Authors: Max Brand
Tom scanned the plain eagerly right and left, but over the rolling ground, now white with moonshine, he saw no dark forms of hurrying horsemen. He let his weary horse continue at the same pace. Then, from a slight elevation, he caught sight of the wide, bright body of the river flowing through the distance ahead of him. They could swim that to safety.
But, as he sent Sideways ahead at a slightly freshened pace, a change of the wind brought an ominous sound to his ear. He swung sharply about, and he saw, streaking across the crest of a low knoll, a compact body of half a dozen mounted men, aimed at him at full speed. Even if he gained the water, they could riddle him with bullets.
books by Max Brand Â®:
THE RANGE FINDER
THE GOLDEN CAT
MORE TALES OF THE WILD WEST
JOKERS EXTRA WILD
THE LONE RIDER
THE UNTAMED WEST
THE WELDING QUIRT
THE BRIGHT FACE OF DANGER
THE OUTLAW REDEEMER
THE GOLD TRAIL
THE PERIL TREK
THE OVERLAND KID
THE HOUSE OF GOLD
THE GERALDI TRAIL
IN THE HILLS OF MONTEREY
THE LOST VALLEY
THE FUGITIVE'S MISSION
THE SURVIVAL OF JUAN ORO
THE WOLF STRAIN
MEN BEYOND THE LAW
BEYOND THE OUTPOSTS
THE STONE THAT SHINES
THE OATH OF OFFICE
DUST ACROSS THE RANGE/THE CROSS BRAND
THE ROCK OF KIEVER
THUNDER MOON AND THE SKY PEOPLE
RED WIND AND THUNDER MOON
THE LEGEND OF THUNDER MOON
THE QUEST OF LEE GARRISON
SAFETY Mc TEE
SIXTEEN IN NOME
Published by special arrangement with Golden West Literary Agency.
Dorchester Publishing Co., Inc.
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New York, NY 10016
Copyright Â© 2004 by Golden West Literary Agency
“Wild Freedom” first appeared as a six-part serial under the George Owen Baxter byline in Street & Smith's Western Story Magazine (11/11/22â12/16/22). Copyright Â© 1922 by Street & Smith Publications, Inc. Copyright Â© renewed 1950 by Dorothy Faust. Copyright Â© 2004 by Golden West Literary Agency for restored material. Acknowledgment is made to CondÃ© Nast Publications, Inc., for their cooperation.
The name Max Brand Â® is a registered trademark with the United States Patent and Trademark Office and cannot be used for any purpose without express written permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, without the written permission of the publisher, except where permitted by law. The scanning, uploading, and distribution of this book via the Internet or via any other means without the permission of the publisher is illegal and punishable by law. Please purchase only authorized electronic editions, and do not participate in or encourage electronic piracy of copyrighted materials. Your support of the author's rights is appreciated.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Trade ISBN: 978-1-4285-1862-9
E-book ISBN: 978-1-4285-0333-5
First Dorchester Publishing, Co., Inc. edition: November 2006
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No seasoned mountaineer would have tried to cross the mountain range encumbered as John Parks was, and with the cloud streamers blown out stiffly from the summits and snapping off little fleecy bits that the wind hurried across the sky. Even in the lowlands the norther had spread an Arctic chill, and the bald heights must be insufferably cold. To be sure, the trip would have been practicable enough to warmly dressed, active men, but the little burro would slow the pace of the journey to a dreary crawl, and, besides, there was Tommy to think of. Hardened far beyond city children by this three years in the mountains, still, at twelve, there is a marked limit to a boy's endurance. He was already fagged by the journey, for, although they had come only ten miles since morning, it had been bitter work for Tommy up and down the hills, and it might be ten miles more across the summits and down to shelter on the farther side.
John Parks consulted his son.
“We could camp over yonder, Tommy,” he said. “You see that little hollow with the pines standing around it?”
Tommy looked, and his heart went out to the circle among the trees as though the night had already closed and the evergreens were full of shine and shadow from a fire built in their midst.
“But,” went on John Parks, “it's not far past noon, and just over that next crest is the place.”
He lifted his gaunt face with that strange smile that Tommy knew so well. All his life he had seen his father looking far off from the sorrows of every day to a bright tomorrow.
“So what do you think, Tommy?” John Parks asked, resting his hand on the shoulder of his son. “Do you think we could make it without tiring you out?”
The wind stooped against them and passed an icy thrill through the body of the boy, but, when he looked up, he found the smile still on his father's face as though he heard already the far-off murmur of the Turnbull River. What a weary way they had come to find that promised land.
“Oh,” he said, “I can make it, Dad. You don't need to worry about me.”
The hand closed on his shoulder.
“Ah, you're a tough fellow, Tommy,” said John Parks. “We'll try it, then.”
They trudged on, the burro grunting and switching his tail before them. They climbed 2,000 feet in three miles with the trees dwindling and dwarfing until they came to a waist-high hedge of lodgepole pine, willow, and tough shrubs at timberline, a hedge shaved level across the top by the edge of storm winds, running in and out along the mountainsides at one height like the verge of green water. Above was the bald region of the summit. The sun had melted the surface snow; the wind had frozen it again, and now it blazed like glass. That was poor footing for the climb. Even the burro, as it pressed out from the thicket, shrank with a tentative hoof. Moreover, the wind now leaped into their faces. It flattened the burro's ears and drove his tail straight out. Tommy looked up in dismay, but John Parks shook a bony hand above his head.
“They can't beat us, Tommy!” he shouted. “It takes more than wind and weather to beat us!”
“No, Dad, we'll make it,” Tommy tried to say, but the wind passed his lips and blew a stiff pocket in one cheek, so he put down his head and staggered on in the lee of John Parks. Then his father took his hand, and with that aid he managed to keep steadily at work. When John Parks looked down at him, he even managed a pinch-faced smile, but all the time the core of warmth at his heart was shrinking, and the numbing cold spread swiftly up to his shoulders, then up his legs to the knees, to the hips. He centered all his mind, all his will, on every step he made, but, oh, the weariness that the cold was bringing home to him!
A fresher blast caught him and wrenched him to the side against John Parks.
“Steady, Tommy!” cried his father. “It's all downhill now. Don't you see? We're going to make it easily, boy!”
It was true, for, when Tommy looked ahead, there was no longer that soul-taking, upward slope. Instead, his eye pitched down past the snow fields to the dark streak of timberline, and past timberline to a great, green valley with a river running straight as a silver arrow through its heart. That was the promised land, then, and yonder was the Turnbull. Here was the place where his father's traps every day would take full toll, where the deer came up to the edge of the campfire to watch and wonder, where the cabin was to rise, where the ground would be cleared.
He pushed himself away from John Parks and with a cry made the first step down the slope. His legs buckled. Their strength around the knees had turned to water, and he pitched down on his face. His heart swelled with grief. Now, indeed, he had shamed himself. All the praise for strength and for stolid endurance that had been showered on him during the journey was thrown away through this hideous weakness. He strove to raise himself, but his elbows were like his knees, unstrung and helpless.
John Parks scooped the small body up and stood with it crushed to him. Poor Tommy looked up into a face that was wild with terror.
“I'm only winded!” he cried faintly. “And I slipped. I can go on now, Dad.”
But, while one arm drew him closer to a bony breast, the other was thrown to the sky.
“Heaven forgive me. Heaven help me,” murmured John Parks.
He lowered Tommy gently to the snow, and there he lay limply. Even the hot shame could not nerve him as he watched his father strip off his coat. Tommy was raised and wrapped in the garment closely while John Parks cried: “Oh, Tommy, hold on . . . fight hard. I'll be down to the trees in no time. Fight, Tommy!”
The burro was left to follow aimlessly in the rear, shaking his head at the wind, while John Parks stumbled and slipped and ran down the slope. Tommy tried to protest. He knew well enough that it was dangerous for a man to run unprotected into the face of that icy wind, but, when he tried to speak, his voice became an unintelligible gibbering. Presently his mind became as numb as his body. Thought formed dimly as dream figures. Sometimes it seemed to him that the wind had lifted them and was sweeping them back to the terrible summit. Then the gasping voice of John Parks would come to him like a hand pushing away clouds of sleep: “Fight, Tommy. Oh, Tommy, keep fighting!” Yet the drowsiness increased. He began to wonder why they did not stop, now that they had found such a pleasant time for sleeping.
At length his father was no longer slipping as he ran. The strong, sweet breath of evergreens was filling his nostrils, and suddenly he was dropped to the ground. The shock recalled him enough to clear his eyes, but it was not until John Parks had torn dead branches from the trees, had piled them, had kindled them to a flame, that he understood. The first yellow leap of the fire told him how near he had been to death, and now he was placed on the very verge of the fire while his father, gasping and coughing, pummeled his body and rubbed the blood into circulation. In half an hour he was tingling painfully in hands and feet. His face was swollen with heat. But the danger was gone, and, as if to prove that all was well again, the burro stumbled into the clearing and stood with one long ear tilted forward to the fire.