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Nobody could rightly say any of us Sacketts were what you’d 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.
Down around Globe I’d heard talk of that wall. On the maps I’d seen it was written Mogollon, but folks in the country around called it the Muggy-own.
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.
“What’s the boss so wrought up about? He was just a driftin’ cowpoke.”
“You ain’t 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 ain’t 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 couldn’t miss a shot at that distance, with his target standing still, like that.”
“That doesn’t 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 I’d 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 thoughts were all fuzzy, and I couldn’t sort out anything that made sense. 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 didn’t want to look at them again. When I’d hit the face of the cliff I’d torn nearly all the skin off grabbing for a hold. One fingernail was gone.
Somebody named Macon had shot at me, but so far as I could recall I had never known anybody by that name. But that sudden blow on the head when I started to turn away from the cliff edge must have been it, and that turn had probably saved my life. 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.
It was growing dark, and whatever search for me was being carried on would end with darkness, for that day, at least If I was to make a move, I had to start now.
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.
There was no snow, but the cold was icy. Pounding my arm against my body, I tried to get the blood to flowing, to get some warmth into me. One leg I simply could not use, but from the feel of it I was sure it was not broken.
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.
But first I must think. Only by thought had man prevailed, or so I’d heard somewhere. Panic was the enemy now, more to be feared than the cold, or even that nameless enemy who had struck at me, and now was searching for me with many men.
Who could it be? And why?
This was wild country—actually it was Apache country, and there were few white men around, and nobody who knew me.
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 we’d made inquiries. No doubt others had seen us around Globe, but I had no enemies there, nor 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.
Movement awakened pain. A million tiny prickles came into my numbed leg, but I kept on, as careful as I could be under the conditions, wanting to leave no trail that could be followed.