IT WAS November in the Tonto Basin.
From Mescal Ridge the jagged white teeth of the ranges pierced the blue sky on three horizons-to the west the wild ragged Mazatzals; to the south the lofty symmetrical Four Peaks; and far away to the east the dim blue-white Sierra Ancas. Behind and above Mescal Ridge-forbiddingly close the rarefied atmosphere made it-towered the black-fringed, snow-belted rim of the Mogallan Mesa, blocking the whole north with its three hundred miles of bold promontories and purple canyons.
But though it was winter on the heights, down on the innumerable ridges of the Basin, which slanted like the ribs of a colossal washboard, late fall lingered. In sheltered nooks, deep down where the sun could reach through gaps, sycamores shone with green-gold leaves, and oaks smoldered in rich bronze, standing out vividly from the steel-gray shaggy slopes. Tonto Creek wound down between them, a shining strip of water, here white in rushing rapids and there circling in green eddies or long leaf-spotted pools. The ridge tops waved away from Mescal Ridge, a sea of evergreen, pine and spruce and cedar and piñon, a thick dark mantle in the distance, but close at hand showing bare spots, gray rocks and red cliffs, patches of brown pine needles, scarlet sumac and blue juniper.
Mescal Ridge was high and long and winding and rough, yet its crest curved gracefully, open and bare, covered by many acres of silver grass, where flourished abundantly the short, spiked, pale-green clusters of cactus-mescal, which gave the ridge its name. The tips of mescal leaves narrowed to hard black thorns, much dreaded by cattle and horses. Like the thorns of the cholla cactus, these mescal points broke off in flesh and worked in. Mescal, both in its deadly thorns and the liquor distilled from its heart, typified the hard and acrid nature of the Tonto.
Old Cappy Tanner, trapper, had driven his seven burros in from the south this year; and this time he was later than on any other of the many autumns he had returned to the Tonto. His last two trapping seasons had been prosperous ones, which accounted partly for his late arrival. He had tarried in Prescott and Maricopa to buy presents for his good friends, the Ames family. For Tanner that had been a labor of love, but nevertheless a most perplexing one.
Three miles west of Tonto Creek the trail to Mescal Ridge left the road. Cappy turned into it, glad to reach the last leg of his long tramp. Every giant pine seemed to greet him. He knew them all, and the logs, and the checker-barked junipers, and even the manzanita bushes, bare this year of their yellow berries. No cattle or horse tracks showed in the grass-grown trail. That surprised him. There had been no rain along there for weeks, and if any hoofs had stepped on this trail lately the tracks would have shown.
Cappy sat down against a huge pine to rest and to eat a little bread and meat. The sun shone hot and the shade was pleasant. His burros began to graze on the long grass. It occurred to him that he had rested often on the six weeks' walk north. He seemed to realize he was a little slower than last year.
The old familiar sough of the wind in the pines was music to him, and the sweet, dry, pungent odor of the evergreens was medicine. What soothing relief and rest after the desert! Cappy watched the burros, the slow shadows of the pine boughs, the squalling blue jays. He had been six months away from the Tonto, and the preceding night, at the tavern in Shelby, he had listened to disturbing gossip that involved his friends and their neighbors, the Tates.
It had occupied his mind all during the eighteen-mile journey from Shelby; to such significance that he had not stopped at Spring Valley to pay his respects to the Tates, an omission they would be sure to note.
"Reckon thet Pleasant Valley war left bitter feel