Page:O Henry Prize Stories of 1924.djvu/286

This page has been validated.



to any whim of wind or weather, had come to discover nature too boisterous for him; like some injured animal, seeking refuge, he was crawling home at last to the protection of a roof and four walls. True, forty years had passed since he came back from his one journey away from the mountains—but what were forty years? . . . And yet . . . during that final climb of his life, the unnoted years caught up with him; he was almost ready to compromise. Sharp pain stabbed and nagged at him as, with sobbing breath, he came out upon the wide clearing around the little cabin and glanced apprehensively up to see whether the circling buzzards had marked his plight.

In the doorway he stopped again and turned to look out across the wide valley—rimmed with range after range of rainbow-tinted peaks—noting, far away, dim blue smoke and visualizing the forlorn settlement. The gold-fever had run its course in that locality; veins of ore near the surface had been exhausted, leaving the working of deep-seated lodes to future necessity, capital, and scientific exploitation. Long since, nature had healed the ugly scars of man’s brief desecration of her slopes and had forgotten him. Boom towns, sprung up mushroom-wise, flourishing through a hectic period of roaring prosperity, were as quickly deserted—except for a handful of derelicts too shiftless or too discouraged to move on. No one questioned their right to tenancy of any of the scores of abandoned houses whose broken roofs sagged above the staggering walls and crazy floors. Jem Brown, during his infrequent sojourns in the town, hurried through his buying and, averting his eyes from the settlement’s sordid squalor, turned his face thankfully back toward the streets of the mountains. Of what was going on in the world beyond the barrier of the ranges he neither knew nor cared.

Because he had been so happily self-sufficient, time had dealt lightly with Jem Brown; long since, the spell of the high places had claimed him, eradicating all man-made periods; the calendar of his year knew no artificial division into months, was punctuated by events in the swinging march of the seasons: the first deep snows, the sight of God’s flocks of mountain-sheep breasting the shining drifts, spells of bitter, blue-white cold when timber-wolves, grown bold through hunger, howled in the clearing; long rains, a spring thaw and