The Sackett Brand
Nobody could rightly say any of us Sacketts were what youd call superstitious. Nonetheless, if I had tied a knot in a towel or left a shovel in the fire nothing might have happened.
The trouble was, when I walked out on that point my mind went a-rambling like wild geese down a western sky.
What I looked upon was a sight of lovely country. Right at my feet was the river, a-churning and a-thrashing at least six hundred feet below me, with here and there a deep blue pool. Across the river, and clean to the horizon to the north and east of me, was the finest stand of pine timber this side of the Smokies.
Knobs of craggy rock thrust up, with occasional ridges showing bare spines to the westward where the timber thinned out and the country finally became desert. In front of me, but miles away, a gigantic wall reared up. That wall was at least a thousand feet higher than where I now stood, though this was high ground.
This was the place we had been seeking, and now I was scouting a route for my wagon and stock. As I stood there on that high point I thought I saw a likely route, and I started to turn away. It was a move I never completed, for something struck me an awful wallop alongside the skull, and next thing I knew I was falling.
Falling? With a six-hundred-foot drop below me? Fear clawed at my throat, and I heard a wild, ugly cry...my own cry.
Then my shoulder smashed into an outcropping of crumbly rock that went to pieces under the impact, and again I was falling; I struck again, fell again, and struck again, this time feet first, facing a gravelly slope that threw me off into the air once more. This time I landed sliding on a sheer rock face that rounded inward and let me fall again, feet first.
Brush growing out from the side of the mountain caught me for just a moment, but I ripped through it, clawing for a grip; then I fell clear into a deep pool.
Down I went, and when I thought to strike out and swim, something snagged my pants leg and started me kicking wildly to shake loose. Then something gave way down there under water, and I shot to the surface right at the spillway of the pool.
My mouth gasped for air, and a wave hit me full in the mouth and almost strangled me, while the force of the water swept me between the rocks and over a six-foot fall. The current rushed me on, and I went through another spillway before I managed to get my feet under me in shallow water.
Even then, stepping on a slippery rock, I fell once more, and this time the current dropped me to a still lower pool, almost covered by arching trees. Flailing with arms and legs, I managed to lay hand to a root and tug myself out of the water. There was a dark hole under the roots of a huge old sycamore that leaned over the water, and it was instinct more than good sense that made me crawl into it before I collapsed.
And then for a long time I felt nothing, heard nothing.
It was the cold that woke me. Shivering, shaking, I struggled back to something like consciousness. At first I sensed only the cold... and then I realized that somebody was talking nearby.
"Whats the boss so wrought up about? He was just a driftin cowpoke."
"You aint paid to question the boss, Dancer. He said we were to find him and kill him, and he said we were to hunt for a week if necessary, but he wants the body found and he wants it buried deep. If it aint dead, we kill it."
"You funnin me? Why, that poor benighted heathen fell six hundred feet! And you can just bet he was dead before he even started to fall. Macon couldnt miss a shot at that distance, with his target standing still, like that."
"That doesnt matter. We hunt until we find him."
The sound of their walking horses faded out, and I lay still on the wet ground, shaking with chill, knowing Id got to get warm or die. When I tried to move my arm it flopped out like a dead thing, it was that numb.
My fingers laid hold of a rock that was frozen into the ground and I hauled myself deeper into the hole. The earth beneath me was frozen mud, but it was shelter of a kind, so I curled up like a new-born baby. and tried to think.
Who was I? Where was I/ Who wanted me dead, and why?
My skull throbbed with a dull, heavy beat, and I squinted my eyes against the pain. One leg was so stiff it would scarcely move, and when I got a look at my hands I didnt want to look at them again. When Id hit the face of the cliff Id torn nearly all the skin off grabbing for a hold. One fingernail was gone.
I put my fingers up and drew them away quickly. There was a raw furrow in my scalp just above the ear.
The cold had awakened me; the voices had started me thinking. The two together had given me a chance to live. Yet why should I try? I had only to lie still and I would die soon enough. All the struggle, all the pain would be over.
And then it struck me.
Ange ...Ange Kerry, the girl who had become my wife. Where was she?
When I thought of her I rolled over and started to get up. Ange was back up there on the mountain with the wagon and the cattle, and she was alone. She was back there waiting for me, worrying. And she was alone.
Using my elbow and hand, I worked my way out of the hole and pulled myself up by clinging to the sycamore. At the same time I kept my body close to it for concealment.
The forest along the stream was open, almost empty of underbrush, but the huge old sycamores made almost a solid roof overhead, so that where I stood it was already twilight.
My teeth rattled with cold, for my shirt was torn to shreds, my pants torn, my boots gone. My gun belt had been ripped loose in the fall and my gun was gone, and with it my Bowie knife.
Shelter... I must find shelter and warmth. If I could get to the wagon, I could get clothing, blankets, and a gun. Most of all, I could see Ange, could be sure she was all right.
So far as I knew, nobody was even aware that we were in this part of the country...Yes, there was somebody--the storekeeper in Globe of whom wed made inquiries. No doubt others had seen us around Globe, but I had no enemies there, or had I talked to anyone else, nor done anything to offend anyone.
Now, step by careful step , I eased away from the river and into the deeper forest. The sun was setting, and gave me my direction.
As I crawled up a bank, my hand closed over a rounded rock with an edge. It was a crude, prehistoric hand-axe. Clinging to it, I crawled over the bank and got to my feet.
How many times I fell down Ill never know, or how many times I crawled on the ground or pulled myself up by a tree or rock. Yet each time I did get up, and somehow I kept pushing along. Finally, unable to go any further, I found a shallow, wind-hollowed cave almost concealed behind a bush, a cave scarcely large enough to take my body, and I crawled in, and there I slept.
When at last the long, miserable night was past, I awoke in the gray-yellow dawn to face the stark realization that I was a hunted man.
By now Ange would know that I was in serious trouble, for Id never spent the night away from her side; and it could be that my horse returned to the wagon.
From the trunk of a big old sycamore, I hacked out two rectangles of bark. Then with rawhide strips cut from my belt with my stone axe and my teeth, I tied those pieces of bark under my feet to protect the soles.
Next, I dug into the ground with the hand-axe and worked until I found a long, limber root, to make a loop large enough to go over my head. Then I broke evergreen boughs from the trees and hung them by their forks or tied them to the loop, making myself a sort of cape of boughs. It wasnt much, but it cut the force of the wind and kept some of the warmth of my body close to me.
Using a dead branch for a staff, I started off, keeping under cover as best I could.
By the time the sun was high I was working my way up a canyon where cypresses grew. On my right was the wall of Buckhead Mesa, and Id left Ange and the wagon on the north side of that mesa. I thought of the rifle and the spare pistol in that wagon...if I could get to it.
Then, far behind me, I heard a loud halloo. That stopped me, and I stood for a moment, catching my breath and listening. It must be that somebody had found some sign, and had called the others. From now on, they would know they were hunting a living man.
You never saw so much brush, so many trees, so many rock falls crammed into one canyon. Fire had swept along the canyon a time or two, leaving some charred logs, but the trees had had time to grow tall again, the brush had grown thicker than ever, as it always does after a fire.
One thing I had in my favor. Nobody was likely to try taking a horse up that canyon, and if I knew cowpunchers they werent going to get down from the saddle and scramble on foot up the canyon unless all hell was a-driving them.
By noontime I was breasting the rise at the head of the canyon. Only a few yards away the rock of the mesa broke off sharply and dipped into another canyon, while the great flat surface of Buckhead lay on my right. It was several miles in area and thickly forested.
Near as I could figure, Ange and the wagon were now about three miles off, and moving as I had to, it might take me to sundown to cover that distance.
There was no way across that mesa but to walk or crawl, and there was no place a rider couldnt go. It looked to me as if I needed more of a weapon than that hand-axe I had in my pocket.
Turning around, I crawled deeper into the brush and burrowed down into the pine needles. My head ached, my eyes blinked slowly. I was tired, almighty tired. I felt wore out.
Ange, Ange girl, I said, I just aint a-gonna make it. I aint a-gonna make it right now.
I was trying to burrow deeper, and then I stopped all movement when I heard a horse walking on frozen ground, but the sound faded off in the distance.
My head felt all swelled up like a balloon, and I couldnt seem to lift it off the ground.
Ange, I said, damn it, Ange, I ....