Among The Cliffs

Author: Charles Egbert Craddock

It was a critical moment. There was a stir other than that of the wind among the pine needles and dry leaves that carpeted the ground.

The wary wild turkeys lifted their long necks with that peculiar cry of half-doubting surprise so familiar to a sportsman, then all was still for an instant.

The world was steeped in the noontide sunlight, the mountain air tasted of the fresh sylvan fragrance that pervaded the forest, the foliage blazed with the red and gold of autumn, the distant Chilhowee heights were delicately blue.

That instant's doubt sealed the doom of one of the flock. As the turkeys stood in momentary suspense, the sunlight gilding their bronze feathers to a brighter sheen, there was a movement in the dense undergrowth. The flock took suddenly to wing,—a flash from among the leaves, the sharp crack of a rifle, and one of the birds fell heavily over the bluff and down toward the valley.

The young mountaineer's exclamation of triumph died in his throat. He came running to the verge of the crag, and looked down ruefully into the depths where his game had disappeared.

"Waal, sir," he broke forth pathetically, "this beats my time! If my luck ain't enough ter make a horse laugh!"

He did not laugh, however. Perhaps his luck was calculated to stir only equine risibility. The cliff was almost perpendicular; at the depth of twenty feet a narrow ledge projected, but thence there was a sheer descent, down, down, down, to the tops of the tall trees in the valley far below.

As Ethan Tynes looked wistfully over the precipice, he started with a sudden surprise. There on the narrow ledge lay the dead turkey.

The sight sharpened Ethan's regrets. He had made a good shot, and he hated to relinquish his game. While he gazed in dismayed meditation, an idea began to kindle in his brain. Why could he not let himself down to the ledge by those long, strong vines that hung over the edge of the cliff?

It was risky, Ethan knew,—terribly risky. But then,—if only the vines were strong!

He tried them again and again with all his might, selected several of the largest, grasped them hard and fast, and then slipped lightly off the crag.

He waited motionless for a moment. His movements had dislodged clods of earth and fragments of rock from the verge of the cliff, and until these had ceased to rattle about his head and shoulders he did not begin his downward journey.

Now and then as he went he heard the snapping of twigs, and again a branch would break, but the vines which supported him were tough and strong to the last. Almost before he knew it he stood upon the ledge, and with a great sigh of relief he let the vines swing loose.

"Waal, that warn't sech a mighty job at last. But law, ef it hed been Peter Birt stid of me, that thar wild tur-r-key would hev laid on this hyar ledge plumb till the Jedgmint Day!"

He walked deftly along the ledge, picked up the bird, and tied it to one of the vines with a string which he took from his pocket, intending to draw it up when he should be once more on the top of the crag. These preparations complete, he began to think of going back.

He caught the vines on which he had made the descent, but before he had fairly left the ledge, he felt that they were giving way.

He paused, let himself slip back to a secure foothold, and tried their strength by pulling with all his force.

Presently down came the whole mass in his hands. The friction against the sharp edges of the rock over which they had been stretched with a strong tension had worn them through. His first emotion was one of intense thankfulness that they had fallen while he was on the ledge instead of midway in his precarious ascent.

"Ef they hed kem down whilst I war a-goin' up, I'd hev been flung plumb down ter the bottom o' the valley, 'kase this ledge air too narrer ter hev cotched me."

He glanced down at the sombre depths beneath. "Thar wouldn't hev been enough left of me ter pick up on a shovel!" he exclaimed, with a tardy realization of his foolish recklessness.

The next moment a mortal terror seized him. What was to be his fate? To regain the top of the cliff by his own exertions was an impossibility.

He cast his despairing eyes up the ascent, as sheer and as smooth as a wall, without a crevice which might afford a foothold, or a shrub to which he might cling.

His strong head was whirling as he again glanced downward to the unmeasured abyss beneath. He softly let himself sink into a sitting posture, his heels dangling over the frightful depths, and addressed himself resolutely to the consideration of the terrible danger in which he was placed.

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