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First published in Collier's, 26 Feb 1949

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THIS heavy column of wagons came down the steep rim road into town and paused for nooning on the camp grounds near the Kilrain house; here the freighters cooked their meal and afterward walked back to Pendexter's saloon, loitering over their beer until Audrey Brett, the wagon boss, rode his horse against the saloon's doorway and called through, "All right, you can quit fightin' the Indians." He had a rough crew but he was himself a rough man; in half an hour the freight string was again in ponderous motion.

Directly beyond the camp spot ran a creek spanned by a fifteen-foot bridge. The train carried heavy machinery from The Dalles to the Virtue mine westward in the barren agate-strewn hills; when the first wagon and its six horses came upon the bridge both stringers collapsed with small pistol-shot explosions and dropped to the creek ten feet below. The planks made ruffled, ripping sounds as they broke, the wagon rolled tail first into the water and the horses, falling below the surface, began to kick one another to pieces while they strangled.

The teamsters tumbled from their high seats, rushing forward. Audrey Brett rode into the creek and dismounted waist high. He whipped out his pocketknife and made quick passes at the harness to cut the animals free, taking the risk of having his ribs knocked in. Two of the teamsters at last got the heads of the lead horses out of the water and Bat Malarkey managed to unsnap the tugs of the wheelers. In a quarter hour they had four of the horses on dry ground; the other two were dead.

Audrey Brett waded from the creek and took time to fill his pipe and borrow a dry match. Then he made a little speech, complimenting the rotten stringers, the creek, the roads of Wasco County generally, and the county commissioners who were elected to ignore these roads. The words he used were violent but not ill-tempered; actually he was going through a performance his teamsters expected of him, meanwhile studying the damage, and when he was through swearing, he knew what was to be done and how he meant to do it.

"The tongue broke when she jackknifed. Load's got to be dumped, but that chunk of machinery weighs two thousand pounds. We'll team up two strings and snake it out. Get a sledge, Mike, and knock out those bridge planks. We'll use the good ones again when we find some new stringers. Save the spikes. Anybody know about a couple of right-sized pines around here we can use for stringers?"

"This is your part of the country," said Bird Tatum. "You ought to know."

Bat Malarkey said, "Ask him where the women are. He'd know that."

"Around here," said Audrey Brett, "it's trees that's scarce, not women." He was impatient. "All right. Bring up the horses. Billy, get a log chain." Then, cheerful again, he added, "If any of us had good sense, we wouldn't be in this business."

From the front window of the Kilrain house Della witnessed the accident and recognized Aud Brett when he stepped away from the other men. She put a hand on the window frame and steadied herself, identifying the gestures he used and remembering them well. He was heavier. He was a workingman and no longer a boy; but he kept his crew busy, just as he had kept his crowd in town stirred up during earlier days. He hadn't changed much, except that he had found a useful outlet for his energy. She saw Grace Smith come along the walk and turn in.

"Do you know who's in town?" Grace asked.


Grace stared at her. "Did he come to see you, Della?"


"Well," said Grace, "he'll be here a day or two getting the wreck fixed up." She had been a slim, wild huntress who had caused more fights than any other girl in town; now she was twenty-five and had a husband and a baby. Placidness lived among the freckles of her face, but there was a lively expectation in her eyes. "You'll see him, won't you?"


Grace said, "What will Len think?" But she shrugged her shoulders and supplied her own answer. "It doesn't matter. He'll think what you want him to. That's Len." She paused, growing grave, thinking back. "Aud's not changed much. You've had two years to get over it, and you'd better think twice before seeing him again." Then she threw in her question, without pausing and without change of tone, as if to catch Della off guard. "Are you still in love with him?"

Della said gently, "That will be for him to find out, if he's interested."

"You've got a funny little heart. He wasted two years for you. If he causes trouble between you and Len, and Len quits waiting, what's left? Don't make the same mistake twice. Len would have been best for you, if Aud hadn't got in your head. Oh, Lord, there's your mother and I've got to get home."

Mrs. Kilrain came through the back door and watched Grace Smith's back disappear down the front porch steps. "That girl," she said disparagingly. She was hot, she was cross and she knew, Della realized, that Aud Brett was in town. She put her packages on the kitchen table. "Every man around here chased her. I wouldn't want to be her husband, thinkin' about that." She opened the cupboard to stir the tin pans around aimlessly. "I wish you'd quit stringing Len McIntyre along."

Della's answer was soft. "You shouldn't worry."

"I'll worry till you're married," retorted Mrs. Kilrain. She left the kitchen and slammed the bedroom door behind her. From the kitchen window Della watched the men working at the broken wagon. Brett, buried to his waist in the creek, put a shoulder to the wagon and shoved at it, while a string of horses pulled from the shore.

And, she thought, you come tonight. She wanted to see what was in him now, to discover if their breakup and his departure from town had been the tragedy it had seemed. If he had grown into another rough, hard-drinking teamster; if the look in his eyes had changed and the old smile gone—then she could manage a tolerant laughter at her youthful foolishness; then she'd be free.

Directly after supper, Len McIntyre came, his gray suit shedding the dry, pleasing odors of the drugstore. He sat on the steps in the loose folded-up way of a tall man, arms over knees and shoulders slouched, and smoked his evening cigar. He was a good-looking man. He said, "There'll be a line-up of freight outfits clear back to the rim grade before that bridge is fixed."

She rose. "I want to go look at it." She waited in the yard for him to rise. He sat still a moment longer than usual, his eyes studying her across the shadows, and then he got up and traveled beside her, along the walk to the main street and toward the bridge. The road's soft, deep dust squealed beneath her shoes like silk rubbed together.

The creek threaded its way through the collapsed bridge. Nearby, the campfire of Audrey Brett's freight outfit burned a ragged orange glare in the twilight. She heard the men talking—the drowsy, grumbling, incomplete talk of tired men. She reached for a chunk of gravel and threw it into the creek. "I don't remember when this was built."

"Long time ago. In the sixties. My father drove stage then."

She heard the idle striking of steps and saw Aud Brett cut across the fire. He came on until he was within arm's reach. He was much heavier—hard work had filled in the youthful lank places; his shoulders were square and his neck solid. His teeth had the same remembered whiteness when he smiled; his voice carried its same easy tone. "I broke your bridge, Della. Hello, Len."

"Going to fix it?" asked Len.

"If I can find a couple trees to use for stringers."

"You'll have a time," said Len.

"I always have a time," said Aud Brett. "Bad or good, the things that happen to me are always large." Well, there was a change after all, for in the lighthearted swinging of his words she heard the humbling of two years. "Men that work with their hands have got to be beat over the head to learn anything." His shoulders turned, he bent toward her. "How've you been?"

His own impulse had brought him over here, and it pleased her to know that some of that power remained with her. She answered him in the roundabout way which once had been their manner of talking. "Still sitting under the apple tree, Aud."

He smiled; a chuckle rustled up from his deep chest. "Workin' here today, I remembered I taught you to swim off this bridge."

"You threw me in."

"It was only four feet deep, and I was right there—and you learned." A sudden linking of memory took him to something else. "Where's Mrs. Keen now?"

"Oh, Aud," she murmured in half laughter, "how could you think of that? She's over in Mitchell, teaching. You'd better get dry and do some drinking in Pendexter's before your shoulder stiffens on you." It was his left shoulder she touched with the lightly moving point of her finger. Her laughter rose again. "You recall? Let's go back, Len."

At the house she settled on the steps and motioned toward Len to sit beside her, but he stood back to watch her with his quiet temper ruffled.

"No," he said, "I'm going home."

"Len," she said, regretting his embarrassment, "I'm sorry."

"It's never stopped, has it? Will it ever stop?"

"I'll know soon," she said.

"I can wait a little while," he said. "I'm good at it."...

Brett's crew drifted toward Pendexter's while he remained by the fire to dry himself. McIntyre—that was a strange way for Della to end up; he thought of McIntyre with the puzzled interest of a lively man for one who had never run with the crowd. What was there in McIntyre for her?

Her lips were moist, warm velvet whose sensation came at him as though it were only last night and made the two years of absence seem impossible. He thought of Mrs. Kilrain's voice stridently rising to call Della back from the darkness. Mrs. Kilrain had disliked him.

He left the fire and joined his men in Pendexter's. Ten dry days lay behind them, and this hard day's work. They were going to get drunk and tomorrow he would have a cranky outfit on his hands. He laid his chest against the bar, smiling at Pendexter; since leaving this town he had learned a boss had to go through the chute with his men if he wanted to handle them. "Jimmy," he said, "lay out that Colonel Grant if you got any left, and what's happened around here?"

"Huntin' birds in the fall, chasin' women in the winter. Same as always."

"That so?" said Brett, and tried the Colonel Grant. "You didn't take all the fun with you," said Jimmy Pen-dexter.

"I didn't take any, Jimmy. I left it all behind me. Right here."

"Had any good fights since Rob Starkey licked you?"

"So he did," said Audrey Brett, and felt no malice in the recollection. He smiled at Jimmy Pendexter. "Where's he now?"

"Out Cherry Creek, ranchin'. His old man died and left him the place." The saloon man folded his thin hands on the bar and let his agate eyes search Brett. "Always wondered. Was it the lickin' that made you leave here?"

Aud Brett raised his glance with a show of clear surprise. "Jimmy, I thought you knew me better. When a man likes to fight he gets a lot of offers; and I was fool enough to like it then, and never refused one. I took a licking once in a while, but I never was ashamed and never held a grudge. That's not why I left."

"Why, then?"

"Ah," said Aud Brett, his eyes dancing with their sharp humor, "I know you, Jimmy. The town's a puzzle you've been putting together for thirty years, but there's a piece missing—the reason for my leaving—and it aggravates you. The hell with you, though the Colonel Grant's still good." He finished his glass, feeling the nudge of an elbow at his back; he turned to give this other customer an extra bit of room, and met the man's unhappy stare. "You the one that busted the bridge? You got my wagon hung up. A day lost. Damned fine notion."

"Two days, maybe three."

"Damned fine notion."

"Don't thank me," said Brett, all at ease. "I'd do it for anybody."

The stranger looked at him and said, "I don't like the way you throw it back at me."

"Man," said Brett in quietest humor, "catch me when I feel more like fighting."

Malarkey, who had been watching from the saloon's doorway, said at once, "You don't want him, I do."

"He's sober and we're drunk. That's unequal. First see that he has liquor enough, Bat."

Malarkey and the other three closed around the man at once. The man said, "Now, men—" Audrey Brett's great laugh sailed across the room; he left the saloon and followed the walk around the corner and onward to the Kilrain house. She was on the porch alone, waiting.

He waited at the gate for her invitation but it didn't come and then he thought: She's married to Len. But if she were married she would be in McIntyre's house instead of here.

He went in and let himself down beside her; the night's light made its stilled and diminished reflection in her eyes; a smile lay motionless along her mouth. "Della, it's a long time back."

Her laugh went around him like a thin, cool puff of night wind. "Where've you been?"

"All over. You going to marry Len?"


He rubbed his two great fists together with a patience strange to her; he had not been patient before. "He's got the store now? When I was here I never thought much about him. The hell in me wasn't in him. The steady ones go where they're going, but men like me spend half their lives settling down, and then it's too late." He pointed to a corner of the yard. "Where's the swing?"

"The rope rotted away."

"I saw Grace for a minute. Hard to think she'd got a baby girl." His laughter was a gusty barrel-tone from his throat. "And when the baby's grown, Grace'll tell her not to do all the things she did. Where's Barge Stone?"

"He's got a little ranch, and a ferry, over in the Clarno. Sukie married him."

He said, "Teaming back and forth I see some of the crowd now and then. Bill Pogue's bartending in The Dalles. Ed Cochran rides a mail route out of Maupin. He ever marry Fay?"

"No, Fay went bad."

"Ed could have stopped that. That began—" He was quiet, searching back; small lines came around his eyes and, young as he was, she saw that he had learned to understand people, for his smile was soft. "That began on the hay ride we all took to the upper rim. Five years ago. They got lost and Fay's people made too much out of it."

"She was a little wild, Aud."

"So were we all. But all that fire and fuss everybody worried about in us—it's turned into married people with youngsters. It's turned out mostly fine. Not Fay. Not Clark Gaves—he's in the pen. But the rest of you—" He shook his head. "It makes me old."

"Was it the fight with Rob Starkey that made you go?"

"A funny thing. Jimmy asked that too. Was I the kind of a kid I didn't think I was—couldn't take what I gave out?"

"I only wondered."

"I had a lot of ideas, all of them too big for me I know now. But it wasn't the licking that sent me on." Then he was quiet, searching himself, and he presently said, "I'll have to think about that. If I wasn't the boy I thought I was, maybe I'm not the man I think I am."

He tilted his head aside, openly admiring her. He laid his hands on her waist and gently swung her toward him, and kissed her and waited for some kind of an answer to come back; but even though she remained still, she seemed to elude him, until it was as though they were falling through space, he above her and never able to catch up. He rose and walked to the foot of the steps. "You mentioned my shoulder. Why?"

"You were going through without stopping. I wanted to see what you were like."

"Well," he said, "when the old crowd asks, you can tell them Aud Brett—the kid that wanted to be boss—turned into a teamster kicking around eastern Oregon, sleeping on the ground."

"It wouldn't come to me to say exactly that," she said. He said, "We were close once."

"Yes. Once."...

He turned over the meadow to the campfire and crouched down, the fire's livid ashes darkening his face to an oiled bronze. The creek's current struck the fallen stringers of the bridge with a liquid clucking. The earth was quiet and the lamps of town were winking from their scattered places. What came to him so clearly was the remembered warmth of Della, the intense belonging that wrapped them together. How could a thing like that go? He thought: I have caused her trouble enough. If it's Len she wants, I've got to stay away from her.

He heard his teamsters tramping down the road, their voices blurred and easy. They came to the fire, half drunk, the salty discontent settled, the smarting memories dulled. Bat Malarkey said, "Women you knew all gone?"

"All gone. Heaven ain't here any more."...

From her window in the pearl-gray sunless hour of dawn, Della watched him go far down the creek until he was a shape without detail, and crouch to shave, and strip to swim; and her eyes followed him as his hustling walk carried him back to breakfast at the campfire. He had been so careless as a younger man, but somewhere he had learned to be a good boss.

Two men began to pry away the broken stringers of the bridge while the rest of the crew worked the great iron chunk of machinery slowly up from the ground, building a cradle beneath it. Her glance followed him faithfully and steadily around; he lent his weight to the crew working on the machinery, the strain of his heaving so evident that her body grew rigid with him.

She moved to the kitchen and laid her hands on the table; her mouth was flushed and heavy against the summer dusting of her face, its corners minutely unsettled by the rapid shift of her thoughts. Mrs. Kilrain watched these signs with fretful dislike.

"I'm inviting him for supper," Della said.

The protest came furiously from Mrs. Kilrain. "He left you flat. You're a nice girl till you think of him, then you're a she-devil. I hate it."

Della said, "You've forgotten." She turned into the bedroom and put on a skirt and a low-necked white blouse with short sleeves. She looked into the mirror and experimentally swung the upper part of her body, watching the curves of it stir and reshape themselves; her eyes met the eyes in the mirror with a bright head-on hope.

She left the house for the butcher's and while she waited in the shop she faced the doorway and watched Aud Brett in front of the blacksmith's. He had a long stick of lumber laid across a pair of sawbucks, along which he traveled with a hatchet, rounding it down. She took the T-bones from Rudy and crossed over to Brett. "What's that for?"

"New tongue," he said. He had peeled off his shirt; from waist up his flannel undershirt lay tight against the elastic muscles of his body. His neck was burned dark brown as far as the edges of the undershirt, the pale whiteness of his skin showing below. Sweat beaded his face. He nodded at the packages in her arms. "You still make those potatoes with onions and peppers in 'em?"

"They'll be on the table for you tonight."

His wide smile came; it was a white flash of confidence in the bright day. But soberness followed soon after and for an instant she saw him exactly as his eighth-grade picture—in the top drawer of her bureau—showed him to be: grave and uncertain as he looked directly into the camera with some very young and very nice thought in his mind. He said, "You want this town to start talking again?"

She shrugged her shoulders. "Six o'clock," she said, and went on. She saw Grace Smith come along the walk from the frayed-out end of the side street; she waited on the porch for Grace to turn in. Grace said, "What have you got there?"

"His supper."

Grace Smith's glance made its swift darts here and there over Della's face. "Was it any different? Did you wear that blouse?"

Della said nothing.

"You'll break before he does."

Della shook her head and a small-girl faithfulness was a thick shining in her eyes. Grace Smith made a gesture of resignation. "If only you didn't think that there was just one man. That's what traps you—" But there was no answer from Della and Grace Smith said, "Oh, Della, I'm so awfully sorry. You are going to break your heart."...

Aud Brett carefully dressed down the new tongue, bolted on the iron fittings, and carried it back to the wagon. It was five o'clock then, and work and heat left him tired. He walked far down the creek for his swim, coming from the water with great hunger and liveliness, and for a moment he stood by the creek to search the roundabout barren hills with his glance, trying to remember where there was a scattered tree or two. The bridge stringers made him a hard problem.

Then he walked to Pendexter's for his drink, realizing that Jimmy Pendexter was an old man now whose flesh was settling into its final wrinkling. The knowledge saddened him; it was change and loss, destroying something he had grown up with. It made him older, too. He turned out of Pendexter's and walked to the Kilrain house.

She was on the porch, in a gray skirt and a white shirtwaist which made her look exactly like the girl he had waited for in front of the schoolhouse. Her smile came, the well-remembered smile, and he waited for her voice to draw him on with its eagerness; but her words were only pleasant. "Come in, Aud." Throughout the meal he had the notion that she watched him from a great distance.

After supper, in the graying twilight, he sat on the porch steps beside her and felt loss go through him like an empty wind. He laid his hard hands together with a pushing force. "I shouldn't have come back at all."

"Why, Aud?"

"When a man's away from his home town he remembers it as it was, never thinking it will change. It's good to have something solid to fall back on."

"What's changed the most—you or the town?"

"I'll have to think about that," he said quietly. "You want to know why I left? It was the Starkey fight. I had nothing except pride in being able to whip nearly anybody and after Starkey knocked my brains out in front of Pendexter's I didn't have a thing. I remember I said to myself I'd go somewhere and make a million dollars, and come back." He let it ride a moment and added, "I come back a teamster."

"A wagon boss," she said.

He was silent. She watched the various memories, good and bad, make their small changing tides of expression on his face. He said, "Well, it was a good time. We owned this town once—you and I."

"Found your trees?"

"No," he said. He was long still, his chest growing thicker, his whole shape seeming to lift to the thing he had in his mind; she watched this change, knowing that he was making himself face something. He said, "I'm not interfering. I only want to know. Is Len enough?"

"Yes," she said. "He'll know me better."

"Will he know about the storm you like to walk under and the fire that's got to be bright, and all the fun and foolishness? Will he do for that, Della?"

"Maybe," she said.

He listened to her answer and his shoulders settled. "Well, then, that's it," he said. "And I remember where I'll get my two trees. The two down in the hollow at the west end of Rob Starkey's place, where we used to have our picnics." He rose, turning to look down upon her, to watch her closely. "You remember?"

"Yes," she said.

"If a thing's done with, it's better all done with—wiped clean away."

She said, "Cut the trees. Will that wipe it away? The campfire spot's still a mark on the ground."

"The rains will take care of that."

"Can the rains wash through your head, Aud?"

"I guess," he said, "I left my claw marks deep in you. I was pretty young. Put it down to that." He swung away.

She listened to his feet strike over the yard ground and watched him wheel toward the saloon, and in a little while lead his crew to the wagon camp. She saw the crew gather at a wagon and unload it and bring up two teams. Everybody got in the wagon when it swung eastward toward the hills, toward Starkey's ranch. Her mother called irritably from the house, "Come here and tell me." Len McIntyre paced along the walk, turning in. He had been waiting for Aud to go, she realized.

"Had enough company for one night, Della?"

She crossed her arms over her breasts and went through her terrible moment of honesty. He had been patient; he could wait, but she couldn't let him go on waiting. Whatever came of this, it couldn't be Len; it was impossible. "Yes," she said, and was sorry for him as he walked away.

She remained on the porch long afterward, hearing the last groaning of Brett's wagon in the distance; then she went to her room and lay awake in her bed, to stare at the ceiling, to be haunted by the old memories. Somewhere in the early morning hours she heard Brett's wagon returning...

The two logs, squared at the ends, were dropped onto the bridge supports. Bat Malarkey drilled holes for the long tie bolts while the rest of the crew spiked down the planks. As soon as the thing was done, the dammed-up wagons of other freight outfits began to roll over. It was midmorning and Aud's men, having had little sleep, were cranky. But that wasn't what made him decide to lay over there until afternoon; he had pushed men harder before.

He was sour himself, restless and bristled up. Bat Malarkey noted it. "Who you expectin' to fight?"

He said, "Man we stole the trees from," and walked over the bridge to Pendexter's.

He stood at the bar in silence, drinking his whiskey without satisfaction. He closed his eyes a moment, bringing an older memory of Della back to him. He brought it quite close; but it was like walking down a dark stairs and coming unexpectedly to a jump-off.

Pendexter said, so mildly, "Well now, that's Rob Starkey ridin' in," and Aud Brett opened his eyes to find old Pendexter staring through the foggy front windowpane at a horseman coming forward on the street.

Brett said, "I'll try to do better this time, Jimmy," and walked to the street. Rob Starkey was at the moment swinging his leg down from the saddle.

"When I want any trees cut on my range," said Rob Starkey, "I'll do the cutting."

"They're cut now," said Aud Brett. "Two's all you had."

"I won't argue," said Rob Starkey. His eyes, of a calico marble, touched Brett here and there. He dropped the reins of his horse and walked in. He cocked his fists, looked for an opening and began the fight with a feint.

The town came in on this, to make an audience on the walks, and Bat Malarkey and the crew walked forward. Bat, clever at tricks which threw men off balance, said, "You chop him a while, Aud, then I'll chop him a while."

Rob Starkey paid no attention to it. He feinted again, he came in close for a quick try. Brett swung his shoulder to let it pass, and threw all that turning weight into one blow, belly deep.

Starkey's lips grew mushy from the punch and Brett stepped in and hit him twice in the face; but he was wide open when he did it and a club came in from nowhere across his temple and again across his jaw, a roaring started up in his head, he tasted his blood. He twisted and tried again and missed; he threw himself against Starkey and got an arm around Starkey's neck.

Starkey let him ride, and beat on his flanks. Brett's eyes cleared and he brought his weight against the back of Starkey's neck and heaved the man away. Starkey fell in the dust; he rolled and came up and walked forward. Brett slashed him on the mouth. He ducked, taking Star-key's fist on his head. That, he thought, was bad for Starkey's fist, but not very damned good for his head.

He saw Starkey brace himself for a rush; he timed it and jumped with Starkey. His head struck Starkey's nose and he buried a fist in Starkey's stomach. He swayed and brought in a slugging punch to Starkey's head. He was hit hard on the mouth, on the ribs, on the side of the neck. Starkey was quick and the punches came in too fast. Brett knocked his way through and got his arm around Starkey's neck again.

He sensed a weakening, for Starkey didn't throw him off. By God, Brett thought, I'm not what I was. He stepped away, and brought down Starkey's guard. There was a look on Starkey's face like that of a runner who had gone far enough and wanted to stop for wind; Brett slugged him twice, on the jaw and on the Adam's apple; his arms got so heavy that he drew back and let them fall.

Starkey stared at him. "Let's quit this."

"All right," said Brett. "I can't hate a man very long. Come have a drink."

He followed Starkey into the bar. His feet were leaden and the big muscles along his thighs trembled. He hooked his elbows on the bar; pain began to swarm in from everywhere. His hand shook the whiskey glass. So did Starkey's. "I was a damned sight better at nineteen," said Starkey. "Where does it go?"

"Down the black funnel, drop at a time. Make Wasco County pay for those trees, Rob."

"Only two trees I had. Ten thousand acres and just two trees." Starkey gave Brett the first direct look since the fight. "Where'll the kids go now for spoonin'?"

"Under the bridge, when the creek's dry," said Brett.

"Listen," said Starkey, "no more of this," and went away. Brett crossed his arms on the bar and dropped his head against them a moment.

He heard Bat Malarkey say, "You had him, Aud. One more and he'd been fiat. Too bad. You could of killed him off."

"We'll lay over here till morning," said Brett. He pulled himself away from the bar's support and spoke to Pen-dexter. "Jimmy, you were right, and that's the end of your puzzle." He limped from the saloon, knowing he had been kicked by horses with less damage than this. He stopped before the Kilrain house; Della stood in the doorway.

He said, "I cut the trees, Della, but I'm sorry for it. There'll never be another spot like that one—not for me."

"Your mouth's bleeding. You've got a cut on your hand."

"That was his big seal ring," he said.

She said, "Come in the house," and waited for him to pass through the door. "Lie on the couch." He hesitated, but she gave him a brief push with her hand and went into the kitchen and he heard her move a kettle around the stove. He put a hand over his eyes, rolling to take the weight from his worst side. She came back beside the couch and he removed his hand from his head and found her looking down, her eyes dense with feeling, gray as ashes.

"It's queer what fool kids will think," he said. "After I took my beating, I didn't figure I had anything left you wanted. It was a long time before I saw we had something better than that, but then it was too late for me to come back. I didn't want to make things rough for you a second time."

She said, "Len won't do, Aud," and she dropped to the edge of the couch and bent down against his chest. She lay still, the warm air of her breathing touching his neck. Her weight doubled the crying of his sore body, but he remained motionless and endured it. "I've been back to those trees many times," she said, "and wished you were with me."

He put his hand on her back. "Your mother's listening in the other room. Tell her she's got nothing to be afraid of. We better tell Len."

"I've done it," she said.