise, flourishing through a hectic period of roaring prosperity, were as quickly deserted—except for a handful of derelicts too shiftless or too discouraged to move on. No one questioned their right to tenancy of any of the scores of abandoned houses whose broken roofs sagged above the staggering walls and crazy floors. Jem Brown, during his infrequent sojourns in the town, hurried through his buying and, averting his eyes from the settlement’s sordid squalor, turned his face thankfully back toward the streets of the mountains. Of what was going on in the world beyond the barrier of the ranges he neither knew nor cared.
Because he had been so happily self-sufficient, time had dealt lightly with Jem Brown; long since, the spell of the high places had claimed him, eradicating all man-made periods; the calendar of his year knew no artificial division into months, was punctuated by events in the swinging march of the seasons: the first deep snows, the sight of God’s flocks of mountain-sheep breasting the shining drifts, spells of bitter, blue-white cold when timber-wolves, grown bold through hunger, howled in the clearing; long rains, a spring thaw and freshet, and the earliest arrival in the processional of the flowers; summer, with larks and blue-birds; and columbines a-sway to every breeze . . . until the time when the rosy mauve of fireweed ran up the slopes and the deer star hung low in the sky. And always—always—the faithful gentians had come back.
Remembering these, and all of nature’s concern for flower, bird, and beast, Jem Brown wondered with sudden petulance why she was so unmindful of man. Now that his life was so nearly over he pondered—divided between elation and resentment—upon what had happened to man’s invention, progress . . . that, for so long a period, his life’s path had gone by unpunctuated by one of her devastating milestones. Progress would need to hurry if she held anything in wait for him now! “She’s welcome to do her worst!” he muttered aloud. Three days later he regretted his challenge; half-awakening from feverish slumber, he blinked incredulously at a strange, far-away sound. Remote at first, then drawing slowly nearer, there was about its rhythmic, pulsing steadiness something appalling, threatening, and sinister. Jem Brown could not connect it with anything familiar. . . . A drum, perhaps? . . . But what could a drum be doing, high up in the air? He listened more closely, craving reassurance. There was none . . . instead the steady beat was developing into a monstrous humming—into a dull roar . . . but not like the intermittent crashing with which, during a landslide the year of the big rains, the towering pines and the huge rocks had gone down the mountain. . . .
Feverishly, he tossed and turned, trying to escape from the enveloping sound. Was this, perhaps, what was meant by illness: all sorts of breathless, groundless, vain imaginings bred in houses? Scornfully he derided himself for his cowardice in coming indoors. This noise at which he cowered was thunder—thunder, which had so often before volleyed and echoed in the mountains during fierce electrical storms. Defiantly he raised his head. The sound was still there, steady, regular, insistent—and near!
Dully he wondered if this was death—but why had he never been told what it would be like? Was death, then, a hideous, unending race through labyrinths of clamour and tumult? To him, who had spent his life in the stillness of the mountains, what purgatory could equal that! Jem Brown cowered down, moaning . . . as the thunderous drumming came directly over the cabin, increased to a deafening roar, culminated in a series of shot-like explosions—and ceased. In the sudden uncanny quiet he could hear his own voice raised in a feeble whimper like a frightened child's. Of course it had been a dream, the feverish, half-consciousness of delirium . . . but how real for the moment, how hideously real. . . . "What?”
With terror the old man heard the sound of his first visitor, knocking; and saw the door swing back. . . .
A strange figure in leather clothes and a begoggled helmet stood in the opening, stared into the dim cabin, breathed an exclamation of relief: “I was afraid that this place was deserted—and I'm miles off my course! I've been trying for two hours to find a bare space to come down in; it was just by the merest chance that I saw this clearing—and none too good a landing field at that! Can you tell me where I am? What's the nearest town?" He stopped to look more closely at Jem Brown. “The light was so poor that I couldn't see you before! Are you sick? You look . . . ghastly!”
The old man could not answer.
The stranger stepped inside the cabin. “Isn't there something I could do for you? Water? Where can I get you a drink?”
Feebly Jem Brown pointed to the bucket, and indicated the direction of the spring. The young man returned with the brimming pail.
His decisive voice was clear: “If you can give me some idea of where I am, and the general direction, I think we'd better be on our way. I'll carry you out to the plane, and take you to a hospital. This is the last place for a sick man to be! Just now, by that spring, I saw a big bear and two cubs! You'd stand no chance—even if you were able to go for water!”
Jem Brown roused himself: “That’s Mollie—I found her four-five years ago; guess her mother’d been killed, ‘cause the wolves were yappin’ round the poor little cuss. . . . She comes back an’ hangs ’bout, every summer now, with her cubs. Mollie'd steal bacon'n bread . . . but she wouldn't touch me!”
"Maybe not. But anyhow you're too sick to be left here all by yourself."
"Did you . . . hear the roarin' . . . overhead, jus' 'fore you come in? What was it?"
There was no gleam of understanding in the old man's eyes.
The aviator stared at him. "Can't you understand me? A flying machine! Don't you know what that means? . . . The invention which makes it possible for men to travel through the air like birds! The greatest achievement of modern progress!"
"You mean that . . . even here on the mountain tops. . . . I can't get away?"
"'Away,' from what? A plane can go anywhere!"
Jem Brown clambered weakly to his feet and stumbled to the doorway. In the centre of the clearing a strange, huge, grasshopper-like object stood at rest. It was silent now—but around it everything seemed changed and troubled—and at what moment might it not come to life again, hideously challenging the protesting echoes? How—how—could he get rid of it and of its master? Determinedly he faced the aviator: "I'm all right . . . have them setbacks real often!" He gasped as a stab of pain brought beads of perspiration to his forehead. With visible effort he stifled a groan. "I've got a map . . . of this distric'; if I give it to you . . . will you go away?"
The aviator shook his head. "I couldn't conscientiously go away and leave you here alone. The remembrance of how you look would haunt me! You’re too sick to realize that—you need medical attention."
Jem Brown was driven to desperation: "If you'll go away—an' not come back for a month—I'll give you the deeds to the Guayule . . . an' on 'em I'll mark plain where the lost lode takes up again! I've knowed it for forty year . . . but I learnt long since that money don't buy you nothin' but confusion . . . an' I wasn't a-goin' to have folks a-spoilin' this mountain like they spoiled the rest!"
Then, as the aviator stared at him, the old man's eyes filled with tears: "There'll be plenty . . . so's you can buy all the things you've ever wanted. . . . But now that I've seen your machine . . . and know that never, any more . . . will there be a place where I can get away . . . I’d like for to have this last month . . . alone on Guayule, to say good-bye. . . . Then you can take it———”
“You’ll do better than I expect if you live another week!” The aviator’s voice was troubled, perplexed: “I really can’t leave you; it wouldn’t be decent!”
Jem Brown dropped down on the pine branches and stared helplessly in front of him. For a second the narrow window framed a stretch of desert, paved in tawny gold, dotted with sage-brush; through it a camel train wound into the settlement—and his mother was gone.
Followed, then, a shimmer of heat waves above metal rails where great locomotives thundered upon their scheduled way. . . . Soon Jenny’s place knew her no more.
With a feeble gesture of resignation Jem Brown turned toward the stranger: “I guess . . . maybe . . . this is my signal!” he whispered.
Progress had caught up with him.