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Cabin Fever By B. M. Bower Characters: 12438

Updated: 2017-11-28 00:07

A man's mind is a tricky thing-or, speaking more exactly, a man's emotions are tricky things. Love has come rushing to the beck of a tip-tilted chin, or the tone of a voice, or the droop of an eyelid. It has fled for cause as slight. Sometimes it runs before resentment for a real or fancied wrong, but then, if you have observed it closely, you will see that quite frequently, when anger grows slow of foot, or dies of slow starvation, love steals back, all unsuspected and unbidden-and mayhap causes much distress by his return. It is like a sudden resurrection of all the loved, long-mourned dead that sleep so serenely in their tended plots. Loved though they were and long mourned, think of the consternation if they all came trooping back to take their old places in life! The old places that have been filled, most of them, by others who are loved as dearly, who would be mourned if they were taken away.

Psychologists will tell us all about the subconscious mind, the hidden loves and hates and longings which we believe are dead and long forgotten. When one of those emotions suddenly comes alive and stands, terribly real and intrusive, between our souls and our everyday lives, the strongest and the best of us may stumble and grope blindly after content, or reparation, or forgetfulness, or whatever seems most likely to give relief.

I am apologizing now for Bud, who had spent a good many months in pushing all thoughts of Marie out of his mind, all hunger for her out of his heart. He had kept away from towns, from women, lest he be reminded too keenly of his matrimonial wreck. He had stayed with Cash and had hunted gold, partly because Cash never seemed conscious of any need of a home or love or wife or children, and therefore never reminded Bud of the home and the wife and the love and the child he had lost out of his own life. Cash seldom mentioned women at all, and when he did it was in a purely general way, as women touched some other subject he was discussing. He never paid any attention to the children they met casually in their travels. He seemed absolutely self-sufficient, interested only in the prospect of finding a paying claim. What he would do with wealth, if so be he attained it, he never seemed to know or care. He never asked Bud any questions about his private affairs, never seemed to care how Bud had lived, or where. And Bud thankfully left his past behind the wall of silence. So he had come to believe that he was almost as emotion-proof as Cash appeared to be, and had let it go at that.

Now here he was, with his heart and his mind full of Marie-after more than a year and a half of forgetting her! Getting drunk and playing poker all night did not help him at all, for when he woke it was from a sweet, intimate dream of her, and it was to a tormenting desire for her, that gnawed at his mind as hunger gnaws at the stomach. Bud could not understand it. Nothing like that had ever happened to him before. By all his simple rules of reckoning he ought to be "over it" by now. He had been, until he saw that picture.

He was so very far from being over his trouble that he was under it; a beaten dog wincing under the blows of memory, stung by the lash of his longing. He groaned, and Frank thought it was the usual "morning after" headache, and laughed ruefully.

"Same here," he said. "I've got one like a barrel, and I didn't punish half the booze you did."

Bud did not say anything, but he reached for the bottle, tilted it and swallowed three times before he stopped.

"Gee!" whispered Frank, a little enviously.

Bud glanced somberly across at Frank, who was sitting by the stove with his jaws between his palms and his hair toweled, regarding his guest speculatively.

"I'm going to get drunk again," Bud announced bluntly. "If you don't want to, you'd better duck. You're too easy led-I saw that last night. You follow anybody's lead that you happen to be with. If you follow my lead to-day, you'll be petrified by night. You better git, and let me go it alone."

Frank laughed uneasily. "Aw, I guess you ain't all that fatal, Bud. Let's go over and have some breakfast-only it'll be dinner."

"You go, if you want to." Bud tilted the bottle again, his eyes half closed while he swallowed. When he had finished, he shuddered violently at the taste of the whisky. He got up, went to the water bucket and drank half a dipper of water. "Good glory! I hate whisky," he grumbled. "Takes a barrel to have any effect on me too." He turned and looked down at Frank with a morose kind of pity. "You go on and get your breakfast, kid. I don't want any. I'll stay here for awhile."

He sat down on the side of the cheap, iron bedstead, and emptied his pockets on the top quilt. He straightened the crumpled bills and counted them, and sorted the silver pieces. All told, he had sixty-three dollars and twenty cents. He sat fingering the money absently, his mind upon other things. Upon Marie and the baby, to be exact. He was fighting the impulse to send Marie the money. She might need it for the kid. If he was sure her mother wouldn't get any of it... A year and a half was quite a while, and fifteen hundred dollars wasn't much to live on these days. She couldn't work, with the baby on her hands...

Frank watched him curiously, his jaws still resting between his two palms, his eyes red-rimmed and swollen, his lips loose and trembling. A dollar alarm clock ticked resonantly, punctuated now and then by the dull clink of silver as Bud lifted a coin and let it drop on the little pile.

"Pretty good luck you had last night," Frank ventured wishfully. "They cleaned me."

Bud straightened his drooping shoulders and scooped the money into his hand. He laughed recklessly, and got up. "We'll try her another whirl, and see if luck'll bring luck. Come on-let's go hunt up some of them marks that got all the dough last night. We'll split, fifty-fifty, and the same with what we win. Huh?"

"You're on, ho-let's go." Bud had gauged him correctly-Frank would follow any one who would lead. He got up and came to the table where Bud was dividing the money into two equal sums, as nearly as he could make change. What was left over-and

that was the three dollars and twenty cents-he tossed into the can of tobacco on a shelf.

"We'll let that ride-to sober up on, if we go broke," he grunted. "Come on-let's get action."

Action, of a sort, they proceeded to get. Luck brought luck of the same complexion. They won in fluctuating spells of good cards and judicious teamwork. They did not cheat, though Frank was ready if Bud had led him that way. Frank was ready for anything that Bud suggested. He drank when Bud drank, went from the first saloon to the one farther down and across the street, returned to the first with cheerful alacrity and much meaningless laughter when Bud signified a desire to change. It soothed Bud and irritated him by turns, this ready acquiescence of Frank's. He began to take a malicious delight in testing that acquiescence. He began to try whether he could not find the end of Frank's endurance in staying awake, his capacity for drink, his good nature, his credulity-he ran the scale of Frank's various qualifications, seeking always to establish a well-defined limitation somewhere.

But Frank was utterly, absolutely plastic. He laughed and drank when Bud suggested that they drink. He laughed and played whatever game Bud urged him into. He laughed and agreed with Bud when Bud made statements to test the credulity of anyman. He laughed and said, "Sure. Let's go!" when Bud pined for a change of scene.

On the third day Bud suddenly stopped in the midst of a game of pool which neither was steady enough to play, and gravely inspected the chalked end of his cue.

"That's about enough of this," he said. "We're drunk. We're so drunk we don't know a pocket from a prospect hole. I'm tired of being a hog. I'm going to go get another drink and sober up. And if you're the dog Fido you've been so far, you'll do the same." He leaned heavily upon the table, and regarded Frank with stern, bloodshot blue eyes.

Frank laughed and slid his cue the length of the table. He also leaned a bit heavily. "Sure," he said. "I'm ready, any time you are."

"Some of these days," Bud stated with drunken deliberation, "they'll take and hang you, Frank, for being such an agreeable cuss." He took Frank gravely by the arm and walked him to the bar, paid for two beers with almost his last dollar, and, still holding Frank firmly, walked him out of doors and down the street to Frank's cabin. He pushed him inside and stood looking in upon him with a sour appraisement.

"You are the derndest fool I ever run across-but at that you're a good scout too," he informed Frank. "You sober up now, like I said. You ought to know better 'n to act the way you've been acting. I'm sure ashamed of you, Frank. Adios-I'm going to hit the trail for camp." With that he pulled the door shut and walked away, with that same circumspect exactness in his stride which marks the drunken man as surely as does a stagger.

He remembered what it was that had brought him to town-which is more than most men in his condition would have done. He went to the post office and inquired for mail, got what proved to be the assayer's report, and went on. He bought half a dozen bananas which did not remind him of that night when he had waited on the Oakland pier for the mysterious Foster, though they might have recalled the incident vividly to mind had he been sober. He had been wooing forgetfulness, and for the time being he had won.

Walking up the steep, winding trail that led to Nelson Flat cleared a little his fogged brain. He began to remember what it was that he had been fighting to forget. Marie's face floated sometimes before him, but the vision was misty and remote, like distant woodland seen through the gray film of a storm. The thought of her filled him with a vague discomfort now when his emotions were dulled by the terrific strain he had wilfully put upon brain and body. Resentment crept into the foreground again. Marie had made him suffer. Marie was to blame for this beastly fit of intoxication. He did not love Marie-he hated her. He did not want to see her, he did not want to think of her. She had done nothing for him but bring him trouble. Marie, forsooth! (Only, Bud put it in a slightly different way.)

Halfway to the flat, he met Cash walking down the slope where the trail seemed tunneled through deep green, so thick stood the young spruce. Cash was swinging his arms in that free stride of the man who has learned how to walk with the least effort. He did not halt when he saw Bud plodding slowly up the trail, but came on steadily, his keen, blue-gray eyes peering sharply from beneath his forward tilted hat brim. He came up to within ten feet of Bud, and stopped.

"Well!" He stood eyeing Bud appraisingly, much as Bud had eyed Frank a couple of hours before. "I was just starting out to see what had become of you," he added, his voice carrying the full weight of reproach that the words only hinted at.

"Well, get an eyeful, if that's what you come for. I'm here-and lookin's cheap." Bud's anger flared at the disapproval he read in Cash's eyes, his voice, the set of his lips.

But Cash did not take the challenge. "Did the report come?" he asked, as though that was the only matter worth discussing.

Bud pulled the letter sullenly from his pocket and gave it to Cash. He stood moodily waiting while Cash opened and read and returned it.

"Yeah. About what I thought-only it runs lighter in gold, with a higher percentage of copper. It'll pay to go on and see what's at bed rock. If the copper holds up to this all along, we'll be figuring on the gold to pay for getting the copper. This is copper country, Bud. Looks like we'd found us a copper mine." He turned and walked on beside Bud. "I dug in to quite a rich streak of sand while you was gone," he volunteered after a silence. "Coarse gold, as high as fifteen cents a pan. I figure we better work that while the weather's good, and run our tunnel in on this other when snow comes."

Bud turned his head and looked at Cash intently for a minute. "I've been drunker'n a fool for three days," he announced solemnly.

"Yeah. You look it," was Cash's dry retort, while he stared straight ahead, up the steep, shadowed trail.

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