It was the big central taproot which baffled them. They had hewed easily through the great side roots, large as branches, covered with soft brown bark; they had dug down and cut through the forest of tender small roots below; but when they had passed the main body of the stump and worked under it, they found that their hole around the trunk was not large enough in diameter to enable them to reach to the taproot and cut through it. They could only reach it feebly with the hatchet, fraying it, but there was no chance for a free swing to sever the tough wood. Instead of widening the hole at once, they kept laboring at the root, working the stump back and forth, as though they hoped to crystallize that stubborn taproot and snap it like a wire. Still it held and defied them. They laid hold of it together and tugged with a grunt; something tore beneath that effort, but the stump held, and upward progress ceased.
They stopped, too tired for profanity, and gazed down the mountainside after the manner of baffled men, who look far off from the thing that troubles them. They could tell by the trees that it was a high altitude. There were no cottonwoods, though the cottonwoods will follow a stream for more than a mile above sea level. Far below them a pale mist obscured the beautiful silver spruce which had reached their upward limit. Around the cabin marched a scattering of the balsam fir. They were nine thousand feet above the sea, at least. Still higher up the sallow forest of lodgepole pines began; and above these, beyond the timberline, rose the bald summit itself.
They were big men, framed for such a country, defying the roughness with a roughness of their own—these stalwart sons of old Bill Campbell. Both Harry and Joe Campbell were fully six feet tall, with mighty bones and sinews and work-toughened muscles to justify their stature. Behind them stood their home, a shack better suited for the housing of cattle than of men. But such leather-skinned men as these were more tender to their horses than to themselves. They slept and ate in the shack, but they lived in the wind and the sun.
Although they had looked down the stern slopes to the lower Rockies, they did not see the girl who followed the loosely winding trail. She was partly sheltered by the firs and came out just above them. They began moiling at the stump again, sweating, cursing, and the girl halted her horse near by. The profanity did not distress her. She was so accustomed to it that the words had lost all edge and point for her; but her freckled face stirred to a smile of pleasure at the sight of their strength, as they alternately smote at the taproot and then strove in creaking, grunting unison to work it loose.
They remained so long oblivious of her presence that at length she called, "Why don't you dig a bigger hole, boys?"
She laughed in delight as they jerked up their heads in astonishment. Her laughter was young and sweet to the ear, but there was not a great deal outside her laughter that was attractive about her.
However, Joe and Harry gaped and grinned and blushed at her in the time-old fashion, for she lived in a country where to be a woman is sufficient, beauty is an unnecessary luxury, soon taxed out of existence by the life. She possessed the main essentials of social power; she could dance unflaggingly from dark to dawn at the nearest schoolhouse dance, chattering every minute; and she could maintain a rugged silence from dawn to dark again, as she rode her pony home.
Harry Campbell took off his hat, not in politeness, but to scratch his head. "Say, Jessie, where'd you drop from? Didn't see you coming no ways."
"Maybe I come down like rain," said Jessie.
All three laughed heartily at this jest.
Jessie swung sidewise in her saddle with the lithe grace of a boy, dropped her elbow on the high pommel, and gave advice. "You got a pretty bad taproot under yonder. Better chop out a bigger hole, boys. But, say, what you clearing this here land for? Ain't no good for nothing, is it?" She looked around her. Here and there the clearing around the shanty ate raggedly into the forest, but still the plowed land was chopped up with a jutting of boulders.
"Sure it ain't no good for nothing," said Joe. "It's just the old man's idea."
He jerked a grimy thumb over his shoulder to indicate the controlling and absent power of the old man, somewhere in the woods.
"Sure makes him glum when we ain't working. If they ain't nothing worthwhile to do he always sets us to grubbing up roots; and if we ain't diggin' up roots, we got to get out old 'Maggie' mare and try to plow. Plow in rocks like them! Nobody but Bull can do it."
"I didn't know Bull could do nothing," said the girl with interest.
"Aw, he's a fool, right enough," said Harry, "but he just has a sort of head for knowing where the rocks are under the ground, and somehow he seems to make old Maggie hoss know where they lie, too. Outside of that he sure ain't no good. Everybody knows that."
"Kind of too bad he ain't got no brains," said the girl. "All his strength is in his back, and none is in his head, my dad says. If he had some part of sense he'd be a powerful good hand."
"Sure would be," agreed Harry. "But he ain't no good now. Give him an ax maybe, and he hits one or two wallopin' licks with it and then stands and rests on the handle and starts to dreaming like a fool. Same way with everything. But, say, Joe, maybe he could start this stump out of the hole."
"But I seen you both try to get the stump up," said the girl in wonder.
"Get Bull mad and he can lift a pile," Joe assured her. "Go find him, Harry."
Harry obediently shouted, "Bull! Oh, Bull!"
There was no answer.
"Most like he's reading," observed Joe. "He don't never hear nothing then. Go look for him, Harry."
Big Harry strode to the door of the hut.
"How come he understands books?" said the girl. "I couldn't never make nothing out of 'em."
"Me neither," agreed Joe in sympathy. "But maybe Bull don't understand. He just likes to read because he can sit still and do it. Never was a lazier gent than Bull."
Harry turned at the door of the shack. "Yep, reading," he announced with disgust. He cupped his hands over his mouth and bellowed through the doorway, "Hey!"
There was a startled grunt within, a deep, heavy voice and a thick articulation. Presently a huge man came into the doorway and leaned there, his figure filling it. There was nothing freakish about his build. He was simply over-normal in bulk, from the big head to the heavy feet. He was no more than a youth in age, but the great size and the bewildered puckering of his forehead made him seem older. The book was still in his hand.
"Hey," returned Harry, "we didn't call you out here to read to us. Leave the book behind!"
Bull looked down at the book in his hand, seemed to waken from a trance, then, with a muffled sound of apology, dropped the book behind him.
He slumped out from the house. His gait was like his body, his stride large and loose. The lack of nervous energy which kept his mind from a high tension was shown again in the heavy fall of his feet and the forward slump of his head. His hands dangled aimlessly at his sides, as though in need of occupation. A ragged thatch of blond hair covered his head and it was sunburned to straw color at the edges.
His costume was equally rough. He wore no belt, but one strap, from his right hip, crossed behind his back, over the bulging muscles of his shoulder to the front of his left hip. The trousers, which this simple brace supported, were patched overalls, frayed to loose threads halfway down the calf where they were met by the tops of immense cowhide boots. As for the shirt, the sleeves were inches too short, and the unbuttoned cuffs flapped around the burly forearms. If it had been fastened together at the throat he would have choked. He seemed, in a word, to be bulging out of his clothes. One expected a mighty rending if he made a strong effort.
This bulk of a man slouched forward with steps both huge and hesitant, pausing between them. When he saw the girl he stopped short, and his brow puckered more than before. One felt that, coming from the shadow, he was dazed and startled by the brilliant mountain sunshine; and the eyes were dull and alarmed. It was a handsome face in a way, but a little too heavy with flesh, too inert, like the rest of his body and his muscular movements.
"She ain't going to bite you," said Harry Campbell. "Come on over here to the stump." He whispered to the girl, "Laugh at him!"
She obeyed his command. It brought a flush to the face of Bull Hunter and made his head bow. He shuffled to the stump and stood aimlessly beside it.
"Get down into the hole, you fool!" ordered Joe.
He and Harry took a certain pride in ordering their cousin around. It was like performing with a lion in the presence of a lady; it was manipulating an elephant by power of the unaided voice. Slowly Bull Hunter dropped his great feet into the hole and then raised his head a little and looked wistfully to the brothers for further orders.
But only half his mind was with them. The other half was with the story in the book. There Quentin Durward had been nodding at his guard in the castle, and the evil-faced little king had just sprung out and wrenched the weapon from the hands of the sleepy boy. Bull Hunter could see the story clearly, very clearly. The scar on the face of Le Balafr glistened for him; he had veritably tasted the little round loaves of French bread that the adventurer had eaten with the pseudo-merchant.
But to step out of that world of words into this keen sunlight—ah, there was the difference! The minds which one found in the pages of a book were understandable. But the minds of living men—how terrible they were! One could never tell what passed behind the bright eyes of other human beings. They mocked one. When they seemed sad they might be about to laugh. The minds of the two brothers eluded him, mocked him, slipped from beneath the slow grasp of his comprehension. They whipped him with their scorn. They dodged him with their wits. They bewildered him with their mockery.
But they were nothing compared with the laughter of the girl. It went through him like the flash and point of Le Balafr's long sword. He was helpless before that sound of mirth. He wanted to hold up his hands and cower away from her and from her dancing eyes. So he stood, ponderous, tortured, and the three pairs of clear eyes watched him and enjoyed his torture. Better, far better, that dark castle in ancient France, and the wicked Oliver and the yet more wicked Louis.
"Lay hold on that stump," shouted Harry.
He heard the directions through a haze. It was twice repeated before he bowed and set his great hands upon the ragged projections, where the side roots had been cut away. He settled his grip and waited. He was glad because this bowed position gave him a chance to look down to the ground and avoid their cruel eyes. How bright those eyes were, thought Bull, and how clearly they saw all things! He never doubted the justice behind their judgments of him; all that Bull asked from the world was a merciful silence—to let him grub in his books now and then, or else to tell him how to go about some simple work, such as digging with a pick. Here one's muscles worked, and there was no problem to disturb wits which were still gathering wool in the pages of some old tale.
But they were shrilling new directions at him; perhaps they had been calling to him several times.
"You blamed idiot, are you goin' to stand there all day? We didn't give you that stump to rest on. Pull it up!"
He started with a sense of guilt and tugged up. His fingers slipped off their separate grips, and the stump, though it groaned against the taproot under the strain, did not come out.
"It don't seem to budge, somehow," said Bull in his big, soft, plaintive voice. Then he waited for the laughter. There was always laughter, no matter what he did or said, but he never grew calloused against it. It was the one pain which ever pierced the mist of his brain and cut him to the quick. And he was right. There was laughter again. He stood suffering mutely under it.
The girl's face became grave. She murmured to Harry, "Ever try praisin' to big stupid?"
"Him? Are you joshin' me, Jessie? What's he ever done to be praised about?"
"You watch!" said the girl. Growing excited with her idea, she called, "Say, Bull!"
He lifted his head, but not his eyes. Those eyes studied the impatient feet of the girl's mustang; he waited for another stroke of wit that would bring forth a fresh shower of laughter at his expense.
"Bull, you're mighty big and strong. About the biggest and strongest man I ever seen!"
Was this a new and subtle form of mockery? He waited dully.
"I seen Harry and Joe both try to pull up that root, and they couldn't so much as budge it. But I bet you could do it all alone, Bull! You just try! I bet you could!"
It amazed him. He lifted his eyes at length; his face suffused with a flush; his big, cloudy eyes were glistening with moisture.
"D'you mean that?" he asked huskily.
For this terrible, clear-eyed creature, this mocking mind, this alert, cruel wit was actually speaking words of confidence. A great, dim joy welled up in the heart of Bull Hunter. He shook the forelock out of his eyes.
"You just try, will you, Bull?"
He bowed. Again his thick fingers sought for a grip, found places, worked down through the soft dirt and the pulpy bark to solid wood, and then he began to lift. It was a gradual process. His knees gave, sagging under the strain from the arms. Then the back began to grow rigid, and the legs in turn grew stiff, as every muscle fell into play. The shoulders pushed forward and down. The forearms, revealed by the short sleeves, showed a bewildering tangle of corded muscle, and, at the wrists, the tendons sprang out as distinct and white as the new strings of a violin.
The three spectators were undergoing a change. The suppressed grins of the two brothers faded. They glanced at the girl to see if she were not laughing at the results of her words to big Bull, but the girl was staring. She had set that mighty power to work, and she was amazed by the thing she saw. And they, looking back at Bull, were amazed in turn. They had seen him lift great logs, wrench boulders from the earth. But always it had been a proverb within the Campbell family that Bull would make only one attempt and, failing in the first effort, would try no more. They had never seen the mysterious resources of his strength called upon.
Now they watched first the settling and then the expansion of the body of their big cousin. His shoulders began to tremble; they heard deep, harsh panting like the breathing of a horse as it tugs a ponderous load up a hill, and still he had not reached the limit of his power. He seemed to grow into the soil, and his feet ground deeper into the soft dirt, and ever there was something in him remaining to be tapped. It seemed to the brothers to be merely vast, unexplored recesses of muscle, but even then it was a prodigious thing to watch the strain on the stump increase moment by moment. That something of the spirit was being called upon to aid in the work was quite beyond their comprehension.
There was something like a groan from Bull—a queer, animal sound that made all three spectators shiver where they stood. For it showed that the limit of that apparently inexhaustible strength had been reached and that now the anguish of last effort was going into the work. They saw the head bowed lower; the shoulders were now bunching and swelling up on either side.
Then came a faint rending sound, like cloth slowly torn. It was answered by something strangely like a snarl from the laborer. Something jerked through his body as though a whip had been flicked across his back. With a great rending and a loud snap the big stump came up. A little shower of dirt spouted up with the parting of the taproot. The trunk was flung high, but not out of the hands of Bull Hunter. He whirled it around his head, laughing. There was a ring and clearness in that laughter that they had never heard before. He dashed the stump on the ground.
"It's out!" exclaimed Bull. "Look there!"
He strode upon them. As he straightened up he became huger than ever. They shrank from him—from the veins which still bulged on his forehead and from the sweat and pallor of that vast effort. The very mustang winced from this mountain of a man who came with a long, sweeping, springing stride. On his face was a strange joy as of the explorer who tops the mountains and sees the beauty of the promised land beneath him. He held out his hand.
"Lady, I got to thank you. You—taught me how!"
But she shrank from his outstretched hand—as though she had labored to a larger end than she dreamed and was terrified by the thing she had made.
"You—you got a red stain on your hands. Oh!"
He came to a stop sharply. The sharp edges, where the roots had been cut away had worked through the skin and his hands were literally caked with mud and stained red. Bull looked down at his hands vaguely.
It came to Harry that Bull was taking up a trifle too much of Jessie's attention. The next thing they knew she would be inviting him to come to the next dance down her way, and they would have the big hulk of a man shaming himself and his uncle's family.
"Go on back to the house," he ordered sharply. "We don't have no more need of you."
Bull obeyed, stumbling along and still looking down at his wounded hands.
He left the three behind him, bewildered and frightened. Had lightning split a thick tree beside them, or an unexpected landslide thundered past and swept the ground away at their feet, they could have been hardly more disturbed.
"Who'd of thought he could act like that!" remarked Joe. "My gosh, Jessie!"
They went and looked at the hole where the stump had stood. At the bottom was the white remnant of the taproot where it had burst under the strain.
"It wasn't so much how he pulled up the stump," said the girl faintly. "But—but did you see his face, boys, after he heaved the stump up? I—just pick that stump up, will you?"
They went to the misshapen, ragged monster and lifted it, puffing under the weight.
They dropped it obediently.
"And he—he just swung it around his head like it was nothing!" declared the girl. "Look how it smashed into the gravel where he threw it down! Why—why—I didn't know men was made like that. And his face—the way he laughed—why he didn't look like no fool at all, boys. But just as if he'd waked up!"
"You act so interested," said Harry Campbell dryly, "that maybe you'd like to have us call him out again so's you can talk to him?"
Apparently she did not hear, but stared down into the mist of the late afternoon, warning her that she must start home. She seemed puzzled and a little frightened. When she left them it was with a wave of the hand and with no words of farewell. They watched her go down the trail that jerked back and forth across the pitch of the slope; twice her pony stumbled, a sure sign that the rider was absent-minded.
"Jessie didn't seem to know what to make of it," said Harry.
"Neither do I," returned his brother.
Both of them spoke in subdued voices as if they were afraid of being overheard.
"And think if he'd ever lay a hold on one of us like that!" said Harry. He went to the stump and examined the side of one of the roots. It was stained with crimson.
"Look where his finger tips worked through the dirt and the bark, right down to the solid wood," murmured Joe.
They looked at each other uneasily. "My gosh," said Joe, "think of the way I handled him the other night! He—he let me trip him up and throw him!" He shuddered. "Why, if he'd laid hold of me just once, he'd of squashed my muscles like they was rotten fruit!"
Of one accord they turned back to the house. At the door they paused and peered in, as into the den of a bear. There sat Bull on the floor—he risked his weight to none of the crazy chairs—still looking at his stained hands. Then they drew back and again looked at each other with scared eyes and spoke in undertones.
"After this maybe he won't want to follow orders. Maybe he'll get sort of free and easy and independent."
"If he does, you watch Dad give him his marching orders. Dad won't have no one lifting heads agin' him."
"Neither will I," snapped Joe. "I guess we own this house. I guess we support that big hulk. I'm going to try him right quick."
He went back to the door of the shack. "Bull, they ain't any wood for the stove tonight. Go chop some quick."
The floor squeaked and groaned under Bull's weight as he rose, and again the brothers looked to each other.
"All right," came cheerily from Bull Hunter.
He came through the door with his ax and went to the log pile. The brothers watched him throw aside the top logs and get at the heavier trunks underneath. He tore one of these out, laid it in place, and the sun flashed on the swift circle of the ax. Joe and Harry stepped back as though the light had blinded them.
"He didn't never work like that before," declared Joe.
The ax was buried almost to the haft in the tough wood, and the steel was wrenching out with a squeak of the metal against the resisting wood. Again the blinding circle and the indescribable sound of the ax's impact, slicing through the wood. A great chip snapped up high over the shoulder of the chopper and dropped solidly to the ground at the feet of the brothers. Again they exchanged glances and drew a little closer together. The log divided under the shower of eating blows, and Bull attacked the next section.
Presently he came to a pause, leaning on the handle of the ax and staring into the distance. At this the brothers sighed with relief.
"I guess he ain't changed so much," said Harry. "But it was queer, eh? Kind of like a bear waking up after he'd been sleeping all winter!"
They jarred Bull out of his dream with a shout and set him to work again; then they started the preparations for the evening meal. The simple preparations were soon completed, but after the potatoes were boiled, they delayed frying the bacon, for their father, old Bill Campbell, had not yet returned from his hunting trip and he disliked long-cooked food. Things had to be freshly served to suit Bill, and his sons dared the wrath of heaven rather than the biting reproaches of the old man.
It was strange that Bill delayed his coming so long. As a rule he was always back before the coming of evening. An old and practiced mountaineer, he had never been known to lose sense of direction or sense of distance, and he was an hour overdue when the sun went down and the soft, beautiful mountain twilight began.
There were other reasons which would ordinarily have disturbed Bill and brought him home even ahead of time. Snow had fallen heavily above the timberline a few days before, and now the keen whistling of the wind and the swift curtaining of clouds, which was drawing across the sky, threatened a new storm that might even reach down to the shack.
And yet no Bill appeared.
The brothers waited in the shack, and the darkness was increasing. Any one of a number of things might have happened to their father, but they were not worried. For one thing, they wasted no love on the stern old man. They knew well enough that he had plenty of money, but he kept them here to a dog's life in the shack, and they hated him for it. Besides, they had a keen grievance which obscured any worry about Bill—they were hungry, wildly hungry. The darkness set in, and the feeble light wandered from the smoked chimney of the lantern and made the window black.
Outside, the wind began to scream, sighing in the distance among the firs, and then pouncing upon the cabin and shaking it as though in rage. The fire would smoke in the stove at every one of these blasts, and the flame leaped in the lantern.
Bull Hunter had to lean closer to the light and frown to make out the print of his book. The sight of his stolid immobility merely sharpened their hunger, for there was never any passion in this hulk of a man. When he relaxed over a book the world went out like a snuffed candle for him. He read slowly, lingering over every page, for now and again his eyes drifted away from the print, and he dreamed over what he had read. In reality he was not reading for the plot, but for the pictures he found, and he dreaded coming to the end of a book also, for books were rare in his life. A scrap of a magazine was a treasure. A full volume was a nameless delight.
And so he worked slowly through every paragraph and made it his and dreamed over it until he knew every thought and every picture by heart. Once slowly devoured in this way, it was useless to reread a book. It was far better to simply sit and let the slow memory of it trail through his mind link by link, just as he had first read it and with all the embroiderings which his own fancy had conjured up.
Often this stupid pondering over a book would madden the two brothers. It irritated them till they would move the lantern away from him. But he always followed the light with a sigh and uncomplainingly settled down again. Sometimes they even snatched the book out of his hands. In that case he sat looking down at his empty fingers, dreaming over his own thoughts as contentedly as though the living page were in his vision. There was small satisfaction in tormenting him in these ways.
Tonight they dared not bother him. The stained hands were still in their minds, and the tremendous, joyous laughter as he whirled the stump over his head still rang in their ears. But they watched him with a sullen envy of his immobility. Just as a man without an overcoat envies the woolly coat of a dog on a windy December day.
Only one sound roused the reader. It was a sudden loud snorting from the shed behind the house and a dull trampling that came to him through the noise of the rising wind. It brought Bull lurching to his feet, and the stove jingled as his weight struck the yielding center boards of the floor. Out into the blackness he strode. The wind shut around him at once and plastered his clothes against his body as if he had been drenched to the skin in water. Then he closed the door.
"What brung him to life?" asked Harry.
"Nothin', He just heard ol' Maggie snort. Always bothers him when Maggie gets scared of something—the old fool!"
Maggie was an ancient, broken-down draft horse. Strange vicissitudes had brought her up into the mountains via the logging camp. She was kept, not because there was any real hauling to be done for Bill Campbell, but because, having got her for nothing, she reminded him of the bargain she had been. And Bull, apparently understanding the sluggish nature of the old mare by sympathy of kind, use to work her to the single plow among the rocks of their clearing. Here, every autumn, they planted seed that never grew to mature grain. But that was Bill Campbell's idea of making a home.
Presently Bull came back and settled with a slump into his old place.
"Going to snow?" asked Harry.
"Feel it in the wind?"
It was an old joke among them, for Bull often declared with ridiculous solemnity that he could foretell snow by the change in the air.
"Yep," answered Bull, "I felt the wind."
He looked up at them, abashed, but they were too hungry to waste breath with laughter. They merely sneered at him as he settled back into his book. And, just as his head bowed, a far shouting swept down at them as the wind veered to a new point.
"Uncle Bill!" said Bull and rose again to open the door.
The others wedged in behind his bulk and stared into the blackness.
They stood with the wind taking them with its teeth and pressing them heavily back. They could hear the fire flare and flutter in the stove; then the wind screamed again, and the wail came down to them.
"Uncle Bill!" repeated Bull and, lowering his head, strode into the storm.
The others exchanged frightened glances and then followed, but not outside of the shaft of light from the door. In the first place it was probably not their father. Who could imagine Bill shouting for help? Such a thing had never been dreamed of by his worst enemies, and they knew that their father's were legion. Besides it was cold, and this was a wild-goose chase which meant a chilled hide and no gain.
But, presently, through the darkness they made out the form of a horseman and the great bulk of Bull coming back beside him. Then they ran out into the night.
They recognized the hatless, squat figure of their father at once, even in the dark, with the wind twitching his beard sideways. When they called to him he did not speak. Then they saw that Bull was leading the horse.
Plainly something was wrong, and presently they discovered that Bill Campbell was actually tied upon his horse. He gave no orders, and they cut the ropes in silence. Still he did not dismount.
"Bull," he commanded, "lift me off the hoss!"
The giant plucked him out of the saddle and placed him on the ground, but his legs buckled under him, and he fell forward on his face. Any of the three could have saved him, but the spectacle of the terrible old man's helplessness benumbed their senses and their muscles.
"Carry me in!" said Bill at last.
Bull lifted him and bore him gingerly through the door and placed him on the bunk. The light revealed a grisly spectacle. Crimson stains and dirt literally covered him; his left leg was bandaged below the knee; his right shoulder was roughly splinted with small twigs and swathed in cloth.
The long ride, with his legs tied in place, had apparently paralyzed his nerves below the hips. He remained crushed against the wall, his legs falling in the odd position in which they were put down by Bull. It was illustrative of his character that, even in this crisis, not one of the three dared venture an expression of sympathy, a question, a suggestion.
Crumpled against the wall, his head bowed forward and cramped, the stern old man still controlled them with the upward glance of his eyes through the shag of eyebrows.
"Gimme my pipe," he commanded.
Three hands reached for it—pipe, tobacco, matches were proffered to him. Before he accepted the articles he swept their faces with a glance of satisfaction. Without attempting to change the position which must have been torturing him, he filled the pipe bowl, his fingers moving as if he had partially lost control of them. He filled it raggedly, shreds of tobacco hanging down around the bowl. He bent his head to meet the left hand which he raised with difficulty, then he tried to light a match. But he seemed incapable of moving the sulphur head fast enough to bring it to a light with friction. Match after match crumbled as he continued his efforts.
"Here, lemme light a match for you, Dad!"
Harry's offer was received with a silent curling of the lips and a glint of the yellow teeth beneath that made him step back. The old man continued his work. There were a dozen wrecked matches before the blood began to stir in his numbed arm and he was able to light the match and the pipe. He drew several breaths of the smoke deep into his lungs. For the moment the savage, hungry satisfaction changed his face; they could tell by that alteration what agonies he had been suffering before.
Presently he frowned and set about changing his position with infinite labor. The left leg was helpless, and so was the right arm. Yet, after much labor, he managed to stuff a roll of the blankets into the corner and then shift himself until his back rested against this support. But his strength deserted him again. His pipe was dropped down in the left hand, his head sagged back.
Still they dared not approach him. His two sons stood about, shifting from one foot to another, as if they expected a blow to descend upon them at any moment, as if each labored movement of terrible old Bill Campbell caused them the agony which he must be suffering.
As for Bull Hunter, he sat again on the floor, his chin dropped upon his great fist, and wondered for a time at his uncle. It was the second great event to him, all in one day. First he had discovered that by fighting a thing, one can actually conquer. Second, he discovered that great fighter, his uncle, had been beaten. The impossible had happened twice between one sunrise and sunset.
But men and the affairs of men could not hold his eye overlong. Presently he dropped his head again and was deep in the pages of his book. At length Bill Campbell heaved up his head. It was to glare into the scared faces of his sons.
"How long are you goin' to keep me waiting for food?"
The order snapped them into action. They sprang here and there, and presently the thick slices of bacon were hissing on the pan, and the clouds of bacon smoke wafted through the cabin. When they reached Bill Campbell he blinked. Pain had given him a maddening appetite, yet he puffed steadily on his pipe and said nothing.
The tin plate of potatoes and bacon was shoved before him, and the big tin cup of coffee. The three younger men sat in silence and devoured their own meal; the two sons swiftly, but Bull Hunter fell into musings, and part of his food remained uneaten. Then his glance wandered to his uncle and saw a thing to wonder at—a horrible thing in its own way.
The nerveless left hand of the mountaineer, which had barely possessed steadiness to light a match, was far too inaccurate to handle a fork; and Bull saw his uncle stuffing his mouth with his fingers and daring the others to watch him.
Something like pity came to Bull. It was so rare an emotion to connect with human beings that he hardly recognized it, for men and women, as he knew them, were brilliant, clever creatures, perfectly at home in the midst of difficulties that appalled him. But, as he watched the old man feed himself like an animal, the emotion that rose in Bull was the sadness he felt when he watched old Maggie stumbling among the rocks. There was something wrong with the forelegs of Maggie, and she was only half a horse when it came to going downhill on broken ground. He had always thought of the great strength that once must have been hers, and he pitied her for the change. He found himself pitying Uncle Bill Campbell in much the same way.
When Bill raised his tin cup he spilled scalding coffee on his breast. The old man merely set his teeth and continued to glare his challenge at the three. But not one of the three dared speak a word, dared make an offer of assistance.
What baffled the slow mind of Bull Hunter was the effort to imagine a force so great that battle with it had reduced the invincible Campbell to this shaken wreck of his old self. Mere bullets could tear wounds in flesh and break bones; but mere bullets could not wreck the nerves of a man so that his hand trembled as if he were drunk or hysterical with weariness.
He tried to work out this problem. He conceived a man of gigantic size, vast muscles, inexhaustible strength. The power of a bear and the swift cunning of a wild cat—such must have been the man who struck down Uncle Bill and sent him home a shattered remnant of his old self.
There was another mystery. Why did the destroyer not finish his task? Why did he take pity on Uncle Bill Campbell and bind up the wounds he had himself made? Here the mind of Bull Hunter paused. He could not pass the mysterious idea of another than himself pitying Uncle Bill. It was pitying a hawk in the sky.
Harry was taking away the dishes and throwing them in the little tub of lukewarm water where the grease would be carelessly soused off them.
"Did you get up that stump?" asked Uncle Bill suddenly.
There was a familiar ring in his voice. Woe to them if they had not carried out his orders! All three of the young men quaked, and Bull laid aside his book.
"We done it," answered Joe in a quavering voice.
"You done it?" asked Bill.
"We—we dug her pretty well clear, then Bull pulled her up."
Some of the wrath ebbed out of the face of Bill as he glanced at the huge form of Bull. "Stand up!" he ordered.
The keen eye of the old man went over him from head to foot slowly. "Someday," he said slowly, speaking entirely to himself. "Someday—maybe!"
What he expected from Bull "someday" remained unknown. The dishwashing was swiftly finished. Then Uncle Bill made a feeble effort to get off his boots, but his strength had been ebbing for some time. His sons dared not interfere as the old man leaned slowly over and strove to tug the boot from his wounded leg; but Bull remembered, all in a flood of tenderness, some half-dozen small, kind things that his uncle had said to him.
That was long, long ago, when the orphan came into the Campbell family. In those days his stupidity had been attributed largely to the speed with which he had grown, and he was expected to become normally bright later on; and in those days Bill Campbell occasionally let fall some gentle word to the great boy with his big, frightened eyes. And the half-dozen instances came back to Bull in this moment.
He stepped between his cousins and laid his hand on the foot of his uncle. It brought a snarl from the old man, a snarl that made Bull straighten and step back, but he came again and put aside the shaking hand of Uncle Bill. His cousins stood at one side, literally quaking. It was the first time that they had actually seen their father defied. They saw the huge hand of Bull settle around the leg of their father, well below the wound and then the grip closed to avoid the danger of opening the wound when the boot was worked off. After this he pulled the tight riding boot slowly from the swollen foot.
Uncle Bill was no longer silent. The moment the big hand of his nephew closed over his leg he launched a stream of curses that chilled the blood and drove his own sons farther back into the shadow of the corner. He demanded that they stand forth and tear Bull limb from limb. He disinherited them for cowardice. He threatened Bull with a vengeance compared with which the thunderbolt would be a feeble flare of light. He swore that he was entirely capable of taking care of himself, that he would step down into his grave sooner than be nursed and petted by any living human being.
All the while, the great Bull leaned impassively over the wounded man and finally worked the boot free. That was not all. Uncle Bill had slipped over until he could reach a billet of wood beside his bunk. He struck at Bull's head with it, but the stick was brushed out of his palsied fingers with a single gesture, and, while Uncle Bill groaned with fury and impotence, Bull continued the task of preparing him for bed. He straightened the old body of the terrible Campbell; he heated water in the tub and washed away stains and dirt; he took off the stained bandages and replaced them with clean ones.
His cousins helped in the latter part of this work. Weakness had reduced Uncle Bill to speechlessness. Finally the head of Bill Campbell was laid on a double fold of blanket in lieu of a pillow. A pipe had been tamped full and lighted by Bull and—crowning insult—set between Bill's teeth. When all this was accomplished Bull retired to his corner, picked up his book, and was instantly absorbed.
In the hushed atmosphere it seemed that a terrible blow had fallen, and that another was about to fall. Harry and Joe were as men stunned, but they looked upon their father with a gathering complacency. They had found it demonstrated that it was possible to disobey their father without being instantly destroyed. They were taking the lesson to heart. And indeed old Bill Campbell himself seemed to be slowly admitting that he was beaten.
The illusion of absolute self-sufficiency, which he had built up through the years for the sake of imposing upon his sons and Bull Hunter, was now destroyed. At a single stroke he had been exposed as an old man, already beaten in battle by a foeman and now requiring as much care as a sick woman. The shame of it burned in him; but the comfort of the smoothed bunk and the filled pipe between his teeth was a blessing. He found to his own surprise that he was not hating Bull with a tithe of his usual vigor. He began to realize that he had come to the end of his period of command. When he left that sickbed he could only advise.
As a king about to die he looked at his heirs and found them strong and sufficient and pleasing to the eye. Nowhere in the mountains were there two boys as tall, as straight, as deadly with rifle and revolver, as fierce, as relentless, as these two boys of his. He had sharpened their tempers, and he rejoiced in the sullen ferocity with which they looked at him now, unloving, cunning, biding their time and finding that it had almost come. But he was not yet done. His body was wrecked; there remained his mind, and they would find it a great power. But he did not talk until the lights had been put out and the three youths were in their separate bunks. Then, without the light to show them his helpless body, in the darkness, which would give his mind a freer play, he began to tell his story.
It was a long narrative. Far back in the years he had prospected with a youth named Pete Reeve. They had located a claim and they had gone to town together to celebrate. In the celebration he had drunk with Reeve till the boy stupefied. Then he had induced Reeve to gamble for his share of the claim and had won it. Afterward Pete swore to be even with him. But the years had gone by without another meeting of the men.
Only today, riding through the mountains, he had come on a dried-up wisp of a man with long, iron-gray hair, a sharp, withered face, and hands like the claws of a bird. He rode a fine bay gelding, and had stopped Bill to ask some questions about the region above the timberline because he was drifting south and intended to cross the summits. Bill had described the way, and suddenly, out of their talk, came the revelation of their identities—the one was Bill Campbell, the other was Pete Reeve.
At this point in the story Bull heaved himself slowly, softly up on one arm to listen. He was beginning to get the full sense of the words for the first time. This narrative was like a book done in a commoner language.
The tale halted. To be defeated is one thing; to be forced to confess defeat is another. Uncle Bill determined on the bitterer alternative.
"He made a clean fight," declared Uncle Bill. "First he cussed me out proper. Then he went for his gat and he beat me to the draw. They ain't no disgrace to that. You'll learn pretty soon that anybody might get beaten sooner or later—if he fights enough men. And my gun hung in the leather. Before I got it on him he'd shot me clean through the right shoulder—a placed shot, boys. He wanted to land me there. It tumbled me off my hoss. I rolled away and tried to get to my gun that had fallen on the ground. He shot me ag'in through the leg and stopped me.
"Then he got off his hoss and fixed up the wounds. He done a good job, as you seen. 'Bill' says he, 'you ain't dead; you're worse'n dead. That right arm of yours is going to be stiff the rest of your days. You're a one-armed man from now on, and that one arm is the worst you got.'
"That was why he sent me home alive. To make me live and keep hating him, the same's he'd lived and hated me. But he made a mistake. Pete Reeve is a wise fox, but he made one mistake. He forgot that I might have somebody to send on his trail. He didn't know that I had two boys I'd raised so's they was each better with a gun nor me. He didn't dream of that, curse him! But when you, Harry, or you, Joe, pump the lead into him, shoot him so's he'll live long enough to know who killed him and why!"
As he spoke, there was a quality in his voice that seemed to find the boys in the darkness and point each of them out. "Which of you takes the trail?"
A little silence followed. Bull wondered at it.
"He's gone by way of Johnstown," continued the wounded man. "If one of you cuts across the summit toward Shantung he's pretty sure to cut in across Pete's trail. Which is goin' to start? Well, you can match for the chance! Because him that comes back with Pete Reeve marked off the slate is a man!"
That chilly little silence made Bull's heart beat. To be called a man, to be praised by stern Bill Campbell—surely these were things to make anyone risk death!
"Is that the Pete Reeve," said Harry's voice, "that shot up Mike Rivers over the hill to the Tompkins place, about four year back?"
"That's him. Why?"
Again the silence. Then Bull heard the old man cursing softly—meditatively, one might almost have said.
"Cut across for Johnstown," said Joe softly, "in a storm like this? They won't be no trails left to find above the timberline. It'd be sure death. Listen!"
There was a lull in the wind, and in the breeze that was left, they could hear the whisper of the snow crushing steadily against the window.
"It's heavy fall, right enough," declared Harry.
"And this Pete Reeve—why, he's a gunfighter, Dad."
"And what are you?" asked the old man. "Ain't I labored and slaved all my life to make you handy with guns? What for d'you think I wasted all them hours showin' you how to pull a trigger and where to shoot and how to get a gun out of the leather?"
"To kill for meat," suggested Harry.
"Meat, nothing! The kind of meat I mean walks on two feet and fights back."
"Maybe, if we started together—" ventured Joe.
His father broke in, "Boy, I ain't going to send out a pack of men to run down Pete Reeve. He met me single and he fought me clean, and he's going to be pulled down by no pack of yaller dogs! Go one of you alone or else both of you stay here."
He waited, but there was no response. "Is this the way my blood is showin' up in my sons? Is this the result of all my trainin'?"
After that there was no more talk. The long silence was not broken by even the sound of breathing until someone began to snore. Then Bull knew that the sleep of the night had settled down.
He lay with his hands folded behind his head, thinking. They were willing enough to go together to do this difficult thing. But had they not lifted together at the stump and failed to do the thing which he had done single-handed? That thought stuck in his memory and would not out. And suppose he, Bull, were to accomplish this great feat and return to the shack? Would not Bill Campbell feel doubly repaid for the living he had furnished for his nephew? More than once the grim old man had cursed the luck that saddled him with a stupid incubus. But the curses would turn to compliments if Bull left this little man, this catlike and dangerous fighter, this Pete Reeve, dead on the trail.
Not that all this was clear in the mind of Bull, but he felt something like a command pushing him on that difficult south trail, through the storm and the snow that would now be piling above the timberline. He waited until there was no noise but the snoring of the sleepers and the rush and roar of the wind which continually set something stirring in the room. These sounds served to cover effectually any noises he made as he felt about and made up his small pack. His old canvas coat, his most treasured article of apparel, he took down from the hook where it accumulated dust from month to month. His ancient, secondhand cartridge belt with the antiquated revolver he removed from another hook—he had never been given enough ammunition to become a shot of any quality—and he pushed quickly into the night.
The moment he was through the door, the storm caught him in the face a stinging blow, and the rush of snow chilled his skin. That stinging blow steadied to a blast. It was a tremendous, heavy fall. The wind had scoured the drifts from the clearing and was already banking them around the little house. In the morning, as like as not, the boys would have to dig their way out.
He went straight to the horse shed for his snowshoes that hung on the wall there. Ordinary snowshoes would not endure his ponderous weight, and Uncle Bill Campbell had fashioned these himself, heavy and uncomfortable articles, but capable of enduring the strain.
Fumbling his way down behind the stalls, Bill's roan lashed out at him with savage heels; but Maggie, the old draft horse, whinnied softly, greeting that familiar heavy step. He tied the snowshoes on his back and then stopped for a last word to Maggie. She raised her head and dropped it clumsily on his shoulder. She was among the little, agile mountain ponies what he was among men, and their bulk had rendered each of them more or less helpless. There seemed to be a mute understanding between them, and it was never more apparent than when Maggie whinnied gently in his ear. He stroked her big, bony head, a lump forming in his throat. If the bullets of little Pete Reeve dropped him in some far-off trail, the old-broken-down horse would be the only living creature that would mourn for him.
Outside, the night and the storm swallowed him at once. Before he had gone fifty feet the house was out of sight. Then, entering the forest of balsam firs, the force of the wind was lessened, and he made good time up the first part of the grade. There would probably be no use for the snowshoes in this region of broken shrubbery before he came to the timberline.
He swept on with a lengthening stride. He knew this part of the country like a book, of course, and he seldom stumbled, save when he came out into a clearing and the wind smote at him from an unexpected angle. In one of these clearings he stopped and took stock of his position. Far away to the west and the south, the head of Scalped Mountain was lost in dim, rushing clouds. He must make for that goal.
Progress became less easy almost at once. The trees that grew in this elevated region were not tall enough to act as wind breaks; they were hardly more than shrubs a great deal of the time, and merely served to force him into detours around dense hedges. Sometimes, in a clearing, he found himself staggering to the knees in a compacted drift of snow; sometimes an immense sheet of snow was picked up by the wind and flung in his face like a blanket.
Indeed the cold and the snow were nothing compared with the wind. It was now reaching the proportions of a westerly storm of the first magnitude. Off the towering slopes above, it came with the chill of the snow and with flying bits of sand, scooped up from around the base of trees, or with a shower of twigs. Many a time he had to throw up his arms across his face before he leaned and thrust on into the teeth of the blast.
But he was growing accustomed to seeing through this veil of snow and thick darkness. All things were dreamlike in dimness, of course, but he could make out terrific cloud effects, as the clouds gushed over the summit and down the slope a little way like the smoke of enormous guns; and again a pyramid of mist was like a false mountain before him, a mountain that took on movement and rushed to overwhelm him, only to melt away and become simply a shadow among shadows above his head.
Once or twice before the dawn, he rested, not from weariness perhaps, but from lack of breath, turning his back to the west and bowing his head. Walking into the wind it had become positively difficult to draw breath!
Still it gained power incredibly. Up the side of Scalped Mountain it was a steady weight pressing against him rather than a wind. And now and then, when the weight relaxed, he stumbled forward on his knees. For there was now hardly any shelter. He was approaching the timberline where trees stand as high as a man and little higher.
Dawn found him at the edge of the tree line. He flung himself on his face, his head on his arms, to rest and wait until the treacherous time of dawn should have passed. While the day grew steadily his heart sank. He needed the rest, but the cold bit into him while he lay extended, and the peril of the summit would be before him for his march of the day. The wind mourned over him as if it anticipated his defeat. Never had there been such wind, he thought. It screamed above him. It dropped away in sudden lulls of more appalling silence. Then, far off, he would hear a wave of the storm begin, wash across a crest, thunder in a canyon, and then break on the timberline with a prolonged and mighty roaring. Those giant approaches made him hold his breath, and when the wave of confusion passed, he found himself often breathless.
Day came. He was on the very verge of the line with a dense fence of stunted trees just before him and the wilderness of snow beyond, sloping up to the crest, outlined in white against the solid gray sky. The Spartans of the forest were around him—fir, pine, spruce, birch, and trembling little aspens up there among the stoutest. All were of one height, clean-shaven by the volleys of the wind-driven sand and pebbles that clipped off any treetop that aspired above the mass. In solid numbers was their salvation, and they grew dense as grass, two feet high on the battlefront. They were carved by that wind, for all storms came here out of the west, and the storm face of every tree was denuded of branches. To the east the foliage streamed away. Even in calm weather those trees spoke of storm.
Bull Hunter sat up to put on his snowshoes. It was a white world below him and above. Winter, which a day before had vanished, now came back with a rush off the summits, where its snows were still piled. Again the heart of the big man quaked. Down in the hollow, over that ridge, was the house of the Campbells. They would be getting up now. Joe would be making the fire, and Harry slicing the bacon. It made a cheerful picture to Bull. He could close his eyes and hear the fire snap and see the stove steam with smoke through every fissure before the draft caught in the chimney. From the shed came the neigh of Maggie, calling softly to him.
He shook his head with a groan, stood up, and strode out of the timber into the summit lands. It was a great desert. Never could it be construed as a place for life. Even lichens were almost out of place here, and what folly could lead a man across the shifting snows? But to be called a man, to be admired in silence, to be asked for opinions, to be deferred to—this was a treasure worth any price! He bowed himself to the wind again and made for the summit with the peculiar stride which a man must use with snowshoes.
He dared not slacken his efforts now. The cold had been increasing, and to pause meant peril of freezing. It was a highly electrified air, and the result was a series of maddening mirages. He stumbled over solid rocks where nothing seemed to be in his way; and again what seemed a rock of huge size was nothing at all. Bull discovered that what seemed firm ground beneath him, as he started to round a precipice, might after all be the effect of the mirage.
Added to this was another difficulty. As he wound slowly, about midday, up the last reach, with the summit just above him, the wind carried masses of cloud over the crest and into his face. He walked alternately in a bewildering, driving fog and then in an air made crazy with electricity. Again and again, from one side or the other, he started when the storm boomed and cannonaded down a ravine and then belched out into the open. All this time the babel of the winds overhead never ceased, and the force of the storm cut up under him with such violence that he was almost raised from the earth.
Then an unexpected barrier obtruded—a literal mountain of ice was before him. The snow of the recent fall had been whipped away, and the surface of the mountain, here perilously steep, was now sleek and solid with ice. Bull looked gloomily toward the summit so close above him, and the ice glimmered in the dull light. There was only one way to make even the attempt. He sat down, took off his snowshoes, strapped them to his back, and began to work his way up the slope, battering out each foothold with the head of his ax. It was possible to ascend in this manner, but it would be practically impossible to descend.
Once committed to this way, he had either to go on to the summit, or else perish. Working slowly, with little possible muscular exercise to warm him, he began to grow chilled and the wind-driven cold numbed his ears. But, more than that, the wind was now a grim peril, for, from time to time, it swerved and leaped on him heavily from the side. Once, off balance, he looked back at the dazzling slope below him. He would be a shapeless mass of flesh long before he tumbled to the bottom.
Vaguely, as he hewed his footholds and worked his way up, he yearned for the cleverness of Harry or the wit of Joe. What an ally either of them would be! That he was undertaking a task from which either of them would have shrunk in horror never occurred to him. Yonder, beyond the summit, lay his destiny—Johnstown—and this was the way toward it; it was a simple thing to Bull. He could no more vary from his course than a magnetic needle can vary from its pole.
Suddenly he came on a break in the solid face of the ice. Above him was a narrow rift through the ice to the gravel beneath; how it was made, Bull could not guess. But he took advantage of it. Presently he was striding on toward the summit, beating his hands to restore the circulation and gingerly rubbing his ears.
There was a magical change as he reached the summit and sat down behind some rocks to regain his breath and quiet his shaken nerves. The clouds split apart in the zenith; the sun burst through; on both sides the broad mountain billowed away to white lowlands; the air was alive with little, brilliant spots of electricity.
It cheered Bull Hunter vastly. The gale, which was tumbling the clouds down the arch of the sky and toward the east, was more mighty than ever, but he put his head down to it confidently and began the descent.
There was more snow on this side, and to travel through it he soon found that he must put on the snowshoes again; but after that the descent was actually restful compared with the labors of the climb. Yonder was the dark streak of the timberline again. Far down the valley he watched it curving in and out along the mountainside like a water level. Below was the darkness of the forest where other things lived, and where Bull could live more easily, also. Never had trees seemed such beautiful and friendly things to him.
Once a thought stopped him completely. He was in a new world. He was seeing everything for the first time. On other days he had gone out with others. Under their guidance, not trusted to undertake an expedition by himself, he looked at nothing until it was pointed out to him, heard nothing that was not first called to his attention. He had always wondered at the acuteness of the senses of all other men. But now, looking on the mountains for himself, he decided, with a start of the heart, that they were beautiful—beautiful and terrible at once, with the reality that he had never found in his books. What leveled spear of a knight, in the pages of romance, could equal the invisible thrust of this wind?
He reached the timberline. Looking back, he saw the summit, a brilliant line of white against a blue sky. Again the heart of Bull Hunter leaped. Here was a great treasure that he had taken in with one grasp of the eyes and which he could never lose!
He turned down the valley. Where it swerved out into the lower plain, stood Johnstown, and there he was to cross the flight of Pete Reeve, if Pete were indeed flying. But it was incredible that the man who had struck down Uncle Bill Campbell should flee from any man or number of men.
He had reached the bottom of the narrow valley. A dull noise came down to him from the mountain in the lull of the wind. He looked up.
Far away, miles and miles, near the summit of Scalped Mountain, a snaky form of mist was twisting swiftly down. He looked curiously. The thing grew, traveling with great speed that increased with every moment. It increased—it gained velocity—a snowslide!
He watched it in doubt. It was twisting like a snake down the farther side of the mountain, but, in his experience, slides were as treacherous as serpents. Bull started hastily for a low cliff that stood up from the floor of the valley, clear of the trees.
He had not gone far when the wind fell away to a whisper, and a dull roaring caught his ear. He looked back over his shoulder in alarm. A great wall of white was shooting down the mountainside. The little slide of surface snow, which had twisted across the surface of the old snows of the winter, had been gaining in weight, in momentum, picking up claws of shrubbery, teeth of stone, and eating through layer after layer of the old snow, packed hard as ice. Now it was a roaring mass with a front steadily increasing in height, and far away in the rear it tossed up a tail of snow dust, a flying mist that gave Bull an impression of speed greater than the main wall of the snow itself.
The noise grew amazingly, and coming in range of the opposite wall of the valley, a low and steadily increasing thunder poured into the ears of Bull. It was a fascinating thing to watch, and at this distance to the side he was quite safe. But at the very moment that he reached this decision, the front of the slide smashed with a noise like volleyed canyon against the side of a hill, tossed immense arms of white in the air, floundered, and then veered with the speed of an express train rounding a curve and rocked away down the slope straight for Bull. Turned cold with dread, he saw it hit the timberline with a great crashing, and the dark forms of the trees were dashed up by the running mass of stones and then swallowed in the boiling front of the slide.
He waited to see no more, but dashed on for the saving cliff. Once his back was turned it seemed that the slide gained speed. The immense roaring literally leaped on him from behind, and in the roar, his senses were drowned. He could feel his knees weaken and buckle, but the cliff, now just before him, gave him fresh strength. But was the cliff high enough? He hurried up to higher ground and flung himself prostrate. The front of the slide was cutting down the heavily forested slope as though the trees were blades of grass before a keen scythe. The noise passed all description.
Once he thought the mass was changing direction. It put out a massive arm to the left, licked down five hundred trees at a gulp, and then, smashing its fist into a hillside, flung back into the valley floor, tossing the great trees in its top and poured straight at him. He watched it in one of those dazes during which one sees everything. The whole body came like water down a chute, but one part of the front wall spilled out ahead and then another, and then the top, overtaking the rest, toppled crashing to the bottom. And so it rushed out of sight beneath the cliff. But would it wash over the top?
The first answer was an impact that shook the ground under him, and then he heard a noise like a huge ripping explosion. A dozen lofty geysers of snow streamed up into the air, dazzling against the sun, misty at the edges of each column, whose center was solid tons and tons of snow. Old pines and spruces, their branches shaved away in the tumult of the slide, were picked up and hurled like javelins over the cliff; a shower of fragments beat on the body of Bull; and then the main mass of snow washed up over the edge of the cliff in a great mound, and the slide was ended.
He crawled slowly back to his feet. Far up the mountainside, beginning in a point, the track of the slide swept down in a broadening scar, black and raw, across forest and snow. Far down the valley the last echoes of thunder were passing away to a murmur, and the valley floor, beneath the cliff, was a mass of snow and tree trunks.
Bull took off the snowshoes and climbed along the valley wall until he could descend to the clear floor beneath him. Then he headed down toward Johnstown.
It was well past midday when he escaped the slide; it was the beginning of night when, at the conclusion of that first heroic march, he reached Johnstown. With hunger his stomach cleaved to his back, and his knees were weak with the labor.
Stamping through the snow to the hotel he asked the idlers around the stove, "Has any of you gents seen a man named Pete Reeve pass through this town?"
They looked at him in amazement. He had closed the door behind him, and now, with his battered hat pushed high on his head, he seemed taller than the entrance—taller and as wide, a mountain of a man. The efforts of the march had collected a continual frown on his forehead, and as he peered about from face to face, no one for a moment was able to answer, but each looked to his companion.
It was the proprietor who answered finally. Talk was his commercial medium and staff of life. "What sort of a looking man, captain?"
Bull blinked at him. He was not used to honorary epithets such as this, and he searched the face of the proprietor carefully to detect mockery. To his surprise the other showed signs of what Bull dimly recognized as fear. Fear of him—of Bull Hunter!
"The way you look at me," said the other and laughed uneasily, "I figure it's pretty lucky that I ain't this here Pete Reeve. That so, boys?"
The boys joined in the laughter, but they kept it subdued, their eyes upon the giant at the door. He was leaning against the wall, and the sight of his outspread hand was far from reassuring.
But Bull went on to describe his man. "Not very big; hands like the claws of a bird's; iron-gray hair; quick ways." That was Uncle Bill's description.
"Sure he's been here," said the owner. "I recognized him right off. He was through about dusk. He came over the mountains and just got past the summit, he said, before the storm hit. Lucky, eh?" He looked at the battered coat of Bull. "Kind of appears like you mightn't of been so lucky?"
"Me?" asked Bull gently. "Nope. I was at the timberline on the other side about daybreak today."
There was a sudden and chilly silence; men looked at one another. Obviously no man could have traveled that distance between dawn and dark, but it was as well not to express disbelief to a man who could tell a lie as big as his body.
"I got to eat," said Bull.
The proprietor jumped out of his chair. "I can fix you up, son."
He led the way, Bull following with his enormous strides, and, as the floor creaked under him, the eyes of the others jerked after him, stride by stride. It was beginning to seem possible that this man had done what he said he had done. When the door slammed behind him and his steps went creaking through the room beyond, a mutter of a hum arose around the stove.
As a matter of fact it was the beginning of the great legend that was finally to bulk around the name of the big man. And it was fitting that the huge figure of Bull Hunter should have come upon the attention of men in this way, descending out of the storm and the mountains.
That he had done something historic was far from the mind of Bull as he stalked into the dining room.
"You sit right down here," his host was saying, placing a chair at the table.
Bull tried the chair with his hand. It groaned and squeaked under the weight. "Chairs don't seem to be made for me," he said simply. "Besides I'm more used to sitting on the floor." He dropped to the floor accordingly, with the effect of a small earthquake. The proprietor stared, but he swallowed his astonishment. "What you'd like to eat is something hearty, I figure."
"What you got?" said Bull.
"Well, Mrs. Jarney come in this morning with a dozen fresh eggs. Got some prime bacon, too, and some jerky and—"
"That dozen eggs," said Bull thoughtfully, "will start me, and then a platter of bacon, and you might mix up a bowl of flapjacks. You ain't got a quart or so of canned milk, partner?"
The proprietor could only nod, for he dared not trust his voice. Fleeing to the kitchen he repeated the prodigious order to his wife. Then he circled by a back way and communicated the tidings to the "boys" around the stove.
"A couple of dozen eggs, he says to me, and a few pounds of beef and three or four quarts of milk and a bowl of flapjacks and a platter of bacon," was the way the second version of the historic order for food came to the idlers.
Half a dozen of the men risked the cold and the wind to steal around to the side of the house and peer through the window at the huge, bunched figure that sat on the floor. They found him with his chin dropped upon the burly fist and a frown on his forehead, for Bull was thinking.
He would have been glad to have found Pete Reeve in Johnstown and have the matter over with. But, after all, it was beginning to occur to him that it might not be wise to kill the man in the presence of other people. They might attempt to correct him with the assistance of a rope and a limb of a tree. Somewhere he must cut in ahead of this Reeve and start out at him if possible. As for his ability to keep pace with a horse he had no doubt that he could do it fairly well. More than once he had gone out on foot, while Harry and Joe rode, and he had pressed the little ponies, bearing their riders slowly up and down the slopes, to keep pace with him. On the level, of course, it was a different matter, but in broken country he more than kept up.
"Have you got a grudge agin' Reeve?" asked the host, as he brought in the fried eggs.
"Maybe," admitted Bull, and instantly he began to attack the food.
The proprietor watched with a growing awe. No chinook ever ate snow as this hungry giant melted food to nothingness. He came back with the first stack of flapjacks and bacon and more questions. "But I'd think that a gent like you'd be pretty careful about tangling with Pete Reeve—him being so handy with a gun and you such a tolerable big target."
"I've figured that all out," said Bull calmly. "But they's so much of me to kill that I don't figure one bullet could do the work. Do you?"
The eyes of the proprietor grew large. He swallowed, and before he could answer Bull continued in the exposition of his theory. "Before he shoots the next shot, maybe I can get my hands on him."
"You going to fight him bare hands agin' a gun?"
"You see," said Bull apologetically, "I ain't much good with a gun, but I feel sort of curious about what would happen if I got my grip on a man."
And that was the foundation on which another section of the Bull Hunter legend was built.
The bed on which Bull Hunter reposed his bulk that night was not the cot to which he was shown by his host. One glance at the spindling wooden legs of the canvas-bottomed cot was enough for Bull, and having wrapped himself in the covers he lay down on the floor and was instantly asleep.
While it was still dark, he wakened out of a dream in which Pete Reeve seemed to be riding far—far away on the rim of the world. Ten minutes later Bull was on the trail out of Johnstown. There was only one trail for a horseman south of Johnstown, and that trail followed the windings of the valley. Bull planned to push across the ragged peaks of the Little Cloudy Mountains and head off the fugitive at Glenn Crossing.
Two days of stern labor went into the next burst. He followed the cold stars by night and the easy landmarks by day, and for food he had the stock of raisins he had bought at Johnstown. He came out of the heights and dropped down into Glenn Crossing in the gloom of the second evening. But raisins are meager support for such a bulk as that of Bull Hunter. It was a gaunt-faced giant who looked in at the door of the shop where the blacksmith was working late. The mechanic looked up with a start at the deep voice of the stranger, but he managed to stammer forth his tidings. Such a man as Pete Reeve had indeed been in Glenn Crossing, but he had gone on at the very verge of day and night.
Bull Hunter set his teeth, for there was no longer a possibility of cutting off Pete Reeve by crossing country. The immense labors of the last three days had merely served to put him on the heels of the horseman, and now he must follow straight down country and attempt to match his long legs against the speed of a fine horse. He drew a deep breath and plunged into the night out of Glenn Crossing, on the south trail. At least he would make one short, stiff march before the weariness overtook him.
That weariness clouded his brain ten miles out. He built a fire in a cover of pines and slept beside it. Before dawn he was up and out again. In the first gray of the daylight he reached a little store at a crossroad, and here he paused for breakfast. A tousled girl, rubbing the sleep out of her eyes, served him in the kitchen. The first glimpse of the hollow cheeks and the unshaven face of Bull Hunter quite awakened her. Bull could feel her watching him, as she glided about the room. He sunk his head between his shoulders and glared down at the table. No doubt she would begin to gibe at him before long. Most women did. He prepared himself to meet with patience that incredible sting and penetrating hurt of a woman's mockery.
But there was no mockery forthcoming. The sun was still not up when he paid his bill and hastened to the door of the old building. Quick footsteps followed him, a hand touched his shoulders, and he turned and looked suspiciously down into the face of the girl. It was a frightened face, he thought, and very pretty. At some interval between the time when he first saw her and the present, she had found time to rearrange her hair and make it smooth. Color was pulsing in her cheeks.
"Stranger," she said softly, "what are you running away from?"
The question slowly penetrated the mind of Bull; he was still bewildered by the change in her—something electric, to be felt rather than noted with the eye.
"They ain't any reason for hurrying on," she urged. "I—I can hide you, easy. Nobody could find where I'll put you, and there you can rest up. You must be tolerable tired."
There was no doubt about it. There was kindness as well as anxiety in her voice. For the second time in his entire life, Bull decided that a woman could be something more than an annoyance. She was placing a value on him, just as Jessie, three days before, had placed a value on him; and it disturbed Bull. For so many years, he had been mocked and scorned by his uncle and cousins that deep in his mind was engraved the certainty that he was useless. He decided to hurry on before the girl found out the truth.
"I can still walk," he said, "and, while I can walk, I got to go south. But—you gimme heart, lady. You gimme a pile of heart to keep going. Maybe"—he paused, uncertain what to say next, and yet obviously she expected something more—"I'll get a chance to come back this way, and if I do, I'll see you! You can lay to that—I'll see you!"
He was gone before she could answer, and he was wondering why she had looked down with that sudden color and that queer, pleased smile. It would be long before Bull understood, but, even without understanding, he found that his heart was lighter and an odd warmth suffused him.
The rising of the sun found him in the pale desert with the magic of the hills growing distant behind him, and he settled to a different step through the thin sand—a short, choppy step. His weight was against him here, but it would be even a greater disadvantage to a horseman, and with this in mind, he pressed steadily south.
Every day on that south trail was like a year in the life of Bull. Heat and thirst wasted him, the constant labor of the march hardened his muscles, and he got that forward look about his eyes, which comes with shadows under the lids and a constant frown on the forehead. It was long afterward that men checked up his march from date to date and discovered that the distance between the shack of Bill Campbell and Halstead in the South was one hundred and fifty miles over bitter mountains and burning desert, and that Bull Hunter had made the distance in five days.
All this was learned and verified later when Bull was a legend. When he strode into Halstead on that late afternoon no one had ever heard of the man out of the mountains. He was simply an oddity in a country where oddities draw small attention.
Yet a rumor advanced before Bull. A child, playing in the incredible heat of the sun, saw the dusty giant heaving in the distance and ran to its mother, frightened, and the worn-faced mother came to the porch and shaded her eyes to look. She passed on the word with a call that traveled from house to house. So that, when Bull entered the long, irregular street of Halstead, he found it lined on either side by children, old men, women. It was almost as though they had heard of the thing he had come to do and were there to watch.
Bull shrank from their eyes. He would far rather have slipped around the back of the village and gone toward its center unobserved. A pair of staring eyes to Bull was like the pointing of a loaded gun. He put unspoken sentences upon every tongue, and the sentences were those he had heard so often from his uncle and his uncle's sons.
"Too big to be any good."
"Bull's got the size of a hoss, and as a hoss he'd do pretty well, but he ain't no account as a man."
His life had been paved with such burning remarks as these. Many an evening had been long agony to him as the three sat about and baited him. He hurried down the street, the pulverized sand squirting up about his heavy boots and drifting in a mist behind him. When he was gone an old man came out and measured those great strides with his eye and then stretched his legs vainly to cover the same marks. But this, of course, Bull did not see, and he would not have understood it, had he seen, except as a mockery.
He paused in front of the hotel veranda, an awful figure to behold. His canvas coat was rolled and tied behind his sweating shoulders; his too-short sleeves had bothered him and they were now cut off at the elbow and exposed the sun-blackened forearms; his overalls streamed in rags over his scarred boots. He pushed the battered hat far back on his head and looked at the silent, attentive line of idlers who sat on the veranda.
"Excuse me, gents," he said mildly. "But maybe one of you might know of a little gent with iron-gray hair and a thin face and quick ways of acting and little, thin hands." He illustrated his meaning by extending his own huge paws. "His name is Pete Reeve."
That name caused a sharp shifting of glances, not at Bull, but from man to man. A tall fellow rose. He advanced with his thumbs hooked importantly in the arm holes of his vest and braced his legs apart as he faced Bull. The elevation of the veranda floor raised him so that he was actually some inches above the head of his interlocutor, and the tall man was deeply grateful for that advantage. He was, in truth, a little vain of his own height, and to have to look up to anyone irritated him beyond words. Having established his own superior position, he looked the giant over from head to foot. He kept one eye steadily on Bull, as though afraid that the big man might dodge out of sight and elude him.
"And what might you have to do with Pete Reeve?" he asked. "Mightn't you be a partner of Pete's? Kind of looks like you was following him sort of eager, friend."
While this question was being asked, Bull saw that the line of idlers settled forward in their chairs to hear the answer. It puzzled him. For some mysterious reason these men disapproved of any one who was intimately acquainted with Pete Reeve, it seemed. He looked blandly upon the tall man.
"I never seen Pete Reeve," said Bull apologetically.
"Ah? Yet you're follerin' him hotfoot?"
"I was aiming to see him, you know," answered Bull.
The tall man regarded him with eyes that began to twinkle beneath his frown. Then he jerked his head aside and cast at his audience a prodigious wink. The cloudy eyes of Bull had assured him that he had to do with a simpleton, and he was inviting the others in on the game.
"You never seen him?" he asked gruffly, turning back to Bull. "You expect me to believe talk like that? Young man, d'you know who I am?"
"I dunno," murmured Bull, overawed and drawing back a pace.
The action drew a chuckle from the crowd. Some of the idlers even rose and sauntered to the edge of the veranda, the better to see the baiting of the giant. His prodigious size made his timidity the more amusing.
"You dunno, eh?" asked the other. "Well, son, I'm Sheriff Bill Anderson!" He waited to see the effect of this portentous announcement.
"I never heard tell of any Sheriff Bill Anderson," said Bull in the same mild voice.
The sheriff gasped. The idlers hastily veiled their mouths with much coughing and clearing of the throat. It seemed that the tables had been subtly turned upon the sheriff.
"You!" exclaimed the sheriff, extending a bony arm. "I got to tell you, partner, that I'm a pile suspicious. I'm suspicious of anybody that's a friend of Pete Reeve. How long have you knowed him?"
Bull was very anxious to pacify the tall man. He shifted his weight to the other foot. "Something less'n nothing," he hastened to explain. "I ain't never seen him."
"And why d'you want to see him? What d'you know about him?"
It flashed through the mind of Bull that it would be useless to tell what he knew of Pete. Obviously nobody would believe what he could tell of how Reeve had met and shot down Uncle Bill Campbell. For Bill Campbell was a historic figure as a fighter in the mountain regions, and surely his face must be bright even at this distance from his home. That he could have walked beyond the sphere of Campbell's fame in five days never occurred to Bull Hunter.
"I dunno nothing good," he confessed.
There was a change in the sheriff. He descended from the floor of the veranda with a stiff-legged hop and took Bull by the arm, leading him down the street.
"Son," he said earnestly, walking down the street with Bull, "d'you know anything agin' this Pete Reeve? I want to know because I got Pete behind the bars for murder!"
"Murder?" asked Bull.
"Murder—regular murder—something he'll hang for. And if you got any inside information that I can use agin' him, why I'll use it and I'll be mighty grateful for it! You see everybody knows Pete Reeve. Everybody knows that, for all these years, he's been going around killing and maiming men, and nobody has been able to bring him up for anything worse'n self-defense. But now I think I got him to rights, and I want to hang him for it, stranger, partly because it'd be a feather in my cap, and partly because it'd be doing a favor for every good, law-abiding citizen in these parts. So do what you can to help me, stranger, and I'll see that your time ain't wasted."
There was something very wheedling and insinuating about all this talk. It troubled Bull. His strangely obscure life had left him a child in many important respects, and he had a child's instinctive knowledge of the mental processes of others. In this case he felt a profound distrust. There was something wrong about this sheriff, his instincts told him—something gravely wrong. He disliked the man who had started to ridicule him before many men and was now so confidential, asking his help.
"Sheriff Anderson," he said, "may I see this Reeve?"
"Come right along with me, son. I ain't pressing you for what you know. But it may be a thing that'll help me to hang Reeve. And if it is, I'll need to know it. Understand? Public benefit—that's what I'm after. Come along with me and you can see if Reeve's the man you're after."
They crossed the street through a little maelstrom of fine dust which a wind circle had picked up, and the sheriff led Bull into the jail. They crossed the tawdry little outer room with its warped floor creaking under the tread of Bull Hunter. Next they came face to face with a cage of steel bars, and behind it was a little gray man on a bunk. He sat up and peered at them from beneath bushy brows, a thin-faced man, extremely agile. Even in sitting up, one caught many possibilities of catlike speed of action.
Bull knew at once that this was the man he sought. He stood close to the bars, grasping one in each great hand, and with his face pressed against the steel, he peered at Pete Reeve. The other was very calm.
"Howdy, sheriff," he said. "Bringing on another one to look over your bear?"
The prisoner's good humor impressed Bull immensely. Here was a man talking commonplaces in the face of death. A greater man than Uncle Bill, he felt at once—a far greater man. It was impossible to conceive of that keen, sharp eye and that clawlike hand sending a bullet far from the center of the target.
He gave his eyes long sight of that face, and then turned from the bars and went out with the sheriff.
"Is that your man?" asked the sheriff.
"I dunno," said Bull, fencing for time as they stood in front of the jail. "What'd he do?"
"You mean why he's in jail? I'll tell you that, son, but first I want to know what you got agin' him—and your proofs—mostly your proofs!"
The distaste which Bull had felt for the sheriff from the first now became overpowering. That he should be the means of bringing that terrible and active little man to an end seemed, as a matter of fact, absurd. Guile must have played a part in that capture.
Suppose he were to tell the sheriff about the shooting of Uncle Bill? That would be enough to convince men that Pete Reeve was capable of murder, for the shooting of Uncle Bill had been worse than murder. It spared the life and ruined it at the same time. But suppose he added his evidence and allowed the law to take its course with Pete Reeve? Where would be his own reward for his long march south and all the pain of travel and the crossing of the mountains at the peril of his life? There would be nothing but scorn from Uncle Bill when he returned, and not that moment of praise for which he yearned. To gain that great end he must kill Pete Reeve, but not by the aid of the law.
"I dunno," he said to the sheriff who waited impatiently. "I figure that what I know wouldn't be no good to you."
The sheriff snorted. "You been letting me waste all this time on you?" he asked Bull. "Why didn't you tell me that in the first place?"
Bull scratched his head in perplexity. But as he raised the great arm and put his hand behind his head, the sheriff winced back a little. "I'm sorry," said Bull.
The sheriff dismissed him with a grunt of disgust, and strode off.
Bull started out to find information. This idea was growing slowly in his mind. He must kill Pete Reeve, and to accomplish that great end he must first free him from the jail. He went back to the hotel and went into the kitchen to find food. The proprietor himself came back to serve him. He was a pudgy little man with a dignified pointed beard of which he was inordinately proud.