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Under the Tonto Rim
Zane Grey (1926) Country of origin: USA
Available texts by the same author here
It was midwinter. Lucy's tent was cosy and warm, softly coloured with its shaded lamplight, falling on bear rugs and bright blankets, on the many paper pictures. The Clara that sat there beside the little stove, occupied with needlework, was not the Clara who had arrived at Cedar Ridge one memorable day last summer. Lucy was having leisure for books.
The tent seemed to be full of the faint fragrance of juniper, and that came from the wood which the little stove burned so avidly. Lucy was wont to say that of all Clara's homestead accomplishments that of feeding wood to a fire was what she did best and liked most. "Maybe I'll have to chop wood myself some day. I could do worse," was Clara's enigmatic reply.
Outside, the snow seeped down, rustling like the fall of leaves on dry grass, floating softly against the window. No mournful wail of wind broke the dead silence. The homestead of the Denmeades was locked in winter. Lucy and Clara had long since grown used to it. For a while they had suffered from cold, but that was owing to their susceptibility rather than severe weather. Denmeade's heavy bear rugs on the floor had added much to the comfort of the tent. The girls wore woollen sweaters and no longer noticed the cold. At ten o'clock they went to bed, enjoying to the utmost this most important factor of outdoor life. Night after night, for weeks, they had spent like this, reading, sewing, studying, writing, talking, and then sleeping.
The zero mornings had put them to the test. With the fire long dead, the cold was practically the same inside as outside. They had taken turn about kindling a fire, and the one whose morning it was to lie snug and warm in bed while the other slipped out into the icy air seldom failed to tease and crow.
When the tent was warm they got up and dressed, and made coffee or tea, and cooked some breakfast. No matter how deep the new-fallen snow, there was always a path shovelled from their tent to the cabin, Edd and Joe vying with each other to see who could beat the other at this task. Lucy's work now was confined to instructing the children, and Clara was studying hard to enable her to take Mr. Jenks's place as teacher of the school. The afternoons were usually sunny and clear. After a snowstorm the warm sun melted the snow away in a few days. But there were unexampled opportunities to tramp and romp and play in the snow, things in which the girls found much pleasure. They had been born and brought up in a snowless country, where the summers were torrid and the winters pleasant.
The Denmeades, however, might as well have been snowed in. Lucy marvelled at this, and came to understand it as a feature of backwoods life. The men kept the fires burning and fed the stock, outside of which they had nothing, or thought they had nothing, to do. The women cooked, sewed, and washed, almost as actively as in summer. No visitors called any more on Sundays. They saw no outsiders. Once a week Dick or Joe would ride down to Johnson's for, the mail, or for supplies that had been sent for. It seemed a lonely, peaceful, unproductive existence.
Edd, being the eldest of the Denmeade boys, had received the least schooling, a fact he keenly deplored, and through these winter days he laboriously pored over the books Lucy gave him. Joe was the keenest of the children, as well as the quietest, and he seconded Edd in this pursuit of knowledge.
Lucy and Clara had supper with the Denmeades, which they endeavoured to serve before dark. Sometimes, when the meal was late, the light in the kitchen was so dim they could hardly see to eat. After supper the children and young people would make a rush into the other cabin where Denmeade kept a huge log or stump burning in the open fire-place. Mertie was gone, and her absence seemed a benefit. Allie and Joe were the thoughtful ones who helped Mrs. Denmeade. Seldom was a lamp lighted until Edd stamped in to resort to his books.
Every time the door was opened the dogs would try to slip in, and always one or more of them succeeded, and occupied a warm place in front of the fire. The children played until put to bed. Uncle Bill was not long in climbing to his bed in the attic. Denmeade smoked his pipe and sat gazing at the blazing log. How many hours of his life must have been spent so! Lucy and Clara always passed part of the early evening hours in this living-room. Seldom or never did they have a moment alone with the boys. It was a family gathering, this after-supper vigil in front of the big fire.
Denmeade typified the homesteader of that high altitude. Winter was a time of waiting. Almost he was like a bear. Spring, summer, fall were his active seasons. The snow, the sleet, the icy winds of winter shut him in.
Lucy counteracted this growing habit in the boys. She convinced them that winter was the time to improve the mind and to learn something of what was going on in the outside world. Her success in this she considered equal to any of her achievements here. The old folks, of course, could not be changed; and Lucy confined herself to the children. Many times she thought of how all over the wild parts of the west, in high districts, children and young people were wasting golden hours, with nothing to do but what their parents had done before them. What a splendid work she would accomplish if she could make known the benefits of home instruction! But it really did not seem like work. Thus the winter days and nights passed.
The coming of spring was marked by Allie Denmeade's marriage to Gerd Claypool. These young people, wise in their generation, invited everybody to their wedding, which took place in Cedar Ridge. Lucy and Clara remained at home with the children.
March brought surprisingly fine weather, the mornings and evenings cold, but the middle of the day sunny and warm. Soon the wet, red soil dried out. The men, liberated from the confines of winter, were busy taking up the tasks that had been interrupted by the first fall of snow. One of these was the completion of Joe's cabin. Lucy, using a walk with the children as excuse, climbed the mesa trail to see the men at work. Clara did not want to go. She was more studious and complex than ever, yet seemed strangely, dreamily happy.
The mesa, with its open glades, its thickets of red manzanita, its clumps of live oak, and giant junipers and lofty pines, manifested a difference hard to define. Lucy thought it had to do with spring. The birds and squirrels and turkeys voiced the joyfulness of the season.
Joe's homestead edifice was a two-cabin affair, similar to that of the Denmeades. Lucy particularly liked the clean, freshly-cut pine and its fragrant odour. She urged Joe to build in several closets and to insist on windows, and kitchen shelves, and a number of improvements new to the cabin of the backwoodsman.
"Joe, are you going to live here alone?" queried Lucy.
"On an' off, while I prove up on my homesteadin' patent," he replied. "You see, I have to put in so many days here for three years before the government will give me the land."
His frank answer relieved Lucy, who had of late been subtly influenced by a strangeness, an aloofness, in Clara, which mood somehow she had attributed to Joe's infatuation for her. The boy had no pretence. His soul was as clear as his grey eyes. Lucy was compelled to believe that the erecting of this cabin was solely to forestall a threatened invasion of the mesa by other homesteaders.
On the way home Lucy stopped awhile at the beautiful site Edd had selected for his cabin. She found that thought of the place, during the fall and winter months, had somehow endeared it to her. Long communion with the secret affection of her heart had brought happiness with resignation. She knew where she stood; and daily she gathered strength to bear, to serve, to go on, to find a wonderful good in her ordeal.
The forest had wrought incalculable change in her. It was something she felt rush over her thrillingly when she approached the green wall of pines and entered it, as if going into her home. She thought more actively, she worked better, she developed more under its influence than in the city. This she knew to be because the old bitter social feud under which her youth had been oppressed was not present here. Lucy was ashamed of that relief, but she could never change it.
As she was soon to go to the Claypools to take up her work there, Lucy knew it might be long before she had the strange, inexplicable joy of dreaming here in this spot of perfect solitude and wild beauty. So while the children played at keeping house among the bears and turkeys, she gazed around her and listened and felt. She was quite at the mercy of unknown forces and she had ceased to beat and bruise her heart against them, as might have a bird against the bars of its cage. Above all, there came to her the great, simple fact of a harmony with this environment. She could not resist it and she ceased to try.
Mr. Jenks arrived at the Johnsons' in the latter part of March and attended the meeting of the school board. He wanted to turn over the teaching to Clara, but in case she did not accept the position he would be glad to remain another summer. Denmeade returned from that board meeting to place a proposition squarely before Clara. And in his own words it was this: "Reckon we don't want to change teachers so often. Every schoolmarm we've had just up an' married one of the boys. Wal, if you will agree to teach two years, whether you get married or not, we'll shore be glad to let you have the job."
"I give my word," replied Clara, with a firmness Lucy knew was a guerdon that the promise would be kept.
What struck Lucy markedly on the moment was the fact that Clara did not disavow any possibility of marriage.
The deal was settled then and there, and later, when the girls had gone to the seclusion of their tent, Clara evinced a deep emotion.
"Lucy, I'll be independent now," she said. "I can pay my debt...I--I need money--"
"My dear, you don't owe me any money," interposed Lucy, "if that's what you mean."
Clara's reply was more evasive than frank, again rousing in Lucy the recurrence of a surprise and a vague dread. But she dismissed them from her consciousness.
"We'll have to settle another thing, too," said Lucy. "Once before you hinted you didn't want to go to Claypool's with me."
"I don't, but I'll go if you insist," rejoined Clara.
"If you will be happier here than with me, by all means stay," replied Lucy in a hurt tone.
"Don't misunderstand, Lucy, darling," cried Clara, embracing her. "I'm used to this place--these Denmeades. It's like a sanctuary after--" She broke off falteringly. "It will be hard enough for me to teach school, let alone live among strangers...And aren't you coming back here in the fall?"
"I don't know. It depends," answered Lucy dubiously. "Well, it's settled then. You will live here. I suppose you'll ride horseback to and fro from the schoolhouse. That would be fine."
"Yes. Joe or Dick will ride with me every day, so I'll never be alone."
Lucy turned away her face and busied herself with papers on her table.
"Clara, have you anything particular you want to tell me?"
"Why--no," came the constrained and low reply. Lucy divined then that there was something Clara could not tell her, and it revived the old worry.
Edd Denmeade, alone of all the family, did not take kindly to Lucy's going to the Claypools. The others, knowing that Clara was to continue to live with them and that Lucy would probably come back in the fall, were glad to propitiate their neighbours at so little a loss.
"But, Edd, why do you disapprove?" Lucy demanded, when she waylaid him among his beehives. She did not want to lose her good influence over him. She wanted very much more from him than she dared to confess.
"I reckon I've a good many reasons," returned Edd.
"Oh, you have? Well, tell me just one," said Lucy.
"Wal, the Claypools live right on the trail from Sprall's to Cedar Ridge."
"Sprall's!...What of it?" demanded Lucy, nonplussed.
"Bud Sprall rides that trail."
"Suppose he does. How does it concern me?" rejoined Lucy, growing irritated.
"Wal, it concerns you more'n you think. Bud told in Cedar Ridge how he was layin' for you."
"I don't understand. What did he mean?"
"Lucy, that hombre isn't above ropin' you an' packin' you off over the Rim, where he holds out with his red-faced cowboy pard."
"Nonsense! The day of the outlaw is past, Edd. I haven't the least fear of Bud Sprall. Indeed, so little that I intend some day to take up my work with the Spralls."
Wheeling from his work, he loomed over her, and fastening a brawny hand in her blouse he drew her close. His eyes flashed a steely fire.
"You're not goin' to do anythin' of the kind," he said, darkly.
"Who'll prevent me?" queried Lucy.
"If you go to Sprall's I'll pack you back if I have to tie you on a hoss."
"You--will?" Lucy's voice broke in her fury.
"Shore you bet I will. Reckon you haven't forgot that dance I made you go to. I wasn't mad then. Wal, I'm as mad as hell now."
"Why do you presume to interfere with my work?"
"Can you crawl in a hog-pen without gettin' dirty?" he demanded. "I reckon your work is somethin' fine an' good. I don't begrudge that to Sprall's. But you can't go there, unless just in daytime, an' then with somebody...You think I'm jealous. Wal, I'm not. Ask pa an' ma about this Sprall idea of yours."
"But, Edd, weren't you somewhat like Bud Sprall once? Didn't you tell me I helped you? Might I not do the same for--"
Edd shoved her away with violence.
"Ahuh! So you want to work the same on Bud?...Wal, the day you make up to him as you did to me I'll go back to white mule...An' I'll kill him!"
As he stalked away, grim and dark, Lucy shook off a cold clutch of fear and remorse, and ran after him.
"Edd! You must not talk so--so terribly!" she cried appealingly. "You seem to accuse me of--of something...Oh that I haven't been fair to you!"
"Wal, have you, now?" he queried, glaring down at her.
"Indeed--I--I think so."
"Aw, you're lyin'. Maybe you're as deep as your sister. Shore I'd never deny you'd been an angel to my family. But you worked different on me. I was only a wild-bee hunter. You made me see what I was--made me hate my ignorance an' habits. You let me be with you, many an' many a time. You talked for hours an' read to me, an' worked with me, all the time with your sweet, sly girl ways. An' I changed. I don't know how I changed, but it's so. You're like the queen of the bees...All you told me love meant I've come to know. I'd do any an' all of those things you once said love meant...But if you work the same on Bud Sprall you'll be worse than Sadie Purdue. She had sweet, purry cat ways, an' she liked to be smoothed. That was shore where Sadie didn't cheat."
"Cheat!...Edd Denmeade, do you mean--you think I made you love me--just to save you from your drinking, fighting habits?" queried Lucy, very low.
"No. I reckon I don't mean that. You just used your--yourself. Your smiles an' sweet laugh--your talk--your pretty white dresses--your hands--lettin' me see you--lettin' me be with you--keepin' me from other girls--workin' on me with yourself...Now didn't you? Be honest."
"Yes. You make me see it. I did," confessed Lucy bravely. "I'm not sorry--for I--I--"
"Wal, you needn't figure me wrong," he interrupted. "I'm not sorry, either. Reckon for my family's sake I'm glad. Shore I have no hopes of ever bein' anythin' but a lonely wild-bee hunter...But I couldn't stand your workin' that on Bud Sprall."
"You misunderstand me, Edd," returned Lucy. "I couldn't have done what you imagined. Now I fear I can never do anything...You have made me ashamed. Made me doubt myself."
"Wal, I reckon that won't be so awful bad for you," he drawled, almost caustically, and left her.
This interview with Edd befell just before Lucy's time of departure to the Claypools, most inopportunely and distressingly for her. Edd had declared a great, and what he held a hopeless, love for her. Lucy suffered an exaltation embittered by doubt, distress, even terror. The sheer fact that he loved her was a tremendous shock. Not that she had not known of his affection, but that he had arisen out of his crudeness to her ideal of love! She could not overcome her pride in her power to uplift him. It was sweet, strange, sustaining, yet fraught with terrors for her. It forced her into a position where she must find out the truth and bigness of love herself. She could not trust this new elemental self, this transformation of Lucy Watson in the wilderness. She must have long lonely hours--days--nights to fight the problem. What terrified her was the memory of that beautiful mesa homestead and the thought of Edd Denmeade's love. Together they threatened to storm her heart.
Next morning Lucy was ready early for her departure. She had entirely overlooked what kind of an occasion it might be, but she soon discovered that it was not to be joyous. The children were pitiful in their grief. Lucy felt as if she had died. They were inconsolable. Mary was the only one of them who bade her good-bye. Mrs. Denmeade said she was glad for the sake of the Claypools.
"Wal, Miss Lucy," said Denmeade, with his rugged grin, "reckon by the time you get through with the Claypools an' Johnsons you'll find us all gone to seed an' needin' you powerful bad."
"Then I'll be happy to come back," replied Lucy.
Clara, however, gave Lucy the most thought-provoking surprise of this leave-taking. Evidently she had cried before getting up, and afterward she was pale and silent. When Edd and Joe arrived with saddle horses and the burros, Lucy, after taking out her baggage to be packed, returned to find Clara had broken down. Lucy could not understand this sudden weakness. It was not like Clara. They had a most affecting scene, which left Lucy shaken and uncertain. But she had the sweet assurance of Clara's love and reliance upon her. For the rest, her sister's emotion seemed a betrayal. Lucy felt that in Clara's clinging hands, her streaming hidden eyes, her incoherent words. But in the few moments of stress left her before departure she could neither comfort Clara nor find out any adequate reason for this collapse.
"Hey!" called Edd for the third time. "Reckon the burros are rarin' to go, if you ain't."
Lucy left Clara face down on the bed. Before she closed the door she called back softly: "Don't be afraid to trust me with your troubles. I'll share them....Good-bye."
Lucy had seen the Claypool clearing, but she had never been inside the cabins. There were two families and many children, all assembled to greet her. Allie and Gerd still lived there, pending the clearing of a new tract of forest near by. They took charge of Lucy and led her to the little hut that had been constructed for her use. It had been built of slabs fresh from the sawmill, and these boards, being the outside cut from logs, still retained the bark. The structure was crude, yet picturesque, and it pleased Lucy. The inside was the yellow hue of newly cut pine, and it smelled strongly of the woods. Lucy had to laugh. What a wonderful little playhouse that would have been--if she were still a little girl! It had one window, small, with a Wooden shutter, a table, and a closet, a shelf, and a built-in box couch, full of fragrant spruce. A deer skin with the fur uppermost lay on the floor. In the corner nearest the door was a triangular-shaped shelf, three feet above the floor, and under it sat a bucket full of water and on it a basin and dipper and lamp.
Allie and Gerd were plainly proud of this lodging house for Lucy.
"It's pretty far from the cabins," concluded Gerd, "but there's a big bar for your door. Nothin' can get in."
"I am delighted with it," declared Lucy.
Edd and Joe drove the pack burros over to Lucy's new abode and carried her bags in. She noted that Edd was so tall he could not stand upright in her little room.
"Wal, I reckon Gerd shore didn't figure on your entertainin' me," drawled Edd with a grin.
"It's pretty nice," said Joe practically. "With your rugs an' pictures, an' the way you fix things up, it'll be Jake."
Edd lingered a moment longer than the others at the door, his big black sombrero turning round in his hands.
"Wal, Lucy, do I go get me some white mule an' hunt up Bud Sprall?" he queried with all his cool, easy complexity.
Lucy felt the sting of blood in her cheeks. When she stepped toward him, as he stood outside and below, one foot on the threshold, his face was about on a level with hers. Lucy looked straight into his eyes.
"No, you don't, unless you want me to call you again what hurt you so once."
"An' what's that? I disremember."
"You know!" she retorted, not quite sure of herself.
"Wal, I reckon you won't need do that," he said, simply. "I was only foolin' you about the white mule. I wouldn't drink again, no matter what you did. An' I reckon I wouldn't pick a fight, like I used to."
Lucy had been subjected to a wide range of emotions through the last twenty-four hours, and she was not prepared for a statement like this. It wrought havoc in her breast. In swift impulse she bent forward and kissed Edd on the cheek. Then as swiftly she drew back, slammed the door, and stood there trembling. She heard him gasp, and the jingle of his spurs, as slowly he walked away.
"There! I've played hob at last!" whispered Lucy. "But I don't care...Now, my wild-bee hunter, I wonder if you'll take that for a Sadie Purdue trick?"