Brice by Margaret Collier Graham

I.

He came up the mountain road at nightfall, urging his lean mustang forward wearily, and coughing now and then—a heavy, hollow cough that told its own story.

There were only two houses on the mesa stretching shaggy and sombre with greasewood from the base of the mountains to the valley below,—two unpainted redwood dwellings, with their clumps of trailing pepper-trees and tattered bananas,—mere specks of civilization against a stern background of mountain-side. The traveler halted before one of them, bowing awkwardly as the master of the house came out.

"Mr. Brandt, I reckon."

Joel Brandt looked up into the stranger's face. Not a bad face, certainly: sallow and drawn with suffering,—one of those hopelessly pathetic faces, barely saved from the grotesque by a pair of dull, wistful eyes. Not that Joel Brandt saw anything either grotesque or pathetic about the man.

"Another sickly looking stranger outside, Barbara, wants to try the air up here. Can you keep him? Or maybe the Fox's'll give him a berth."

Mrs. Brandt shook her head in a house-wifely meditation.

"No; Mrs. Fox can't, that's certain. She has an asthma and two bronchitises there now. What's the matter with him, Joel?"

The stranger's harsh, resonant cough answered.

"Keep him?—to be sure. You might know I'd keep him, Joel; the night air's no place for a man to cough like that. Bring him into the kitchen right away."

The newcomer spread his bony hands over Mrs. Brandt's cheery fire, and the soft, dull eyes followed her movements wistfully.

"The fire feels kind o' homey, ma'am; Californy ain't much of a place for fires, it 'pears."

"Been long on the coast, stranger?" Joel squared himself interrogatively.

"'Bout a week. I'm from Indianny. Brice's my name—Posey Brice the boys 'n the glass-mill called me. I wuz blowed up in a glass-mill oncet." The speaker turned to show an ugly scar on his neck. "Didn't know where I wuz fer six weeks—thought I hadn't lit. When I come to, there wuz Loisy potterin' over me; but I ain't been rugged sence."

"Married?"

The man's answer broke through the patient homeliness of his face at once. He fumbled in his pocket silently, like one who has no common disclosure to make.

"What d' ye think o' them, stranger?"

Joel took the little, rusty, black case in his hands reverently. A woman's face, not grand, nor fair even, some bits of tawdry finery making its plainness plainer; and beside it a round-eyed boy plumped into a high chair, with two little feet sticking sturdily out in Joel's face.

Mrs. Brandt looked over her husband's shoulder with kindly curiosity.

"The boy favors you amazingly about the mouth; but he's got his mother's eyes, and they're sharp, knowin' eyes, too. He's a bright one, I'll be bound."

"Yours, I reckon?"

"Yes, that's Loisy an' the boy," fighting the conscious pride in his voice like one who tries to wear his honors meekly.

He took the well-worn case again, gazing into the two faces an instant with helpless yearning, and returned it to its place. The very way he handled it was a caress, fastening the little brass hook with scrupulous care.

"I'll be sendin' fur 'em when I git red o' this pesterin' cough."

II.

A very quiet, unobtrusive guest Mrs. Brandt found the man Brice; talking little save in a sudden gush of confidence, and always of his wife and child; choosing a quiet corner of the kitchen in the chill California nights, where he watched his hostess's deft movements with wistful admiration.

"Try huntin', Brice; the doctors mostly say it's healthy."

And Brice tried hunting, as Joel advised, taking the gun from its crotch over the door after breakfast, and wandering for hours in the yellow, wine-like air of the mesa. He came in at noon and nightfall always empty-handed, yet no one derided his failure. There was something about the man that smothered derision.

"A sort o' thunderin' patience that knocks a fellow," Bert Fox put it.

Mrs. Brandt had always an encouraging word for the hunter.

"Greasewood's bad fer huntin'. Joel says it don't pay to look fer quail in the brush when he does fetch 'em down."

"Like enough. I dunno, ma'am. Reckon I've had a good many shots at the little wild critters, but they allus turn their heads so kind o' innocent like. A man as has been blowed up oncet hisself ain't much at separatin' fam'lies. But I s'pose it ain't the shootin' that's healthy, mebbe."

And so the hunting came to an end without bloodshed. Whether the doctors were right, or whether it was the mingled resin and honey of the sage and chaparral, no one cared to ask. Certain it is that the "pesterin' cough" yielded a little, and the bent form grew a trifle more erect.

"I think likely it's the lookin' up, ma'am. Mountains seem to straighten a fellow some way. 'Pears to me somebody writ oncet uv liftin' his eyes to the hills fer help. Mebbe not, though. I ain't much at recollectin' verses. Loisy's a powerful hand that way."

Perhaps the man was right. It was the looking up.

He followed Joel from the table one morning, stopping outside, his face full of patient eagerness.

"I'm gittin' right smart o' strength, neighbor. Ef there's odd jobs you could gi' me; I'd be slow, mebbe, but seems like 'most anything 'ud be better 'n settin' 'round."

Joel scratched his head reflectively. The big, brawny-handed fellow felt no disposition to smile at his weak brother.

"Fox and I wuz sayin' yesterday we'd like to put another man on the ditch; it'll be easy work fer a week, till we strike rock again. Then there's the greasewood. It's always on hand. You might take it slow, grubbin' when you wuz able. I guess we'll find you jobs enough, man."

The scarred, colorless face brightened.

"Thank ye, neighbor. Ef you'll be so kind, there's another little matter. I'll have a trifle over when I've paid your woman fer her trouble. I wuz thinkin' like enough you'd let me run up a shanty on yer place here. Loisy wouldn't mind about style—just a roof to bring 'em to. It's fer her and the boy, you know," watching Joel's face eagerly.

"Yes, yes, Brice; we'll make it all right. Just take things kind o' easy. I'll be goin' in with wood next week, and I'll fetch you out a load o' lumber. We'll make a day of it after 'while, and put up your house in a jiffy."

And so Brice went to work on the ditch, gently at first, spared from the heaviest work by strong arms and rough kindliness. And so, ere long, another rude dwelling went up on the mesa, the blue smoke from its fireside curling slowly toward the pine-plumed mountain-tops.

The building fund, scanty enough at best, was unexpectedly swelled by a sudden and obstinate attack of forgetfulness which seized good Mrs. Brandt.

"No, Brice, you haven't made me a spark o' trouble, not a spark. I'm sure you've paid your way twice over bringin' in wood, and grindin' coffee, an' the like. Many a man'd asked wages for the half you've done, so I'm gettin' off easy to call it square." And the good lady stood her ground unflinchingly.

"You've been powerful good to me, ma'am. We'll be watchin' our chance to make it up to you,—Loisy an' me. I'll be sendin' fer Loisy d'reckly now."

"Yes, yes, man, and there'll be bits o' furniture and things to get. Spread your money thin, and Mrs. Fox and me'll come in and put you to rights when you're lookin' for her."

He brought the money to Joel at last, a motley collection of gold and silver pieces.

"Ef ye'll be so kind as to send it to 'er, neighbor,—Mrs. Loisy Brice, Plattsville, Indianny. I've writ the letter tellin' her how to come. There's enough fer the ticket and a trifle to spare. The boy's a master hand at scuffin' out shoes an' things. You'll not make any mistake sendin' it, will you?"

"No, no, Brice; it'll go straight as a rocket. Let me see now. The letter'll be a week, then 'lowin' 'em a week to get started"—

"Loisy won't be a week startin', neighbor."

"Never you mind, man. 'Lowin' 'em a week to get off, that's two weeks; then them emigrant trains is slow, say thirteen days on the road,—that's about another fortnight,—four weeks; this is the fifth, ain't it? Twenty-eight and five's thirty-three; that'll be the third o' next month, say. Now mind what I tell you, Brice; don't look fer 'em a minute before the third,—not a minute."

"'Pears like a long spell to wait, neighbor."

"I know it, man; but it'll seem a thunderin' sight longer after you begin to look fer 'em."

"I reckon you're right. Say four weeks from to-day, then. Like enough you'll be goin' in."

"Yes, we'll hitch up and meet 'em at the train,—you and me. The women'll have things kind o' snug ag'in' we git home. Four weeks'll soon slide along, man."

Joel went into the house smiling softly.

"I had to be almost savage with the fellow, Barbara. The anxious seat's no place fer a chap like him; it'd wear him to a toothpick in a week."

"But she might get here before that, you know, Joel."

"I'll fix that with the men at the depot. If she comes sooner we'll have her out here in a hurry. Wish to goodness she would."

III.

The Southern winter blossomed royally. Bees held high carnival in the nodding spikes of the white sage, and now and then a breath of perfume from the orange groves in the valley came up to mingle with the wild mountain odors. Brice worked every moment with feverish earnestness, and the pile of gnarled roots on the clearing grew steadily larger. With all her loveliness, Nature failed to woo him. What was the exquisite languor of those days to him but so many hours of patient waiting? The dull eyes saw nothing of the lavish beauty around him then, looking through it all with restless yearning to where an emigrant train, with its dust and dirt and noisome breath, crawled over miles of alkali, or hung from dizzy heights.

"To-morrow's the third, neighbor. I reckon she'll be 'long now d'reckly."

"That's a fact; what a rattler time is!" The days had not been long to Joel. "We'll go in to-morrow, and if they don't come you can stay and watch the trains awhile. She won't know you, Brice; you've picked up amazingly."

"I think likely Loisy'll know me if she comes."

But she did not come. Joel returned the following night alone, having left Brice at cheap lodgings near the station. Numberless passers-by must have noticed the patient watcher at the incoming trains, the homely pathos of his face deepening day by day, the dull eyes growing a shade duller, and the awkward form a trifle more stooped with each succeeding disappointment. It was two weeks before he reappeared on the mesa, walking wearily like a man under a load.

"I reckon there's something wrong, ma'am. I come out to see ef yer man 'ud write me a letter. I hadn't been long in Plattsville, but I worked a spell fer a man named Yarnell; like enough he'd look it up a little. I ain't much at writin', an' I'd want it all writ out careful like, you know." The man's voice had the old, uncomplaining monotony.

Joel wrote the letter at once, making the most minute inquiries regarding Mrs. Brice, and giving every possible direction concerning her residence. Then Brice fell back into the old groove, working feverishly, in spite of Mrs. Brandt's kindly warnings.

"I can't stop, ma'am; the settin' 'round 'ud kill me."

The answer came at last, a businesslike epistle, addressed to Joel. Mrs. Brice had left Plattsville about the time designated. Several of her neighbors remembered that a stranger, a well-dressed man, had been at the house for nearly a week before her departure, and the two had gone away together, taking the Western train. The writer regretted his inability to give further information, and closed with kindly inquiries concerning his former employee's health, and earnest commendation of him to Mr. Brandt.

Joel read the letter aloud, something—some sturdy uprightness of his own, no doubt—blinding him to its significance.

"Will you read it ag'in, neighbor? I'm not over-quick."

The man's voice was a revelation full of an unutterable hurt, like the cry of some dumb wounded thing.

And Joel read it again, choking with indignation now at every word.

"Thank ye, neighbor. I'll trouble you to write a line thankin' him; that's all."

He got up heavily, staggering a little as he crossed the floor, and went out into the yellow sunlight. There was the long, sun-kissed slope, the huge pile of twisted roots, the rude shanty with its clambering vines. The humming of bees in the sage went on drowsily. Life, infinitely shrunken, was life still. A more cultured grief might have swooned or cried out. This man knew no such refuge; even the poor relief of indignation was denied to him. None of the thousand wild impulses that come to men smitten like him flitted across his clouded brain. He only knew to take up his burden dumbly and go on. If he had been wiser, could he have known more?

No one spoke of the blow that had fallen upon him. The sympathy that met him came in the warmer clasp of hard hands and the softening of rough voices, none the worse certainly for its quietness. Alone with her husband, however, good Mrs. Brandt's wrath bubbled incessantly.

"It's a crying, burning, blistering shame, Joel, that's what it is. I s'pose it's the Lord's doings, but I can't see through it."

"If the Lord's up to that kind o' business, Barbara, I don't see no further use fer the devil," was the dry response.

These plain, honest folk never dreamed of intruding upon their neighbor's grief with poor suggestions of requital. Away in the city across the mountains men babbled of remedies at law. But this man's hurt was beyond the jurisdiction of any court. Day by day the hollow cough grew more frequent, and the awkward step slower. Nobody asked him to quit his work now. Even Mrs. Brandt shrank from the patient misery of his face when idle. He came into her kitchen one evening, choosing the old quiet corner, and following her with his eyes silently.

"Is there anything lackin', Brice?" The woman came and stood beside him, the great wave of pity in her heart welling up to her voice and eyes.

"Nothin', ma'am, thank ye. I've been thinkin'," he went on, speaking more rapidly than was his wont, "an' I dunno. You've knowed uv people gettin' wrong in their minds, I s'pose. They wuz mostly smart, knowin' chaps, wuzn't they?" the low, monotonous voice growing almost sharp with eagerness. "I reckon you never knowed of any one not over-bright gittin' out of his head, ma'am?"

"I wouldn't talk o' them things, Brice. Just go on and do your best, and if there's any good, or any right, or any justice, you'll come out ahead; that's about all we know, but it's enough if we stick to it."

"I reckon you're right, ma'am. 'Pears sometimes, though, as ef anything 'ud be better 'n the thinkin'."

IV.

It all came to an end one afternoon. Brice was at work on the ditch again, preferring the cheerful companionship of Joel and Bert Fox to his own thoughts, and Mrs. Brandt was alone in her kitchen. Two shadows fell across the worn threshold, and a weak, questioning voice brought the good woman to her door instantly.

"Good-day to you, ma'am. Is there a man named Brice livin' nigh here anywhere?"

It was a woman's voice,—a woman with some bits of tawdry ornament about her, and a round-eyed boy clinging bashfully to her skirts.

Mrs. Brandt brought them into the house, urging the stranger to rest a bit and get her breath.

"Thank you, ma'am; I'd like to be movin' on. Do you know if he's well,—the man Brice? We're his wife an' boy."

The woman told her story presently, when Mrs. Brandt had induced her to wait there until the men came home,—told it with no unnecessary words, and her listener made no comment.

"My brother come a week afore we was leavin', an' he helped us off an' come as fur as Omaha. He'd done well out in Nebrasky, an' he give me right smart o' money when he left. I was took sick on the road,—I disremember jest where,—an' they left me at a town with a woman named Dixon. She took care o' me. I was out o' my head a long time, an' when I come to I told 'em to write to Brice, an' they writ, an' I reckon they took the name of the place from the ticket. I was weak like fer a long spell, an' they kep' a writin' an' no word come, an' then I recollected about the town,—it was Los Angeles on the ticket,—and then I couldn't think of the place I'd sent the letters to before, an' the thinkin' worrited me, an' the doctor said I mustn't try. So I jest waited, an' when I got to Los Angeles I kep' a-askin' fer a man named Brandt, till one day somebody said, 'Brandt? Brandt? 'pears to me there's a Brandt 'way over beyond the Mission.' And then it come to me all at oncet that the place I'd writ to was San Gabriel Mission. An' I went there an' they showed me your house. Then a man give us a lift on his team part o' the way, an' we walked the rest. It didn't look very fur, but they say mountains is deceivin'. There 's somethin' kind o' grand about 'em, I reckon; it makes everything 'pear sort o' small."

Mrs. Brandt told Joel about it that evening.

"I just took the two of 'em up to the shanty, and opened the door, and you'd a cried to see how pleased she was with everything. And I told her to kindle a fire and I'd fetch up a bite o' supper. And when I'd carried it up and left it, I just come back and stood on the step till I saw Brice comin' home. He was walkin' slow, as if his feet was a dead weight, and when he took hold o' the door he stopped a minute, lookin' over the valley kind o' wishful and hopeless. I guess she heard him come, for she opened the door, and I turned around and come in. 'Barbara Brandt,' says I, 'you've seen your see. If God wants to look at that, I suppose He has a right to; nobody else has, that's certain.'"