NOT many years after General Crook drove out the last wild remnant of the Apache Indian tribe, the old Apache trail from the Mogollons across the Tonto Basin to the Four Peaks country had become a wagon road for the pioneer cattlemen and sheepmen who were drifting into the country.
Jacob Dunton and his family made camp one day at the crossing of the Verde. The country began to have a captivating look for this Kansas farmer. From the rim top his keen eyes had sighted a brook meandering through grassy clearings in the dark green forest below. His wife Jane and Jake, their six-year-old boy, were tired from the long journey, and a few days rest would be good for them… While they recuperated in camp Jacob rode up toward the rim, finding the magnificent forest, the deep canyons and grassy swales, the abundance of game, much to his liking.
Upon his return one day he found Jake playing with a handsome, curly-haired lad, perhaps a year older than himself.
"Hullo, whose kid is thet?" he asked his pioneer wife, who was still young, buxom, and comely.
"I don't know," she replied anxiously. "There have been several wagon trains passing by today. They stopped, of course, for water."
"Reckon this boy got lost an' hasn't been missed yet." replied Dunton. "There'll be someone ridin' back for him."
But no inquiring rider visited the Dunton camp that day, nor the next, nor the day following.
"Jake, what's your new pard's name?" Dunton had inquired of his son.
"I dunno. He won't tell," replied Jake. Name obviously did not matter to this youngster. He was too happy with his playmate to care about superficials.
Mrs. Dunton managed to elicit from the lost boy the name Dodge, but she could not be sure whether that was a family name or one belonging to a place. The lad was exceedingly shy and strange. A most singular thing appeared to be his fear of grown people.
Dunton had decided to homestead in a beautiful valley up the creek, yet he was in no hurry to move. By the wagon trains and travelers who passed his campground he sent on word of the lost boy, Dodge. No one, however, returned to claim him.
"Jane, I've a hunch his people, if he had any, don't want him back," said Dunton seriously to his wife one day.
"Oh, no! Not such a pretty, dear little boy!" she remonstrated.
"Wal, you can never tell. Mebbe he didn't have no folks. I don't know just what to do about it. I cain't go travelin' all over the country lookin' for a lost boy's people. It's gettin time for me to locate an' run up a cabin."
"We can keep him until somebody does come after him," said Jane. "He and Jake sure have cottoned to each other. An' you know our Jake was always a stand-offish boy."
"Suits me," replied the pioneer, and forthwith he fashioned a rude sign upon which he cut the words LOST BOY, and an arrow pointing up the creek. This he nailed upon a tree close to where the creek crossed the road. With this duty accomplished he addressed himself to the arduous task of getting his family and outfit up to the site he had chosen for a homestead.
Little Jake called his new playmate Verde, and the name stuck. No anxious father came to claim Verde. In time, and for long after the rude sign had rotted away, the crossing by the road was known as Lost Boy Ford.
The years passed. Ranches began to dot the vast, timbered Tonto Basin, though relatively few in number, owing to the widely scattered bits of arable land with available water. A few settlements, even far more widely separated, sprang up in advantageous places. Wagon trains ceased to roll down over the purple rim and on down through the endless forest to the open country beyond the ranges. The pioneers from the Middle West came no more.
The Tonto remained almost as isolated as before its domain had been invaded. In one way it was as wild as ever it had been in the heyday of Geronimo and his fierce Apaches; and this was because of the rustler bands that found a rendezvous in the almost inaccessible canyons under the rim. They preyed upon the cattlemen and sheepmen, who would have waxed prosperous but for their depredations. Jacob Dunton was one of the ranchers who was kept poor by these cattle-stealing marauders. But despite his losses he could see that the day of the rustler was waning. In fact, the tragic Pleasant Valley War, which was heralded throughout the West as a battle between cattlemen and sheepmen, was really between the ranchers and the rustlers, and it forever broke the stranglehold of the livestock thieves. Slowly the Tonto began to recover, and it began to hold promise for the far future.
Jake and Verde were raised together in a log cabin that nestled under the towering gold and yellow craggy rim. The brook that passed their home roared in spring with the melting snows and sang musically all during the other seasons.
The boys grew up with the deer and the bear and the wild turkeys which ranged their pasture land with the calves and colts. They learned how to track animals as other boys learned to play games. It was to be part of their lives. They hunted and trapped before they even know how to read. In fact, the few summers' schooling they managed to get did not come until they were between twelve and sixteen years old.
Both of them grew into the rangy, long-limbed type peculiar to the region. The Tonto type was a composite of rider and hunter, wood chopper and calf brander, with perhaps more of the backwoods stamp than that of the range.
Jake, at twenty-two, was a lithe, narrow-hipped, wide shouldered young giant, six feet tall, with as rugged and homely a face as the bark of one of the pines under which he had grown to manhood. He had a mat of coarse hair, beetling brows, a huge nose, and a wide mouth. But his eyes, if closely looked into, made up for his other possible defects. They were clear gray, intent and piercing, even beautiful in their latent light.
Verde, at twenty-three, was a couple of inches shorter than Jake, a little heavier, yet of the same supple, lithe build, fair and curly-haired, ruddy-cheeked, with eyes of flashing blue, handsome as a young woodland god.
And these two, from the day of their strange meeting at Lost Boy Ford to the years of their manhood, had been inseparable. No real blood brothers could have been closer.
Jake liked hunting best of all work or play, while Verde inclined to horses. Being a born horse-man, naturally he gravitated toward riding the range. Jake was the most proficient with rifle and six-shooter, as he was also with everything pertaining to trapping wild animals. Verde had no peer in the use of a lasso. He could rope and throw and tie a steer in record time. Jake's father called Verde the champion "bulldogger" of the Tonto. Verde was not so good with an ax as Jake, but he could mow his way down a field of sorghum far ahead of Jake.
Thus the two of them, with their opposite tastes and abilities, made a team for Jacob Dunton that Thus the two of them, with their opposite tastes and abilities, made a team for Jacob Dunton that could not have been equaled in all of the Tonto Basin. Long ago Dunton had abandoned any hope of ever learning Verde's parentage. In fact, he did not want to. Verde was as his own son. And Verde had all but forgotten the mystery behind his boyhood.
The Duntons had no other children; and the great herd of cattle they hoped to amass someday would belong equally to Jake and Verde.
In spring, after the roundup, which was a long arduous task, owing to the wild timberland and rough canyons where the cattle ranged, there would be the plowing and the planting, the clearing of more land, the building of fences. In the fall would come the harvesting, which time, of all seasons, these backwoods pioneers loved best. They had their husking bees and bean picking parties and sorghum-cutting rivalries—and their dances, which were the very heart of their lives. In late fall they killed pigs and beeves and deer for their winter meat; and from then on to spring again they chopped wood and toasted their shins before the open fireplace.
During the autumn the settler families on the upper slope of this Tonto Basin gathered once a week for a dance. Occasionally it was held at a ranch cabin, sometimes in the woodland school-house, but mostly in the little town of Tonto Flat.
The dance represented their main social life. They had no church, no county house, no place where old and young could meet. Therefore the dance constituted a most serious and important affair. It was here that the strapping young backwoodsmen met and won their sweethearts. In fact, that was perhaps the vital purpose of the dances. There was little other opportunity for courting.
And seldom did a dance occur without one or more fights, one of which, now and then, could be serious. Fighting was characteristic for the Tonto youths. Had not their fathers fought the rustlers for twenty years? And as these hardy pioneers had settled many feuds over cattle, sheep, land, and water with cold steel or hot lead, so their sons settled many rivalries with brawn and blood.
Jake and Verde went to all the dances. Even when off on a hunt up into the canyons or over the rim, they made sure to get back in time for the great events of the week. And Jake and Verde were very popular among the valley girls. Seldom did they take the same girl twice in one season, and every occasion was a gala one. Sometimes they exchanged girls—an event which was regarded with wonder and amusement by their young comrades, and always with concern by their elders. Jake and Verde were not responding satisfactorily to the real purpose of the dance. Neither youth evinced any abiding interest in any one girl. They were both capital catches for any young woman, and this, coupled with their debonair indifference and their boyish brotherly absorption in each other, was the cause of considerable pique.
"Wal," said Jacob Dunton, "I reckon them thar boys of mine ain't feelin' thar oats yet."
"I'm tellin' you, Pa," replied his wife, "it ain't that. They're both full of fire an' go. It's jist that Jake an' Verde are too wrapped up in each other to see any of these steady home-makin' lasses they meet. I love Jake an' Verde jist as they are, but sometimes it worries me."
"Reckon thar's reason for consarn," said Dunton, shaking his shaggy head. "Some hussy will split them like a wedge in dry pine someday."
ONE night, at Tonto Flat, an extra dance was given in honor of Miss Kitty Mains, a newcomer to the settlement.
Jake and Verde, learning the news late, arrived without partners when the dance was in full swing. They had ample time to see Miss Mains and watch her before there came any opportunity to meet her. And so even before this meeting took place the havoc had already been wrought.
They also had plenty of time to learn all about her; the information was voluntarily offered by swains as dazzled as they. Kitty was the daughter of a St. Louis horse dealer, who had come to Arizona for his health and who was going to buy out the Stillwell cattle interests and take up ranching on rather a large scale. He was reputed to be rich.
But this news would not have been necessary excite interest in Kitty Mains. She was strikingly beautiful and something quite new to the gallants of the Tonto Basin. She was small of stature, though graceful and well rounded of form. She had a face that struck men and women alike as pretty and pert, and then gradually grew on one. Her hair was brown, curly, luxuriant, and rebellious. Her small lips, usually curved in a smile, were of the color and sweetness of a ripe cherry. She had a complexion that made the tanned and ruddy skin of the Tonto girls look coarse by comparison. She had an additional advantage over them by being daintily and stylishly dressed, her Eastern gowns showing something of her pretty round arms and white neck. But Kitty's superlative charm lay in her eyes—in the remarkable fact of their variance, for one was blue and the other hazel—and of their strangely contrasting beauty. As it was undoubtedly a fact that Kitty Mains could look at a youth with different kinds of eyes, so it seemed that she could look with two kinds of natures, one sweet, wistful, appealing, and the other a dancing devil.
There was not the slightest doubt that she had heard all about Jake and Verde before they were introduced to her; and very little doubt of her curious and divided interest. No good angel was hovering near these raw and impressionable young men to warn them that Kitty Mains was an unconscious and instinctive flirt, an insatiably greedy little soul who lived on love and had never yet returned it, whose nature would never allow her to brook such a beautiful bond of brotherly affection such as that which long had bound Jake and Verde so closely together. She had the animal instinct that either garners for herself or destroys.
Out of her multiplicity of partners she found several whom she could exchange or desert for Jake and Verde. So in time they got to dance with her. The other girls present already knew, if Jake and Verde did not know, what had happened.
Kitty was as different to each as were her two eyes and two natures. Verde she tormented with that dancing little demon, tantalizing him, courting him with a running challenge of talk wholly new to him and utterly irresistible, always escaping from his eager arm yet continually drawing him on. Jake she entwined as if she were a clinging vine. She had little to say to this quiet, lonely, backwoods boy. But she gave him that shy, sweet, wistful blue eye, and yielded her soft form to the dance, so that her fragrant hair brushed his lips.
Jake and Verde left the dance in the gray hours of the morning, only when there seemed no more hope to get another dance with Kitty. They rode out under the dark blue dome of sky with its mantle of white stars. They did not feel the nipping, frosty air. They raved and babbled like two silly lads over the charms of the new girl and always ended with praising the two different eyes—the blue and the hazel—that were so sweet, so strange, so beautiful.
They rode off the highway into the trail through the lonely forest, under the dark pines, and they still talked on, raving over the charms of the new girl from St. Louis, each trying to outdo the other in the extravagance of his praises. But at last they fell silent.
Deeper and higher into the forest land they rode, while the first flush of dawn changed the steely sky to rose over the dark fringed canyon rim under which they lived. The rose turned to gold, and burst into the rising glory of the sun.
It was like the thing that had as suddenly burst in their own hearts.
All this happened to Jake and Verde along about the end of September, just at the beginning of the golden autumn season.
At first they found time to ride into Tonto Flat together. Then Jake made an excuse to go alone one day, while Verde was off somewhere on the range. When the next dance came around, it was Jake who was the proud escort of Kitty Mains.
Verde did not know what to make of the matter, particularly of his conflicting emotions. It hurt that Jake had not confided in him for the first time in his life. He went to the dance alone, silent and troubled. Kitty gave him more dances than she had reserved for Jake. This was contrary to the custom of the backwoods, for the escort always looked after his partner's dances, and took them all himself if he chose. Jake would have been generous, but he was not permitted to choose, and he found himself lucky to get the few she deigned to give him. Thus it was that Jake had the honor of escorting this captivating and willful damsel, but Verde received most of her dances and the most dazzling of her smiles.
The next week the first rift appeared in the perfect relationship that had existed so long between these more than brothers. They did not yet understand what was taking place. But they did not ride together, nor work, nor hunt together. Verde was gone from home for two days, and returned by way of Tonto Flat, obviously with good reason to be exultant. And it was he who took the bewildering Miss Kitty to the next dance, where his triumph was all short-lived, for he had to suffer the same treatment she had accorded Jake on the previous occasion.
This triangle affair had now become the talk of the Tonto Basin. Never had the dances been so largely attended; and a girl would have had to be vain indeed not to be satisfied with Kitty Main's conquest of the Dunton boys.
They neglected their fall work to such an extent that Dunton took them to task. But his unfamiliar and rude criticism only acted like burning embers upon naked flesh. Mrs. Dunton was too wise to say anything, but she grew more troubled as the days passed. The young men of the Tonto awaited with keen zest and wild speculation the inevitable fight. The young women, aside from natural jealousy and resentment, did not enjoy the strained situation.
Two more dances, one of which Kitty did not attend at all, leaving it a total loss for the lovesick twain, and the other to which she went with young Stillwell, brought matters to a climax between Jake and Verde.
They grew estranged, a feeling which found expression in a desire to be alone rather than in an open break. Their very avoidance of each other's company widened the spiritual gulf that grew wider between them. Because of their long and beautiful companionship, anyone might have imagined that they would talk the matter over in a frank, manly way and decided to go to Kitty together and make her choose between them. But the very intensity of their feelings precluded that. They were in the grip of something beyond their experience.
Everything in the Tonto, according to the old backwoodsmen, presaged one of the long, lingering, late falls. These Indian summer seasons were welcomed by the pioneers. They made preparation for winter less arduous and meant that the winter would be shorter. But sometimes a late fall would end with a terrific storm, and that was always bad. Severe storms up under the rim were liable to destroy much of the improvement accomplished during the summer, not to mention the loss of stock.
The hard frosts did not come; the rains held off; the leaves changed color so slowly that the wonderful golden and scarlet and purple blaze of the canyons did not arrive at its fullness of beauty and fire until toward the end of October. The wild denizens of the forest gave no signs of the approach of winter. Ordinarily the deer and turkeys would be down off the mountain; the acorns would be ripe, the trails would be colorful with fallen leaves; the bears would be fat and "located", as old Dunton would call it. Over all the wilderness lay a drowsy, slumberous sense of waiting. A deep sighing breath soughed through the pine forest. The squirrels delayed their cutting of spruce cones, so that as yet that sure sign of early snows, the thud of dropping cones, did not disturb the peaceful solitude. The elk had not begun to bugle, the jays to squall, the wolves to mourn.
But passion, once awakened in Jake and Verde and at last realized, did not wait for the slow ripening of nature's fruitful season.
No Tonto youths ever let the autumn leaves heap round their long-spurred riding boots in the affairs of heart. They stormed the citadel and were seldom gentle about it. Jake and Verde had magnified in them all the elements of this primitive rockbounded wilderness. They never rode to Tonto Flat together any more, but there was not one of the closing mellow days of October in which they did not ride to Kitty Mains' door. She found herself caught in her own devious toils. This fierce rivalry between two savage men was something new even to her experience. It frightened her.
For weeks the dances had been held at Tonto Flat and Green Valley, which were more accessible to the majority of Tonto Basin natives than the big log schoolhouse in the forest at the foot of the mountain slope. Here, in the years gone by, had taken place the important dances which had made history for the Tonto; and always the last dance of each season.
November came, with its still, blue-hazed mornings, and its warm, lazy, golden afternoons. But there seemed to be something exciting in the air, a cool breath in the silent forest. The deer had begun to range down from the heights.
Jake and Verde each had long solicited the honor of escorting Kitty Mains to this last dance of the season. In this instance they had given Kitty the privilege of choosing between them. She kept them waiting for her reply. Perhaps it was hard for her to make a decision—to show the Tonto people her preference. Perhaps she could not make up her mind which man she wanted to make happy and which she must hurt. Then perhaps she was afraid of this situation which she herself had brought about. In the end, and late in the day, she refused them both. It was probably the only instance, since her arrival at Tonto Flat, that she showed any strength of character.
On the day of this dance Jake came in from the woods to find Verde sitting aimlessly in the sun out by the log barn.
"Verde," he said, "Kitty sent me word late—she won't go with me tonight."
"Same here, Jake," replied Verde dejectedly.
"She's going with Ben Stillwell."
"Sure. I heard so this mawnin'."
"Who told you?"
"I was down to the mesa an' dropped in on the Browns. They had all the latest news. Tuck had just come home from town."
"How do you take this snub of Kitty's?"
"Me? I'm not takin' it at all," rejoined Jake darkly. "Reckon it's sort of a double-jointed slight. Kitty's too smart an' good to hurt one of us."
"Reckon you savvy how she's upset you an' me?" asked Jake with eyes averted.
"Sure. But she cain't be blamed for that. We only got ourselves to blame."
"Hell of a mess!" mumbled Jake, and stood silent awhile, as if there was much to say, only he did not know what or how. These boys had not thought of each other for weeks. They were almost strangers now.
The chill, melancholy twilight had settled down over the Tonto schoolhouse when the first riders and wagons arrived. The November wind moaned through the pines. It bore an ominous note. A low murmur of the swift creek rose from the dark ravine. Voices, a girl's laugh, the crack of iron-shod hoofs on stone echoed through the forest.
Fires were built, one outside near the great pile of wood cut for this occasion, and another in the stove in one corner of the large, empty, barnlike schoolroom. The school benches had been arranged around the walls. Half a dozen lamps emitted an uncertain, dim yellow flare.
Rapidly then the Tonto folk began to arrive, mostly on horseback, but many in wagons, buggies, buckboards. Soon a score or more of riotous children were making merry in the schoolroom. By seven o'clock there were over a hundred folk present, standing, talking, waiting, with more coming all the time.
Every time some newcomers entered the building there would be a stir and a buzz followed by hearty greetings. But when young Stillwell arrived, spick and span in his dark suit, and pale with excitement, leading a slender young woman wrapped in a fur coat, there was sudden cessation of sound.
They were not greeted until they reached the stove, and then a marked restraint seemed to attend the elders at least.
Kitty was cold, and said so in her sweet high treble. Stillwell removed her coat, to disclose her all in white, dainty and alluring, a girl for the backwoodsmen to feast their eyes upon, and over whom the women shook their heads silent and dubious.
But soon the old fiddler arrived with his fiddle, and the dance that would last till daylight was under way. The screaming children, darting among the dancers, were all that kept this annual festivity from being a strange, solemn affair. The young people took their dancing most seriously. There was no shyness, no immodesty, no ranting around, no loud talking, no forwardness; yet a blind man could have sensed that this was a courting business. Round and round the couples swayed in a moving circle, not ungraceful, not without rhythm, the young men with intent look and changeless faces; the girls rapt, absorbed; while the older folk looked on complacently and contentedly and the children played till from sheer exhaustion they fell asleep in the corner behind the stove, where blankets had been laid for them.
Jake and Verde rode down to the harvest dance together, though as uncommunicative as if miles of trail separated them. It was late when they reached the clearing and heard the fiddle and the steady shuffle of many feet. They unsaddled and blanketed their horses. As they approached the big outdoor fire to hold cold hands out to the blaze, the music ceased, and the shuffle of sliding feet changed, and there followed a merry roar of voices. Couples by the dozen emerged from the school-house, some to pause by the fire, and others to wander off under the great solemn pines, close together, holding hands, whispering.
It was Jake who first confronted Kitty to ask her for a dance. She was flushed, lovely, nervous, yet sincerely glad to see him.
"I've saved three, Jake," she replied, looking up to him with her strange eyes. "One for you and one for Verde—and another for you both to—"
'To fight over, huh?" he drawled. "Well, mebbe it won't come to that. An' Kitty, I'm takin' my dance out in talkin'."
"Oh, no, Jake. That'll spoil the whole evening for me," she pouted.
"Hope not. Anyway it goes."
In due time, when his dance came, Jake unceremoniously drew Kitty away from her admirers, and wrapping her in her coat, he led her out under the white cold stars, into the shadow of the pines. Here he took her little hands and drew her close.
"Kitty, this cain't go on any longer," he said.
"What?" she asked, trying to draw away.
"Why this fast an' loose business... You've kissed me, haven't you?"
"Well, no—not exactly," she demurred.
"Yes, you have. Anyway it was enough to let me kiss you—which is a fact as sure as Gawd looks down out of those stars on us. An' you swore you loved me."
"Of course I love you, Jake," she murmured, again her old capricious self, yet as if in earnest for once.
"That's tellin' me again, Kitty dear. That's the fast of it. But on the other hand you've denied it, flouted me, hurt me. That's the loose of it... Wal, it cain't go on any longer."
"But Jake, I can't help being myself," she replied rebelliously.
"Reckon I wouldn't have you no different," he went on. "But I love you somethin' turrible, an' if you play any more loose with me—there'll be—I—"
He choked and was silent. Then recovering, he went on in simple, intense eloquence to tell her of his love. She leaned against him, gazing up into his dark face, unresisting, carried away by the intensity of his love, reveling in it, finding it in all that she had yearned for, uplifted and transformed by the urgency and simplicity of his passion.
"An' now, Kitty, with it all told, I can come to somethin' I've never said yet," he ended, with his voice almost a whisper.
"Yes, Jake?" she whispered.
"Are you aimin' to spend the rest of your life here in the Tonto?"
"Why, of course. Father has got back his health. Mother likes the quiet—the green. And I—I love it."
"Then will you marry me?" he asked hoarsely.
"I will Jake, I—I think I always meant to."
Later in the evening Verde presented himself for the dance that Kitty had promised him. Verde was so different from Jake. She trembled within. How handsome he was, and tonight how white his face and blazing his blue eyes!"
"Kit, I reckon I don't care about dancin' this one little dance you've given me."
"Verde, you—you're not very complimentary. I'd love it," she replied, and it was the dancing devil eye that looked at him.
Verde did not ask her to go outdoors. He simply seized her arm and led the way. And when she demurred about going without her coat he said she would not need it.
"J-Jake and I had—a—an understanding," faltered Kitty.
"Reckon I'm powerful glad," he returned. "You an' I are goin to have one too."
"Oh!" she exclaimed as he led her, with firm arm under hers, out under the very pine tree where only a short time before she had betrothed herself to Jake. Kitty divined at last that she had been made a victim of her own indiscretion. How could she tell Verde about Jake? Regret and an unfamiliar pang knocked at her heart. She had meant well. These backwoods brothers, this Damon and Pythias twain, had needed a lesson. But something had backfired. Verde was not like Jake, yet how wonderful he was!
"Ver—Verde, I'll freeze out here," she whispered, suddenly aware of the cold and of a chill that had nothing to do with the temperature.
For answer, Verde caught her up off the ground and like a great bear hugged her close to his breast. She could see his white face, radiant and beautiful in the starlight, yet somehow stern. She felt her breast swell against his.
"Kit, darlin', this is our understandin'," he whispered. "I reckon I've always been too easy with you. I never touched you—like this—never kissed you before like I am—"
"Verde, you—you mustn't," she pleaded, trembling in his arms. He kissed her lips. She cried out in protest, yet with the realization of a tide that she could not, did not, want to resist. But she gazed up at him, wide-eyed, fascinated, struggling to remember something. Her lips were parting to speak when he closed them with kisses, and then her eyes.
"Kit—I love you so!" he said passionately, hoarsely, lifting his face from hers. "Say you love me... or I'll pack you on a hoss—off into the woods."
But Kitty could not speak.
"Say it!" he commanded, shaking her, and he kept it up until she slipped an arm around his neck.
Kitty was in a daze when once more she found herself among the dancers. Her partner, young Stillwell, claimed her, but the dance had become a nightmare. All the gaiety and excitement of the occasion were gone.
The evening wore on toward the inevitable retribution which she knew was in store for her. At midnight a hearty supper was served. It was a hilarious occasion. Kitty's vague fears seemed lost, for the moment, and she was almost herself again. She dared not look at Jake or Verde, yet an almost irresistible longing to do so seized her as she sat on a school bench with young Stillwell.
At last the moment came when both Jake and Verde presented themselves for that third dance one of them was to get. Kitty seemed to sense that the hum of voices had ceased, to know that all the faces in the room were turned upon her, though a wave of terror was causing her to tremble as if from an ague.
"My dance, Kitty," drawled Jake.
"Well, Kit, I reckon this dance is mine," said Verde.
"I—I'll divide it," she faltered, not looking up.
"Not with me, you won't," retorted Verde, his blue eyes flashing fire.
"Kitty, I hate to say it—but I cain't share this with Verde" said Jake.
"But I didn't promise it to either of you," she barely whispered.
"Not in so many words," returned Jake, attempting to grab her hand.
That was the torch. Verde turned to Jake.
"Are you disputin' my lady friend's word?" he asked belligerently.
"Sure am," replied Jake coolly.
Verde stepped forward and slapped his brother's face, not violently, but with what seemed to be slow deliberation.
With the suddenness of a panther Jake lunged out to knock Verde down. Kitty screamed. The crowd gasped, then fell silent. Slowly Verde raised himself on his elbow. His face was changing quickly from red to white. He stretched up his free arm, and his extended fingers quivered.
"Get up an' ask the lady's pardon," demanded Jake wildly.
"You hit me!" exclaimed Verde unbelievingly.
"Nope. I just blowed a thistledown at you," replied Jake.
In one single bound Verde was on his feet. Tearing off coat and tie, he confronted the man who had been almost a brother to him. "Come out!" he challenged, his voice hoarse with rage. The circle of startled onlookers parted.
In another moment they stood face to face in the light of the roaring bonfire. The crowd of men and boys, and a few of the girls, had poured out after them.
Then like two mad bulls Jake and Verde rushed at each other. They gave flailing blow for flailing blow. They danced around in the red firelight, seeking an opening to deliver damaging blows that were intended to hurt and to maim. Tonto fights were usually marked by hilarity among the spectators. But there was none here. This was strange, unnatural, hateful—to watch these friends and brothers so deadly, so cold and savage, with murder in their every action.
Their white faces and white shirts soon were bloody. They fought for a long time, erect and silent, knocking each other down, leaping up and rushing in again. Then they clinched, and wrestling, stumbling, they fell to roll over and over on the ground.
That battle between the Duntons was the worst that had ever been fought at the old schoolhouse. It lasted two hours, and ended with Jake lying unconscious and bedraggled in the mud, and Verde, hideously marked and bloody, staggering to his feet and out into the gloom of the forest.
JAKE had been so badly beaten that he was in bed for a week, during which time he saw only his mother. In summer and fall he and Verde always slept in the loft over the porch. But Verde had not been there now for many days.
During this week of pain and shame, Jake's mind had been a numbed thing, dark and set and sinister. He could not think beyond the fact that he had been terribly whipped and disgraced before a crowd of Tonto folk, one of whom had been Kitty Mains. She had seen him stretched in the mud, at the hands of Verde. His battered face burned with the disgrace of it. His scarred fists clenched and unclenched impatiently.
Jake always turned his bruised and beaten face to the wall when his mother climbed the ladder to the loft, bringing food and drink he did not want and which he had to force himself to take. She had ceased her importunities on behalf of Verde. They were useless.
At last Jake crawled down out of his hole, feeling as mean as he knew he looked. He wanted to get away into the woods quickly before anyone saw him! That was the only thought in his mind.
But while he was packing his outfit his father suddenly confronted him.
"Your ma said there ain't no use of talkin' to you," he began gruffly.
"Reckon not," replied Jake, turning away the face he was ashamed to reveal.
"Wal, I'll have a word anyhow," rejoined the father. "From now on is this heah Tonto Basin goin' to be big enough for you an' Verde?"
"Ahuh, I reckoned so, an' it's shore a pity," said Dunton sadly.
"Where is Verde?" asked Jake.
"I don't know. He never come home. But he sent word that if you wanted satisfaction you'd know where to find him."
Jake made no reply. A smoldering fire of hatred within him would not let him speak to those who loved him. Old Dunton hung around, lending a hand at his son's packing.
"Wal, I see you're off to set a string of traps," he finally forced himself to say. "It's a plumb good idee. Work's most all done for the fall, an' I can spare you. Mebbe you'll be better for a lonesome trip. Nothin' like the woods to cure a feller of most anythin'. But, Jake, I don't like the look an' feel of the weather. If I don't disremember, it was this way one fall fifteen years ago. No rain. Late frost. Winter holdin' off. But, Lord when she broke!... Washed the cabin away, that storm!"
"It's all one to me, Pa," replied Jake dully. And leading his pack horse, Jake rode away from the ranch without thinking to bid his parents good-by.
The day fitted Jake's mood. The sky was overcast, dull, leaden gray, gloomy and forbidding, with a dim sun showing red in the west. The fall wind mourned through the pines. It was cold and raw, whipping up into gusts at times, then subsiding again. The creek had run so low that now it scarcely made any sound on its way down to the valley. Jake rode out of the pines down into the cedars and oaks and sycamores. In the still pools of water the bronze and yellow leaves floated round and round.
At length, Jake reached the junction of the trail with the highway, and soon came to where it crossed the Verde Creek. Lost Boy Ford! He had never forgotten, until these last bitter weeks, the significance of this place. For a few moments a terrific strife warred within him. But he quelled it. Nothing could stand against his jealously and his shame. Kitty loved him dearest and best, but she must also have loved Verde, or he never would have acted as he had. The Tonto Valley was not large enough for both Verde and him. Who would have to go? That would have to be decided; and as Jake knew that neither he nor Verde would ever relinquish the field to the other, it seemed settled that death must step in for the decision. Jake realized now that he was no match for Verde in the rough and terrible Tonto method of fighting; on the other hand, he knew that in a battle with weapons such as must decide this bitter feud he would kill Verde. And such was the dark and fierce violence to which his passion had mounted that he brooded with savage anticipation over his power to rid himself forever of his rival.
Soon he headed off the road into the thickets of scrub oak and jack pine, manzanita and mescal, and began to climb an old unused trail. It led up over the slope to the mesa, into the cedars and piñons and junipers, and at last into the somber forest again.
Here it was like twilight, cool, still, and lonely. The peace of the wilderness tried to pierce Jake's brooding, bitter thoughts, and for the first time in his life it failed. A monstrous wall of bitterness seemed to enclose him.
He climbed high, riding for miles, in a multitude of detours and zigzags, along a trail thousands of feet above the basin below. The slopes grew exceedingly steep and rough. In many places he dismounted to make his way on foot. How dry the brush and soil! The tufts of grass were sere and brown; the dead manzanita broke off like icicles.
At length he arrived at the base of the rim wall. It towered above, seemingly to the sky. A trail ran along the irregular stone cliff, and there were fresh hoof tracks in it. They had been made by Verde's horse, and were a day or two old, perhaps a little more. If Jake had felt any uncertainty it ended right there. Verde had indeed known where to come to give him satisfaction.
Jake rode on to a corner of the wall. Here the trail plunged down. A mighty amphitheater opened in the rim. It was miles across and extended far back. All around it the capes and escarpments loomed out over the colorful abyss. It seemed to be a scene of dying fires. The ragged gold of the aspens showed dim against the scarlet maples, the red sumac, the bronze oaks, the magenta gums, and all the dark greens. Yellow crags leaned with their great slabs of rock over the void. Here and there gleamed cliffs of dull pink, with black eyelike caves. Far down in the middle of this gulf there was a dark canyon. Black Gorge!"
This was Jake's objective. He gazed down with narrowed eyes, strangely magnifying. Ten years before he and Verde had discovered by accident a way to get down into this almost inaccessible fastness under the rim. They had named it Black Gorge. No other trappers or hunters or riders had ever penetrated it. As boys they had made it their rendezvous, Jake to trap and hunt, Verde to corral his wild horses. They went there several times each year, usually together, but sometimes alone. It grew to mean much to them, and they loved it.
"Verde is down there waitin'," muttered Jake, and the somber shadow that had closed over his mind seemed to come between his eyes and the wonderful beauty of the scene.
A sudden rush of wind, wailing in the niches of the cliff overhead, turned Jake's thoughts to the weather. The habit of observation was strong in him. He gazed down and across the basin. And he was suddenly amazed by the sight he saw.
He had seen all kinds of light and cloud effects over the vast valley below, but never before one of such weird, sinister aspect. The sun was westering over the Mazatzals, and through the dark riven pall of cloud it shed a gleam of angry red. From the south-west a lowering multitude of pale little clouds came scuddling toward the rim. They were the heralds of storm. But as yet, except for the moan of the wind along the cliff, there was no sound. The basin lay deep in shadow. The cold gray tones near at hand, the smoky sulphurous red of the sunset, the utter solitude of the scene, the vast saw toothed gap in the rim wall, the distant forbidding shadow of Black Gorge, the bleak November day that was to mark the end of the lingering autumn, the all-pervading spirit of nature's inevitable and ruthless change from lull to storm, from peace to strife, from the saving and fruitful weeks of the past to the ominous promise of sudden storm and destruction—all these permeated Jake's being, and possessed him utterly, and sent him down the trail deaf at last to a still small voice that had been whispering faintly, yet persistently at the closed door of his heart.
THERE was only one entrance to Black Gorge that Jake had ever been able to discover. He had found various slopes along its three-mile zigzag length where an Indian or an agile young man might by supreme pluck and exertion climb out. But for the most part it was as unscalable as it was inaccessible. A signal proof of the nature of Black Gorge was the fact that in the late fall only a few deer and no bear frequented it.
While it required hours to climb out by the only trail Jake knew, it took but a short time to make the descent. Without a horse Jake could get down in less than a quarter of an hour. That, however, was practically by sliding down. Now, with saddle and pack horse, Jake had all he could do to keep the three of them together. Finally his saddle horse got ahead. Several times the pack animal slipped; and it was difficult to adjust the ropes and bags on the almost perpendicular slope.
Black Gorge deserved its name. It would have been black even without the somber, fading twilight. The walls of stone were stained dark, and in places where ledges and steps and slopes broke the sheer, perpendicular line, brush and moss and vines mantled them so thickly that they looked black in the gloom. At the lower end of the gorge, where Jake had descended, the stream had no outlet. The creek was dry now, but when water flowed there it merely sank into the jumble of mighty mossy boulders. Once no doubt there had been an outlet, but it had been choked by the fall of a splintered cliff.
Jake mounted to ride up a narrow defile. He was concerned at the moment about the water. Black Gorge had never, to his knowledge, been completely dry. But far up the gorge he knew of a spring that ought still to be alive. Besides, he began to feel a cool misty rain on his face.
At this moment his mind reverted again to Verde. In the gathering gloom he could not see the trail, but he had no doubt about Verde's tracks being there. He almost reined in his horse so he could wait and think what to do. But there was nothing more to be considered on that score. It was settled. When he faced Verde again, there would be need of but few words. The rest would be action. Even so, Jake felt a monstrous hand at the back of him, propelling him toward something that he had gladly and sternly willed, yet against which at odd moments his soul revolted.
The gorge widened, the walls ceased to tower and lean, the slopes slanted up out of sight, and the gray gloom lightened considerably. The trail climbed from the dry stream bed to a bench that soon grew level. Jake heard the clucking of wild turkeys and then the booming flap of heavy wings in the branches of a tree. Toward the upper end this bench held a fine open grove of pines and spruce. Jake saw the dark spearpointed spruce that towered above the little log cabin he and Verde had built there years ago. So long ago and far away those years seemed now!
Jake's instinct was to dismount and draw a gun. Not to be ambushed or surprised! But he cursed the thought that was so unfamiliar to him.
His expectation was to see the light of a camp-fire, or a flickering gleam from the door of the cabin, as he had many and many a time beheld with glad eyes. But the familiar space was blank, the cabin dark. Jake dismounted, and throwing his bridle, with slow step went forward. The cabin was deserted. It smelled dry and musty. No fire had been kindled there for a long time. He heard the rustling of mice and felt the wind of bats flying close by his head.
Verde might have come, but he was not there now. Sudden, strange relief swept over Jake. He sank to a seat on the step on the edge of the little porch. His sombrero fell off unheeded, and the cold misty rain touched his face. His heart labored as though after a long strain. He sat there in the lonely, silent gorge, vaguely, dully conscious of any agony deep hidden somewhere under the weight of other emotions. It passed, and he addressed himself to the necessary tasks.
He unsaddled and unpacked, and turned the horses loose, with the thought that it was well for them a storm was brewing. Then he carried his packs and saddle inside the cabin, and set about building a fire in the rude stone fireplace. He appeared slow and awkward. Not only were his fingers all thumbs, but they also trembled in a way quite incomprehensible to him.
"Reckon I'm cold an' hungry," he thought.
Every few moments, while cooking supper, which he quite unconsciously planned for two, he would halt in his preparations and listen for the thud of hoofs or the jangle of spurs. But he heard only the melancholy wail of the rising wind.
Presently he stuck a dry fagot of pitchpine into the fire, and with a blazing torch he went outside the cabin to search in the dust for tracks. He found only his own and those made by his horses. Not satisfied, he made a more thorough search. But it was all in vain!
"Verde hasn't been here," he muttered at last, and pondered the situation. There was absolutely no doubt about the fact of Verde's fresh tracks in the trail above the gorge. What had delayed him? And Jake reminded himself of Verde's impetuosity and recklessness on bad trails.
Jake went back into the cabin, where, as many times before, he set some food and drink to keep hot in case Verde might arrive late. Then he unrolled his bed on the heavy mat of dry spruce boughs. This done, he stepped out again. The darkness was like pitch. High up there along the black rim the wind made a low, dismal roaring sound. He could see the leaden band of sky between the two black rims.
He returned presently to the warm fireside, to which he extended his nervous hands. He faced the fire awhile. That had always been one of his joys. But tonight it was not a joy. An arch face suddenly shone out of the glow—a girl's face, roguish, with sweet red lips and strange, unmatched, inviting eyes. Jake had to turn his back to them.
It struck him singularly that Kitty Main's face in the embers of this cabin fire was something he had never before beheld there. She was something new. She did not belong to that cabin. Thought of her seemed out of place there. He did not even want to think of her now.
When the fire died low Jake went to bed. He was tired and his eyes were heavy. Sleep at last overcame his mind.
In the night he awoke. A tiny pattering of rain sounded on the roof. The wind had lulled somewhat. The night was so black he could not see the door or window. He could tell that the hour was late, for he had rested. And gradually he grew wide awake. The pattering rain ceased, came again in little gusts, died away, only to return. It recalled to Jake that his father had once forbidden him and Verde to camp very late in the fall at this Black Gorge cabin. A blizzard such as sometimes set in after a late fall might snow them in for the whole winter. Jake had completely forgotten this. Likewise had Verde, or if he had not forgotten, he had come anyway. Black Gorge was the one hiding place where they could not be disturbed. His father knew of it, yet could never have found the way there.
The rain pattered again, slightly harder, and a wind sighed in the pines and spruces over the cabin. Suddenly a low, distant rumble startled Jake. Thunder! He sat up in bed, listening. A thunderclap late in the fall was rare and always preceded a terrible storm. Possibly he was mistaken. Sometimes rocks rolled down in distant canyons, making a sound like thunder.
Then the ebony darkness split. An appalling white light flashed through the open door. The cabin was illuminated with the brightness of noonday. Outside, the black pines stood up against the blue-white glare, the black jaws of the gorge seemed to be snapping at the angry sky. Then thunder crashed with a deafening blast. The cabin shook. The sharp explosion changed to boom and bellow, filling the narrow gorge with reverberating echoes, endlessly repeated until they rumbled away into utter silence.
Toward dawn, which he ascertained by a grayness superseding the pitch blackness, there came a gradual lessening of the deluge and lulls in the bellowing of the wind.
Day broke leaden, gusty, with signs of the inevitable change from rain to snow. Jake struck a fire and then went to look around.
Well indeed was it that the cabin had been erected on a bench high above the stream bed. Where last night had been a rough boulder and gravel-strewn gully, there was now a lake. What amazed Jake was the fact that he could not note any current. Perhaps it was because of the enormous volume of water that must be draining out of the gorge; and the underground exit was not large enough to take care of it. Nevertheless, that theory did not wholly satisfy Jake.
Thin yellow sheets of water were falling from the cliffs, and here and there narrow torrents rushed pell mell down the cracks and defiles of the slopes.
Jake gazed up at the dark, leaden sky. The storm clouds had lodged against the rim and hung there. Only in a few places could he see the ramparts, with the gray wall fringed by black pine. The air was still warm, but a gust of wind now and then brought a cold raw breath. During the day, or more likely when night fell, the rain would turn to snow.
Jake went into the cabin to cook breakfast. The situation was beyond him. By all the woodcraft of which he was master, he knew that the imperative need was to climb out of the gorge before the snow made it impossible. If it had not been for the certainty of Verde's horse tracks on the trail Jake would have attempted to escape at once. But he well knew that Verde would not leave, even if he were able. Jake had no alternative. How futile now that a few hours of oblivion in sleep had brought his mind back toward normal! The die was cast. The catastrophe of a great storm could not make the situation any more desperate for him and Verde. But it made him think; and he had to deny the reason that began to dispel his passion of the past few weeks.
Methodically Jake went about his preparations for breakfast. He was a good cook and had always taken pride in the accomplishment. His keen sensibilities, however, were wholly absorbed in things outside the cabin—the moan of the wind rising again, the frequent rain squalls, the increasing roar of falling water. With some feeling that he could not understand he did not expect Verde, yet he listened for the sound of hoofs or the jangle of spurs.
He poured a second cup of coffee. Lifting the cup, he was about to drink when something happened wholly new in his experience. He wanted to drink, but could not.
Halfway to his lips the full cup poised.
Jake stared. The coffee was quivering.
"Gosh! Am I that nervous?" he exclaimed, and he set the cup down on a bench.
But the coffee continued to quiver. Indeed, the motion increased. There were queer little circles and waves inside the cup!
"Reckon I'm loco," muttered Jake. Nevertheless, he strained his faculties. Something was wrong. In him, for a certainty, but also outside! He continued to stare at the coffee in the cup. Then he heard the rustling of the dry spruce boughs under his bed. Mice! He thought it rather an odd hour for mice to begin emerging. Next a faint rattling of the loft poles attracted his attention.
The whole cabin was shaking. Jake leaped to his feet, and rushed toward the door. The tremor increased. His cooking utensils began to clatter. The cans on the shelves took to dancing. The earth under the cabin was trembling.
A rumbling sound filled Jake's ears. Thunder! The storm was about to break into its second and most fearful phase. It was a long, low, dull roar, gaining volume at the end instead of dying away! Was that thunder?
"Avalanche!" yelled Jake, and bounded wildly out of the cabin. In the open he halted. His terror had been absurd. The cabin was so situated that no earth slide or rolling rocks could reach it.
Uncertainty ceased for Jake Dunton. The long, late Indian summer, so colorful and mellow and fruitful, must be paid for in the harsh terms with which nature always audited her account in the Tonto. Jake forgot his mission there in the realization that fate had shut him in Black Gorge on the eve of a blizzard. At the moment the peril did not strike him. He reacted as he might have on any of the other numerous sojourns in this canyon. He thought of Verde out there somewhere in the blackness.
"Damn Verde anyhow," complained Jake. "Why won't he ever listen to me?"
The pattering rain commenced again, and this time did not cease. Nor did the wind lull. Both perceptibly augmented, but so slowly as to persuade the lonely listener against his better judgement. They bade him hope against hope.
Then the storm broke with savage and demoniac fury. There was no more thunder, or at least in the mighty roar of wind and water Jake could not distinguish any. It took all Jake's strength to close the cabin door. He went back to bed, thankful for the impervious roof he and Verde had built on that cabin, and for the safe site they had chosen.
His ears became filled with an infernal din. The gorge might have become the battleground of all the elements from the beginning of time. Jake had never experienced such screaming of winds, such a torrential deluge of rain. He lay there, forgetting himself, fearful only for the lost Verde. Verde, the boy—lost again! And each terrible hour the storm gained in strength, changing, swelling, mounting to cataclysmic force.
Then his gaze fixed upon the stretch of gorge below. He could see to the narrow passage between the black walls through which he had come last night. Everywhere water was running off the cliffs. The canyon appeared to be wreathed in waterfalls, lacy, thin, yellow, with some like ragged ribbons of water.
The sound that had alarmed Jake did not cease. It grew in intensity. Slides of weathered rock on the slopes above! His keen eye sought the heights.
The skyline of the rim wall had changed. Could it be hidden in cloud? But the gray pall hung above and beyond. There seemed to be movement, either of a drifting veil of rain or a long section of slope. Jake wondered if his eyes were deceiving him. Had his love for Verde and Kitty, the jealousy and the fight and the hate, and the dreadful night of storm unhinged his mind? Was he going crazy?
No! His eagle eye had the truth at last. A section of the rim wall had slipped and was sliding down toward the lower end of Black Gorge.
Jake stood there, motionless and dumb with mingled terror and awe. The section of the rim, with its fringe of black pines erect, was moving downward with a gathering and ponderous momentum. The rumble increased to thunder.
A cloud of yellow dust began to lift against the background of stone wall and leaden sky, quickly blotting them out.
Jake's straining sight recorded what seemed to be an illusion in his stunned mind. The line of erect pine trees turned at right angles, and the black spear-tipped trees pointed out over the gorge. Then they waved and dipped. The line broke, the trees leaned and whirled and fell, to be swallowed up by the clinging slope. Only the thundering, rending roar gave reality to what Jake saw. The section of rim wall, giving way, had started the whole slope below into a colossal avalanche. It was a brain-numbing spectacle: The vast green slope of cedar and piñon, of manzanita and oak, of yellow crag and red earth, had become a swelling, undulating cataract. It was beautiful, awe-inspiring. Only the cataclysmic sound rendered proof of its destructive force.
But in a few more seconds the grace and rhythmic movement gave place to upheaval, and then to a tremendous volleying of boulders flung ahead of the avalanche. Rocks as large as cabins hurdled the narrow split of Black Gorge. Large and small they began to crack like cannon balls against the far wall of the gorge.
Jake could see, at the instant when the green mass reached the verge, the width of canyon light streaked by multitudes of falling rocks. Then the avalanche, like a vast, tumbling waterfall of rocks and debris, slid over to fill the end of the gorge.
A terrific wind, propelled up the canyon, staggered Jake. The roar that had grown awful ceased to be sound. He heard no more.
The lower end of Black Gorge was buried by an avalanche that concealed its crushed and splintered mass of debris under a mantle of dust. The lake that had formed at the lower end of the gorge, and which had been displaced by the avalanche now, came swelling and rushing back like a flooded river breaking through its dikes, and the waters rose halfway up to where the cabin stood on the wide bench.
Jake's first realization of a recovered sense of hearing came with this sound of the chafing flood waters. The contrast between the roar that had deafened him and the gentle lapping of the waves left his ears ringing.
The avalanche had come to rest under its sky-high dust cloud.
Jake ran down the trail and off the bench as far as he could go. Through the thinning dust curtain he saw the width of the gorge piled almost straight up with fresh red earth, skinned tree trunks, and rocks of every size. The avalanche had filled the gorge beyond the narrow defile. Its destructive force had extended to a point even beyond the limit of its wall. Jake had to find a new path between boulders higher than his head, and over logs and slides of shale.
Rocks were still rolling down under the veil of dust. And Jake thought it would be well to retreat to the cabin. Just as he turned back he heard a cry that froze his blood.
Breathless, with heart pounding in his breast, he listened. More than once in his life had he heard the shrill sound made by a horse in extreme terror or injured near to death. This was how Jake interpreted the sound. His heart jumped and he began to breathe again. Then the cry pealed out louder than before.
Jake began frantically climbing in the direction from which he thought the horse's scream had come. The going was rough, over the loose debris flung off by the avalanche. He reached the line of trees and more level ground. It was wet and very slippery. Rain mixed with snow fell around him.
Then suddenly, close at hand, there rose a harsh, fierce shout. It seemed to Jake that he recognized Verde's voice. He bounded through the wet brush and under the dripping trees.
A moment later he burst into a little glade, across which a good-sized pine had fallen. And on the side toward Jake, close to the wet earth, protruded a pair of boots equipped with long bright spurs. Jake recognized them. They did not move. The legs which wore them were pinned to the ground!
Like a panther, Jake leaped over the log. He found himself looking down into the ash-white, agonized face of Verde. The youth still was conscious. His eyes moved and fixed in an expression of disbelief on Jake's face. Then recognition came and he murmured, "Jake."
"My Gawd—Verde!" cried Jake, falling upon his knees to grasp Verde's writhing hands.
"It got me—Jake," whispered Verde. "Last night—my horse fell and me—broke my leg... I crawled—this far—then—the avalanche—"
"I'll get you out, Verde," declared Jake, and laying hold of the prostrate form, he started to pull.
Verde cursed and beat at his rescuer until he ceased his efforts to drag the fallen man from under the tree.
"Don't," whispered Verde, his face white and drawn, wet with big clammy drops of sweat, and jaw quivering. "Don't touch me... I'm done for... But thank Gawd—you've come to—end my misery."
Then Jake awoke to the horror of the facts. Verde lay crushed beneath the pine. It had caught him across the legs almost to his hips. Jake saw a white leg bone protruding through Verde's overalls. The end of the bone was black with dirt.
If there were other bodily injuries, as no doubt there were, Jake could not see them. Verde's arms were free, his chest was apparently sound. But there was a bloody cut on his head.
Again Verde screamed and the unearthly sound broke Jake's nerve and strength. He let go, shaking in every nerve of his body. He had seen another leg bone come protruding out, bloody and white, through Verde's overalls.
'For Gawd's sake, man," panted Verde, "don't let me die by slow torture this way!"
He lay there, transfixing Jake with eyes Jake found almost unendurable to meet.
"Jake—old boy—fer the love of Gawd, put me out of—of my misery!"
Jake could only shake his head slowly.
"Shoot me, Jake... I cain't stand it... No use anyhow... I'm smashed... Kill me!"
"Don't waste time!" pleaded Verde, the blue fire of his eyes momentarily burning away the mist of anguish. "Every second is worse than hellfire!... If you have any mercy—kill me!"
"But Jake—dear old brother—you don't savvy," went on the pleading husky voice. "I'll bless you in the hereafter... I beg you... Jake, you saved me once—when we were—young 'uns. You know—down at Lost Boy Ford! You were brother to me then—an' always you've been... But now the great thing is—to spare me more of this... Cain't you see? Why, old boy, I'd do it—fer you... I swear to Gawd I would... Jake—if you—love me—end my misery!"
Jake's nerveless hand groped for his gun. He seemed numbed. All the sweetness of the years rushed into this one supreme moment—unbearable in its heartshocking agony.
Verde was praying now for deliverance. The deathly radiance of his face seemed to come already from that other world he sought. His face was almost unearthly beautiful then—and it seemed as if the power to command came from beyond life itself. For a moment he almost overcame Jake's resistance. But now a strength almost as great as the avalanche that had caught them seized upon Jake's heart and mind, and the spell was broken.
When Verde saw that he had failed, he snatched at Jake's gun with a wild and tortured cry. Jake flung it far from him.
Then Verde sank back unconscious. And Jake, whipping out his knife, began to dig frantically at the soft earth under Verde's imprisoned legs.
He scooped out a hole on one side, then on the other. Presently he reached under the tree and dug farther. In a few more moments he was able to drag Verde gently from under the log that had him imprisoned.
Then he knelt beside the still form, not daring to look at the white face. He placed a shaking, muddy hand on Verde's breast. Verde's heart was still beating faintly. Realization that his brother still lived made a giant out of Jake.
Sheathing the knife, he lifted the limp form in his arms and strode down to the trail.
The rain had let up a little. The dust was settling. And there came a brightening of the sky, one of the false hopes that such storms hold out in their early stages. As he reached the cabin he noted that the rain was changing to snow.
VERDE opened his eyes. He smelled smoke and heard the crackling of a fire. A roof of rough-hewn poles and split shingles slanted above him. He recognized the cabin, and then in a flash he recalled the chain of circumstances that had led to his presence there.
He lay on a couch of boughs in the corner of the cabin. A blanket covered him. Jake was not in the room. Verde felt that the lower parts of his limbs were dead. He had a locked, icy sensation in his breast. He found that he had free use of his hands, and could move his head without difficulty. Jake had removed his boots, one of which had been slit. A bloody ragged leg of his trousers hung over a bench.
The door of the cabin stood open. Verde saw whirling, thin-flaked snow. The ground bore a mantle of white, and the spruce trees looked spectral against the gray gloom. A sound of falling water filled the cabin.
Rapid footfalls struck his ear. The doorway darkened. Jake entered staggering under an enormous armload of fagots. He was wet, and brought in the dank odor of pine. Not until he had deposited the load of wood in a corner next to the huge stone fireplace did he observe that Verde was conscious.
"By glory—you've come to!" he exclaimed, and the haggard darkness of his face brightened in a homely grin.
"Reckon I have," replied Verde. Speaking was difficult and his voice pitifully weak.
"It took so long," said Jake, with immense relief. "I thought—I was afraid... Verde, are you sufferin'—much?'
"Cain't tell. Feel daid in my legs an' sort of queer here," rejoined Verde, indicating his breast.
"I'm thankful you've no orful pain like this mawnin'."
"What time of day is it?"
"An' I've been unconscious all day long?"
"You shore have."
They looked long into each other's face. Verde's faculties were growing acute. He saw that Jake was laboring under an enormous strain. How strange! Jake was usually so cool, so easy, so sure.
"Jake, old boy, how bad am I hurt?"
"Turrible—bad—all right," replied Jake, swallowing hard.
"Wal, just how and where?"
"There's a cut on your head, clear to the bone. Your right leg is broke below the knee. One bone. I set thet—an' got it in splints. But your—left leg—"
"Got you stumped, hey?" asked Verde as Jake shook his head and gulped.
"Smashed—an' the bones splintered all to hell."
"Ahuh! Must have bled a lot."
"Bled? You shore bled like a stuck pig. But I got thet stopped."
"Wal, is that all, Jake? Honest Injun now?"
"All I'm sure about. First off there was blood runnin' from your mouth. That scared me. But you haven't bled any more fer hours."
"Ahuh!... An' what else are we up against, old boy?"
Jake lifted his hands in a helpless, half-frantic gesture of despair.
"Verde! If the avalanche didn't shut us in forever we're shore snowed up for the winter."
"I was figurin, somethin' like," replied Verde quietly, and closed his eyes. He could not endure to look at Jake any longer, just then. Jake was more than appalled by the tragedy. And Verde began to ponder over a meaning for it.
"Verde, you asked me to be honest," went on Jake hesitantly. "An' I'm tellin' you—only a miracle can save us."
Verde noted that Jake used the plural. Perhaps it was only a slip of speech in the seriousness of the moment. Still the implication of a prayer for that one saving miracle was strong. From under his half closed eyelids Verde watched Jake as he busied himself over the cooking utensils and the fire. Anyone who knew Jake could have told that he was not himself. He was restless, exceedingly nervous, now hurried and again abstracted. He would seem to forget the meal he was preparing and then he would suddenly remember it. He walked aimlessly about the room, took up tasks irrevelant to hour and left them abruptly, unfinished. He went outdoors and returned for no reason that was evident. Once he came in with an armload of wood, only to carry it out again. And always the only consistent action he seemed to be performing was to turn every little while tragic, deep-set, fearful eyes in the direction of Verde.
At last he managed to get supper ready.
"Verde, can you eat or drink?" he asked.
"I crave cold water. Thet's all. Put some snow in it," replied Verde.
Jake brought it and set it at Verde's elbow.
The afternoon waned and soon night fell. The soft, seeping, sweeping, rustling sound of falling snow almost imperceptibly increased. Around the eaves of the cabin and in the spruces the wind sighed mournfully. From the heights came the faint roar of the storm.
Jake sat in the firelight and Verde watched him. It must have continued so far a long time. Often Jake would replenish the dying fire, which would crackle and flare up and again light up the cabin. It seemed to Verde that Jake was trying not to surrender to a situation that he knew was hopeless. First the natural shock following the desperate accident to Verde, and now the realization of their being shut in, surely lost together. Verde read it all in Jake's dark face.
Jake had meant to kill him. He had wanted him dead! In the humiliation of being whipped before their friends and relatives, and in the jealousy of the hour, and in the subsequent recognition that Kitty Mains loved him no more than she loved Verde, Jake had succumbed to the lust to kill.
When Verde sent word to Jake that he knew where to find him if he wanted satisfaction, Verde had hoped nothing more would come of it. Nothing more except that Kitty should choose one of them! He had hoped, but he had doubted. And here they were, doomed by the avalanche to the same fate. And poor Jake had awakened too late from the horror of his hate for him. It was Jake's fault they had come to Black Gorge at a season when they should have shunned it. His fault, too, the horror of Verde's crushed legs and the lingering death to come!
In the dark lonely hours of that night, when the flickering firelight played upon Jake's tortured face, Verde learned how awful it must be for Jake. For himself he did not care. Even if he could have been saved he would not have welcomed it. What good of life hobbling about on maimed legs? But for Jake's sake he began to want to live. And as the hours dragged by this desire grew.
Toward morning Jake tiptoed over to peer down at Verde, and then, thinking him alseep, he lay down beside him, very quietly.
But Verde was far from asleep. The pangs of agony had reawakened in his numbed leg. The fire flickered, casting its fantastic shadows on the rude walls of the cabin, flickered, faded, and died. Then blackness reigned. Outside the snow seeped and whirled and, with silky rustle, beat against the cabin. Sometimes vagrant flakes blew through the little window and fell cool wet upon Verde's face. The wind mourned. Once when it lulled Verde heard the wild, lonely cry of a wolf.
Verde's body seemed weighted by lead. The desperate desire to move had to be yielded to. And the slightest movement of his lower muscles was equivalent to plunging ten thousand red-hot spikes into his quivering flesh. But he endured, and fought the strange indifference that stole over his mind.
He must live for Jake's sake. Jake—who had wanted him dead! What a queer thing—that Jake could have imagined that he would be happier with his old friend out of the way!
DAWN broke. Verde was careful to look wide awake and more cheerful when Jake turned to him.
"How are you, Verde?"
"A rarin' to go—if we only could," replied Verde. "Pile out, Jake, an' when you've had breakfast I want to talk to you."
"Verde! You're not sinkin'?"
"Would you expect me to be soarin'? I haven't sprouted wings yet," returned Verde.
Jake moved about with a synthetic haste that would have been ludicrous if it had not been so pathetic. Every one of his actions proved that he believed his earnestness futile.
"Open the door an' let's look out," said Verde.
Black Gorge was now white, except for the lake which had risen nearly to the edge of the bench.
"Reckon it won't snow heavy down heah," rejoined Jake.
"Is the air cold? I don't pear to feel it."
"Nope. It's warm yet, an' that means more snow. But winter shore has set in."
"Wal, Jake, let's talk," replied Verde. "Leave the door open so it'll be light."
Jake drew a bench to Verde's bedside and looked down upon him with the miserable eyes of a dog that knows it has been beaten.
"All right, Verde, I'll listen," he said. But there was not the slightest indication of hope in look or tone.
"What's to be done?" asked Verde brightly.
Jake spread wide his hands with an air of dejection.
"Jake, you've got it figgered this way," went on Verde. "Nobody could get to us, even if they knew where we are. We cain't climb out in the snow. An' I've got to die pronto—an' then you'll starve to death?"
"Not starve, Verde," returned Jake hoarsely. But he had acquiesced with Verde's summary of the situation. He dropped his face in his big broad hands, and tears trickled between his fingers.
"Miracles do happen, Jake," said Verde.
Jake made a sharp gesture of despair.
"Yes. Dad might find us. But even so—he couldn't save you."
"Old boy, is that what matters so much?" asked Verde softly.
"Reckon it's all—that—matters," replied Jake brokenly.
"Well, then, you must be up an' doin'."
"Verde, my mind's stopped workin'."
"Mine hasn't, an' don't you forget it," returned Verde. "Mine's just begun... Jake, you know that my leg as it is—all smashed—will soon mortify. An' it'd kill me pronto."
"Hell man! You needn't tell me that," Jake replied.
"You've got to cut off my leg," returned Verde slowly and evenly.
"My Gawd, Verde!... I—I couldn't," gasped Jake.
"Sure you could. Now think sense, Jake. It's my only chance. You could cut it off—If I told you how—an' if I'd stand it."
Jake was pale and sweating. His big hands opened and shut. His homely, battered face was working.
"Yes. I might. It's this idea that takes my nerve... You—you might die while I was doin' it!"
"Of course I might. That's the chance. But I think I wouldn't. An' it's damn sure I'll die if you don't. Let's take the chance—my only chance."
"Lord, if I had the nerve!" cried Jake, and he leaped up to pace the room.
"Come back here... Now listen," went on Verde, growing inspired with his plan. "I'll tell you it's a great idea. An' you can do it!"
"How about the big arteries in your leg?" Jake boomed. "I had one hell of a time stoppin' the bleedin'."
"You mustn't let me bleed any more."
"How about—that splintered bone?"
"You'll saw it off above the break were it's smashed."
"Saw! We haven't anything' but the big crosscut saw. It'd be impossible to use that."
"There's a three cornered file we brought to sharpen that saw. You'll make a saw out of your big huntin' knife."
"How?" burst out Jake incredulously.
"File the back of it into sharp saw teeth."
"Reckon I might," muttered Jake doubtfully. Still the idea was sinking in. "But even if I... Verde, you forget the worst danger."
"Boy, this is my leg an' my life. You can gamble I'm not forgettin' anything!"
"But blood poisonin!... That couldn't be prevented. We've nothin' to—"
"Wrong. We've got fire!" flashed Verde.
Jake stared at him, dominated by Verde's tremendous force.
"Fire?" he echoed.
"Listen. You're sure thick-headed. All we got to do is plan it right—then work fast. My job is to bear it—yours to make it a clean, quick one... You'll sharpen both our huntin' knives. Sharp as razors. You'll file the back of the long blade into a saw. Then you'll scour a pot an' heat water to boilin'. You'll put the knives in that. Then you'll have your straight brandin' iron in the fire. It must be red hot. Shore you know how slick you are with a brandin' iron?... Wal, now. You'll make sure where to cut my leg above the mashed place. You'll bind it tight, so it cain't bleed. Then when all's ready you'll cut the flesh all around, quick an' clean, clear to the bone. Then you'll saw through the bone. Then you'll grab your red-hot brandin' iron and burn the stub across. That'll sear bone an' arteries an' flesh. You'll loosen the cord, an' wrap up my leg in a clean towel or shirt... An' that's all."
"That's all!" blazed Jake. "Good Gawd, Verde!... Can you stand it?"
"I can an' will, old boy. I reckon it'll not be as bad as we think. For there's not much feelin' left in that leg.
"When?" gasped Jake. The excitement of the idea had gripped him. The thought that there might still be a chance to save Verde's life was all-consuming.
"Right now!" replied Verde. He had convinced Jake to undertake the terrible responsibility! Convinced him by persuasion, and in the end by falsehood, because during the excitement of this discussion the numbed leg had revived to exquisite pain. But Verde swore in his soul that he would endure and live.
Jake became actuated by supreme, uplifting, galvanizing hope. He was a changed man. Swiftly, quick and hard, he went at the preliminary tasks. He built a roaring fire. He scoured a big iron pot until it shone. He filled it with water and put it on to boil. He scraped all the rust off the branding iron, gave it a polish, and then thrust it in the heart of the red coals. Next he sharpened the knives, and filed the back of the blade of the long one. He was deft and sure, absorbed in each task. It took a long time to notch the blade into a saw and to sharpen the notches, but at last he was satisfied.
"Let me see it, Jake," asked Verde.
It was a ten-inch blade, worn thin from use. Verde felt the sharp teeth.
"Wal, Jake, that'll do the trick pronto," said Verde as coolly as if it was the bone of a horse or steer they were talking about.
"Lucky I've some clean soft shirts," returned Jake. "Ma put them in my bag."
"Good. Tear one up into strips."
"Now, what next?" asked Jake, rolling up his sleeves.
"You'll want my leg on somethin' solid. Knock off the top of the bench."
Jake did so, and stripping off the blanket that covered Verde he slipped the board under his shattered leg.
"Verde, ought I to tie you?" asked Jake in solemn earnestness.
"No, Jake, I'll not make a fuss. Don't worry about me. Just you have everythin' ready—then be quick. Make it a clean job. Savvy?"
"I'll have it off quicker'n you can say Jack Robinson," replied Jake.
The boyhood term, used so unconsciously, recalled to Verde the faraway past.
A ponderous blackness seemed to float slowly before Verde's sight. The cabin was dim, vague, like the unreality of a dream.
He lay like a stone, with no power to move, yet his body seemed aquiver in a mighty convulsion of nerves—a million shocks of agony that ranged through him. A tremendous current swelled and burned in his marrow, like a boring worm of fire, up his spine, into his brain.
IT was night, and outside the storm moaned and wailed and raged. The shadows cast by the fire flickered their last; the red glow of the dying embers faded.
Jake had fallen into the sleep of exhaustion.
But Verde was hovering on the verge of a great and eternal sleep. He knew that death for him was very close. He felt the cool sweet winds of oblivion; he saw the wide, vacant, naked hallway of the beyond, the dim, mystic spiritland; he had heard the strange alluring voices. He had only to let go. And every atom of his racked body clamored to be freed. But Verde held on.
It came a thousand times—that wraithlike presence, the specter that contended with Verde's unquenchable will. And then it came no more.
ONE morning Verde awoke from a deep slumber that had followed his night of agony.
The storm was over, a marble-white and glistening world of snow shone dazzlingly bright from the cabin doorway. Verde heard the sharp ringing of an ax. He saw that one end of the cabin was neatly stacked with firewood. A cheerful blaze crackled on the hearth.
Verde felt a surge of life within him. The crisis was past. The pangs of his poor maimed body were innumerable; but the great rending torture had ebbed and passed away.
Jake entered to greet him with a glad shout.
Another day Verde began to take nourishment that Jake most carefully prepared, and sparingly doled out.
"Shore you're hungry," he agreed, with his eager smile. "But I cain't let you eat much yet. An' for that matter we're both goin' to get good an' damn hungry before the snow melts."
"Reckon I forgot," replied Verde in his weak voice. "How are we fixed for grub?"
"Pretty darn lucky," said Jake fervently. "We always packed up more canned stuff than we ever used. An' there's a lot, some fruit an' milk, but most vegetables. There's a sack of flour an' a couple sacks of beans. Coffee not a great deal, but lots of sugar. There's a hundred pounds of salt that I packed up last spring to cure hides. Lucky that was! An' I've hung up three deer I shot, an' one of my horses. The meat's froze solid. An' I guess that's all."
"Pretty lucky, yes," replied Verde. "But it's a long way from enough. Let's see—what's the date?"
"I don't know exactly. It's well on in November. I'll keep track of days."
"We're snowed up for five months."
"Wal, Verde, it seemed terrible at furst, before I felt shore of you comin' round, but it doesn't faze me now."
"All the same, old boy, it's far the biggest job you ever tackled." replied Verde.
"Recon so. But don't you worry," said Jake reassuringly. "We'll go easy with our grub. I always was a meat eater, you know, an' I can live on meat. I'll find my other horse an' kill him. Then I saw elk tracks up the canyon, but I didn't want to take time to trail them. I'll do it soon. No, I'm more worried about scarcity of wood than meat. You see there's a couple of feet of snow on, an' down timber is hard to locate."
"The avalanche must have fetched down more wood than we'll need."
"Shore," said Jake, slapping his leg. "I never thought of that. Reckon I sort of shunned the avalanche end of our prison. But with lots of wood I can beat this game."
Verde noted that from this time on Jake was outdoors most of the daylight hours. To be sure, the days were short. But Verde soon became convinced that dry wood and fresh meat were harder to procure than Jake had acknowledged.
Jake ministered to Verde's comfort and health with the care of a mother. Indeed, as days went by he grew more tender in his ministrations; and as Verde's pains lessened and he showed signs of renewing strength, Jake's unspoken worry lessened and he grew happy.
It dawned upon Verde, after a while, that Jake was happier than he had ever been, even before Kitty Mains had come into their lives. Verde guessed at the first flush of this discovery that Jake's happiness came from having saved him, and from the daily service the situation made imperative. But after a while Verde altered this conviction, and arrived at the conclusion that it came from a revival of Jake's earlier love for him. Anyway, Jake's care of him was very sure and very beautiful. Verde never ceased to thank God that he had made the superhuman fight to hold on to life. It had been solely for Jake's sake, but now he began to be glad for his own. He knew that he would manage somehow to ride a horse again.
ONE night after supper, with the cabin warm and cozy in the firelight and the snow pattering again against the walls, Jake sat a long time staring into the fire. Every once in a while he would throw on a few chips. Finally he turned a changed and softened face to Verde—a face that revealed a beautiful, strange smile and a warm light in his eyes.
"Verde, I reckon it's no exaggeration to say you're out of danger. Your leg has healed. You're on the mend."
"Yes, thanks to you, old boy," returned Verde gratefully.
"Well, you can thank me all you like, but I'm thankin' Gawd... An', Verde, are you forgettin' how you come to be here in this shape?"
"Reckon I am, now you make me think."
Jake paused to moisten his lips, and his big hand smoothed his long hair.
"I hope you can forgive me, Verde."
"There's nothin' to forgive. I'm as much to blame as you. An' mebbe more."
"Wal, we won't argue that... Do you ever think of Kitty Mains?"
"Shore I do—a lot. When I cain't help myself."
"Verde, you loved Kitty somethin' turrible, didn't you?"
"I'm afraid I did."
"But you do—yet?" demanded Jake intensely, as if any intimation otherwise could be sacrilege.
"All right. Yes, I do yet," replied Verde, hastening to help Jake to his revelation, whatever it was to be.
"Shore, I'm glad. It wouldn't seem fair to Kitty if our—our differences an' this trouble made you love her less. Because, Verde—I know Kitty loved you more than me."
"How do you know that?" asked Verde curiously.
"I reckon I found it out thinkin'. Somethin' came to me lyin' there awake so many nights. An' it was this. Kitty has two natures same as she has eyes. Now I was always easy with girls. Guess I must have a little of girl nature in me. Anyway my coaxin' an' tender kind of love must have appealed to Kitty's softer side. But that side wasn't Kitty's deepest an' strongest. She's more devil than angel, you can bet. She'd need to be tamed, an' I never could do it. She'd soon tire of me... I always saw how Kitty flared up when you came around. If I'd have been honest with myself I'd of known what it meant. But I never knew until that night of the last dance. It nearly killed me then, but I've lived to be glad... Verde, I reckon mebbe Kitty isn't all you an' I dreamed she was. But she is what she is an' we both love her. Now since we've been here alone I've reasoned it all out. Mebbe Kitty really does love you best. She ought to, you're so handsome, Verde. So I'm givin' up my share in her to you."
"But Jake—" began Verde, feebly.
"There's not any buts," interrupted Jake. "I've settled it. I know I'm right. An' I know this will help you to get well an' strong quicker'n anything else in the world."
Verde closed his eyes. He was troubled and shaken, and yet glad to have any expostulation on his part so summarily dismissed. But he knew in his heart that he had not accepted Jake's ultimatum, and that a tremendous issue still loomed in the vague future. Just now he discovered how weak he was, both physically and spiritually. It was good to sink down—to realize that slumber would come.
Good old Jake!... Verde was a little boy again, wandering along the road. He came to a stream where the water ran swiftly and the leaves floated down. The white sycamore trees stood up like ghosts. He did not want to go back to the wagon, for his stepfather hated him and beat him... He was lost and he began to be afraid. Then a barefooted boy came out of the brush. "My name's Jake," the boy said. "What's yours?" And craftily he would not tell because he wished to stay.
THE dead, cold white winter shut down upon Black Gorge. The short days and the long nights passed. Verde slept most of the time. Jake labored at his tasks. Sometimes after supper he would play checkers with Verde on a rude board of his own construction. Or they held council over the all-important speculations of when and how they would dare attempt to get out of the gorge. Or more often they talked over the nearer and more serious problem of fighting the cold and starvation. They never mentioned Kitty Mains. Jake's peace and serenity had somehow been communicated to Verde.
It was a wonderful occasion for both when Verde rose from his bed and hobbled about the cabin on the crutch Jake had made. From that day Verde's progress grew more rapid. He looked forward to the supreme test that was to come—the climbing out of the canyon. He wanted to be able to help himself again. Jake had become a gaunt bearded giant, hardy as a pine.
It was true that he could thrive on a meat diet. But their meat was dwindling, and if Jake did not soon make a lucky stalk their supply would be exhausted and they must face starvation. Every day Jake hunted in the recesses of the winding gorge. Several times he had been on the eve of sighting elk, but the advent of night and fresh snow covering the tracks each time had frustrated his hopes.
THE days passed, and the hours of sunlight lengthened. The snow melted from the cabin roof and then disappeared from the south slope of the gorge. The icy clutch of winter loosened. Sometimes a warm, balmy breath of wind came wandering through the depths of the gorge.
With spring close at hand they came to the last pound of meat and the last hard biscuit each. Jake, giant that he was, had lately grown much gaunter. He had been sacrificing his food for Verde. When Verde discovered this he refused to eat at all unless Jake had an equal share. So they cooked the last pound of frozen meat.
Then Jake left with his rifle. Verde could now manage very well with his crutch. He did the chores while Jake hunted. There was a beautiful sky that afternoon. Verde gazed up wistfully over the pink-tinged snow ridges. Spring was coming. What a winter Jake and he had put in! Yet Verde would not have wanted it different, even to the recovery of his leg. Jake's labors had been as great as his own sufferings. Together they had conquered something more fearful than death. Together they had climbed heights more beautiful than life itself.
Before the sunset flush had paled on the high ridges Jake came staggering in under a load of meat. With a heavy crash he threw down a haunch of elk. He was covered with snow and blood. A pungent animal odor and the scent of the woods emanated from him to fill the cabin.
"Killed a bull an' a yearlin'," he boomed, with his deep-set eyes beaming gladly upon Verde.
"They've been hidin' from me all winter. But I found them... An' Verde, soon I'll be makin' a sled to haul you home."
"Say, you great big ragamuffin!" yelled Verde with a joy that matched Jake's own. "I'll walk home on one leg!"
Jake had impetuosity to make the start soon, but Verde had the wisdom and courage to wait awhile longer. The fresh meat would build up their strength and the longer they delayed the less snow they would have to combat.
During these last days Jake cut a zigzag trail in the snow up the slide of the avalanche. This side, being on the north, did not get the sun except for a brief while each day. The obstacle that imprisoned them, however, was the deep snow on top. Jake climbed high enough to see that the south slopes everywhere showed great patches of black where it had thawed. He was jubilant.
"Verde, I'm rarin' to go. Once on top the rest will be easy!"
The night before the day they meant to undertake the climb upon which so much depended, Verde came out with something that had for so long obsessed his mind, and had been greatly contributary to the source of his own tranquility.
"Wal, Jake, now it's time to get somethin' off my own chest," he said, with all the calmness he could muster.
"Ahuh?" asked Jake rather sharply. Evidently he did not like Verde's look.
"I didn't say so before, but I never agreed with you on that deal about Kitty Mains."
"No... Say, ain't it kinda late in the day to—"
"Late, but better than never... Jake, old boy, I cain't accept what you wanted. I never agreed with you. An' I simply won't let you give up Kitty for me."
Jake turned red under his matted beard. He left off the task in hand and stood up to confront Verde.
"Don't you love Kitty same as I do?" he demanded.
Verde had his argument all planned, and the fact that in some degree it departed from strict veracity caused him no concern.
"Wal, I reckon I did once, but hardly now. This winter has knocked a lot out of me. Then I'm a cripple now, an' I never saw thet women cared a heap for cripples, except with a sort of pity. I cain't work as I used to, an' I'll be dependent upon your pa... Jake, he's been a dad to me, same as you've been a brother. Gawd bless you! But after all my name's not Dunton. I haven't any real name to give a woman... Now all these things helped me to make up my mind. Fust an' last though, the biggest reason is that no matter what you say against it, I believe Kitty loves you best."
"Verde, you're a doggone liar!" declared Jake huskily.
"Well, if she didn't last fall, it's a shore bet she will now. I'm only half a man, Jake… So let's shake hands on it."
"What if I won't?"
"I'd hate to say, Jake. Fact is, I don't know. Because my thinkin' didn't get so far. I might never leave this cabin with you... See it my way, Jake. You got to! We've come through hell, an' we're happy in spite of it—perhaps because of it. I don't know. Only I'd never be happy again if you won't take it my way."
Jake wrung Verde's hand, and turned away, mute and shaken, his head bowed.
NEXT morning at sunrise they started. Verde had only his crutch. Jake had a blanket strapped to his back, and he carried some strips of cooked meat in his pocket and a rope in his hand. He had carried the sled high up on the slope to use in case the snow was not gone from the ridge top and the south slope beyond.
The plan was to climb very slowly, foot by foot, to husband Verde's strength. Two things became manifest during the early hours of the ascent—first, that the difficulties were greater than they had anticipated, and secondly that Verde had amazing strength and endurance.
But he gave out before they reached the top. Whereupon Jake took Verde over his shoulder, and carried him as he would a sack of meal. All winter Jake had packed heavy logs down to the cabin—packed them when he might have cut them into lesser lengths. But he had looked far ahead—to this terrible ascent out of Black Gorge. He was indeed a giant. Verde marveled at him. On the other hand, he was as slow and cautious as he was powerful and enduring. He carried Verde for only short distances, sometimes only a few yards. Then he would lower him to his foot and crutch on some high place. Thus, when he had caught his breath again, he would not have to bend down and lift Verde.
Up and up he toiled. The real Herculean labor began at the end of the trail Jake had cut in the snow. Verde almost despaired. But he could not flinch in the face of this magnificent and invincible courage. Jake had meant to kill him once and now he meant to save him. It was written. Verde felt it. And when his reason argued that Jake must soon fall broken and spent something told him no physical obstacle could conquer this man.
The afternoon waned. Sunset found them in deep snow. But before night came Jake had dragged Verde over the top of the ridge and down onto bare ground. There he fell, gasping and voiceless.
Verde set about gathering dead brush, which he piled in the lee of a large rock. Jake came presently, and helped him build a roaring fire. Then they heated the strips of meat and ate them. Jake cut spruce boughs and made a bed of them between the fire and the rock. Verde lay warm under the blanket, but he could not go to sleep immediately. Jake hunched close to the fire. His heart was too full for words, or sleep, or anything but a silent realization of deliverance and happiness.
The night wind moaned, but not with the moan of winter.
Sunrise found them on their way down the vast slope of brown and green which was dotted with patches of snow. The descent was easy, though slow. They had only to thread their way between the unthawed drifts and the thickets of brush. For a loadstone of hope they had their first sight of the Dunton ranch, a tiny green grass plot far in the distance, but coming ever closer.
Again sunset burned red and gold in the sky. Verde could now gaze back and up at the rim, bold and beautiful with its belt of bright colored cliffs and its fringed line of black pines.
With Jake's arm upholding Verde, they staggered across the ranch field, to encounter Dunton coming out of the cabin. He dropped a bucket he had been carrying.
"Jane—wife—come quick!" he yelled.
Jake waved a tired hand.
"Dad, it's me an' Verde!"
"My Gawd! You infernal scarecrows!"
Then the mother came, white-faced, to scream a wondering, ecstatic welcome.
The warm, bright living room seemed like heaven to Verde. He could only look and feel, as he lay back, propped in a comfortable rocking chair. How good to be home! That wild, white mantled gorge retreated from his memory.
It was Jake who talked, who laughed when his mother wept.
Dunton cast eyes both happy and sad over his returned sons.
"So, thet's your story," he said. "Wal, the Tonto never heard its beat. I reckon I'm proud of you both... But, my Gawd, boys, the pity of it!... All fer nothin'! All for a slip of a popeyed girl who wasn't worth your little finger, let alone a leg! Shore! Folks hadn't even stopped talkin' about your fight when she up an' married young Stillwell."