by Olive W. Burt
Synopsis: Carol Wilson, an artist on the staff of a magazine edited by Brent Gibson, went to Wyoming to attend the funeral of her sister Elizabeth. She felt a deep sympathy for the motherless children, and decided to go back to them; however, she found them well cared for. Fred, Carol’s brother-in-law, had become interested in a kindly neighbor, Dolly Graham, and Dolly’s brother Tony declared his love for Carol. However, Brent Gibson telephoned, asking Carol to return to the city to make the illustrations for a serial story. After the work was completed, Carol went back to Wyoming for a vacation. Tony took her on many excursions, and their regard for each other deepened. Finally, Brent Gibson arrived at the Wyoming ranch to see Carol. Tony, Dolly, Fred, Carol, and the children explored a cave, and Steve, Carol’s nephew, disappeared.
The little girls, watching the growing image of fear on the faces of Carol Wilson and Dolly Graham, drew closer to the women. Trudy, not knowing why she did it, began to cry; Becky’s lips trembled; Kathy was pale.
Carol bent to Trudy. She forced herself to smile and to speak gaily. “Now what’s this blubbering for, darling? Daddy and Uncle Brent and Uncle Tony will be right back. They have just gone to get Stevie.”
“Bears!” sobbed Trudy. “Big black bears!”
“Nonsense!” Carol said heartily. “We were all in the cave and there were no bears. Look, girls, how far do you think it is down to that pointed gray rock? As far as the river from your house?”
Their attention diverted for a moment, they turned to look where Carol was pointing. As they did so, a faint, tremulous shout floated down to them. As one person, they swung about, looking upward. And there, high above them, standing on a narrow ledge of rock, was Stevie.
“Aunt Carol!” The boy’s voice held panic. “I can’t get down.”
From where she stood, it looked to Carol as if Steve could never get off that ledge. Above him rose a wall of jagged, bare stone; below him was a sheer drop of fifty feet. How had he got there?
“Don’t move, Stevie!” she called back, keeping her voice calm. “Just stand still. We’ll get you down.”
Fred, Brent, and Tony heard the shouting and came running out.
“Steve!” Fred’s voice shook with anxiety.
Dolly Graham came to him. “Steady, Fred. Don’t scare him.”
Fred nodded shortly, and when he spoke again his voice was reassuring. “Stand still, Stevie, boy. We’ll get you down!”
“He must have climbed up through that cleft at the back of the cave,” Brent said. “I didn’t think it possible, though. Well, I’ll go up after him.”
“You can’t get up there!” Fred protested. “We’d better go down to the car and get a rope.”
“No. I can make it. At least, I can make a try.”
He said no more but turned and went into the cave. Carol heard his footsteps, determined and steady, striking against the rocky floor. She tore her eyes away from the little boy, looking so small and vulnerable against the cliff, and ran after Brent. She saw him go straight to the rear of the cave, where the shaft of sunlight betrayed the broken roof. Before she reached him, Brent had already started to climb.
Carol came to the place and looked up. It was a narrow fissure in the bare rock, running almost perpendicularly upward. A few wind-blown seeds had found a resting place in the chinks of the rock, and had taken root, so that here and there were clumps of brush. They seemed to have such a tenuous hold on the rock that Carol shuddered at the thought of Brent’s trusting to them. Yet that was just what he was doing. Digging his toes into the chinks, hanging onto the clumps of brush, he was making his way slowly up toward the patch of sky above them.
Carol drew back and went out to join the others. They stood silent, their faces uplifted, watching Stevie.
Fred cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted cheerfully, “Uncle Brent is on his way up, Stevie. Stand still and wait. He’ll be there in a minute.”
“Where’s Tony?” Carol asked, becoming aware that one of the group was missing.
“He’s gone down to the car to get a rope and to summon help. If Brent doesn’t make it – and I don’t see how he can – we’ll need help,” Dolly answered.
“If Brent doesn’t make it …” Carol’s voice shook. Then, steadying it, “I guess there’s nothing we can do …”
“No. Just wait.”
Dolly came and stood beside Carol. “You must be thinking that Tony should have gone up there,” she said gently. “He’s younger than Brent, and more agile. But Tony can’t stand high places – never could without getting dizzy. So it was best to let Brent try.”
Carol nodded dumbly. She was glad it was Brent to whom Stevie’s safety was entrusted. Glad, even though she felt numb with anxiety for the man’s safety. One slip of his foot might send him plummeting down that narrow well, to land on the rock floor of the cave, hurt and broken.
Her eyes ached from staring up at Stevie; ached from trying to see Brent’s figure beside the boy, when Brent was not there. It was taking a long time. Why so long? Steve had been away from them, out of their sight, for only a moment. How had he got up there so quickly, when it was taking Brent such an interminable time?
An exclamation from Kathy was the first indication that the man had made it. Almost at once, his dark head appeared at Stevie’s feet, then his shoulders. Slowly, carefully, he heaved his whole body up out of nothingness, to stand beside the little boy. He looked down at the anxious group below him, held up his hand with thumb and forefinger joined in the circle that had come to mean “success!” The sigh of relief sounded like a groan.
They could not hear what Brent was saying to Stevie, but they saw the boy nod, and then Brent began to lower himself down through the fissure. He was partly hidden from their view, when Stevie stepped carefully along the narrow ledge, stooped, and began to disappear with Brent.
Carol ran into the cave and to the rear. Small rocks and dirt were falling on the floor, so she could not try to see what was happening. But she knew from the debris and from the shuffling sounds in the crevice, that the two were descending. Carol waited, her heart pounding, for they were not yet safe. The descent was, perhaps, even more precarious than the ascent had been, especially with the little boy to maneuver.
The moments dragged by. Fred and Dolly and the little girls had joined Carol in her vigil, but she was not conscious of them. Every nerve was strained, listening, trying to interpret each little sound, each falling rock and bit of broken brush.
But at last Brent’s feet appeared, and Carol felt like weeping with joy. Those feet – those dear, dusty, shoes! She blinked her smarting eyes, and there they were, Brent and Stevie, safe. They were scratched and grimy, and Stevie’s face had pale streaks where tears had washed down. But he wasn’t crying now. He was looking somewhat abashed and timid.
Fred and Dolly rushed to the little boy, knelt beside him.
“It’s okay, fellow!” his father said heartily, and Steve managed a tremulous grin.
Carol went back to Brent as the others left. “Oh, Brent! I was so frightened for you. Are you all right? All I could do was pray.”
He nodded, grinning. “It wasn’t too difficult for an old mountain goat.”
Carol’s tenseness dissolved, leaving her limp and shivering. Sobs of relief came pounding into her throat and she raised her hands to cover her face.
His arms went around her. His face was against her hair.
“There, my darling! Don’t, please don’t cry. It’s all over. Stevie’s safe.”
She clung to him, letting the tears fall. “If anything had happened to you, I couldn’t have borne it, Brent! I couldn’t have borne it!”
“To me, darling? Did it matter so much?”
She raised her tear-wet lashes. “It mattered everything. Oh, Brent, can’t you forget your lost love and see me, Carol? I am here and now and I – I …” She stopped.
“My lost love, darling? She was forgotten long ago – on that first day you walked into my office asking for a job I had a new love – a sweet, funny little love who was all business, all efficiency, but who could not hide the fact that underneath that veneer she was all woman – dear, loving woman!”
He raised her face and kissed her lips, sweet and salty with her love and her tears.
“I’ve been a silly fool, haven’t I? But I honestly didn’t know how much I loved you until …”
“Until when, darling?”
“Until I saw your dirty, dusty shoes come into sight in that hole!”
He kissed her again. “I’m going to give Stevie a medal!” he declared.
Brent held her close again.
“Will you marry me, my darling?” he whispered. “Will you go to the temple with me?”
She put her hands behind his head and drew his face down to her lips. “Of course, my sweet.”
When they walked out into the sunshine to join the others, they were met by a garland of smiles.
“Carol has promised to marry me,” Brent announced at once. “I’m the happiest man in all this wide, beautiful world! Stevie, my boy, I am going to give you a beautiful, big shining medal!”
Fred took Brent’s hand, and his congratulations and his gratitude were an incoherent jumble.
Dolly came and put her arms around Carol. “I am glad for you, Carol. You look so radiant, I know it is right for you.” She shook her head, smiling ruefully. “I had sort of thought we’d be sisters-in-law …”
Fred came to Dolly’s side. “Well, Dolly, when we get married, Carol will be a sort of a sister-in-law, won’t she – a sister-in-law by marriage?” He spoke toward the children, standing there watching with intent eyes. “This crisis has sort of precipitated things, I guess. Last night, children, your Aunt Dolly said she would marry me, and come and live always at our place, and help me take care of all of you all the time.”
Dolly knelt and gathered them into her arms.
Fred said slowly, “I’m glad for you and Brent, Carol. But I sort of hate to break the news to Tony.”
Carol smiled gently. “Tony will get over it,” she said soberly. “He’ll find a girl nearer his own age, one with the same interests and outlook. Tony’s a darling and won’t be left to mourn.”
The words broke the spell that had been holding them.
“Come along!” Fred said. “Let’s get back to camp and save anyone from coming up to help us. And we should have some sort of a celebration!”
He took Dolly’s arm possessively, and Brent walked close to Carol.
Becky came up and took Brent’s hands. “You’ll be my Uncle Brent for real now, won’t you?” she asked.
He bent and kissed the top of her pig-tailed head. “I always was your Uncle Brent for real!”
Steve swaggered close. “I’m sorry I made you climb up that old crack, Uncle Brent. I was just looking for a secret room, or a bear, or something!”
“It’s all right, Steve, but don’t ever do it again,” Brent told the boy. “This time it brought me a wife – but I don’t want that to happen again!”
“Will you go away with Uncle Brent, Aunt Carol?” Kathy asked.
Before Carol could answer, Brent said, “Oh, that’s something I forgot to tell you all. I’ve been looking at places up here, and I think that, if Carol agrees, we’ll buy a little bit of land not far from here and build us a house. We’ll have to live in town and take care of our magazine, but we can come up here in the summer – some extra weekends, maybe even in the winter. So you’ll have us on hand a good deal of the time, Kathy. I like it here!”
“I’m glad!” Kathy said.
Trudy went scampering toward her father. “Daddy! Daddy! Aunt Carol’s going to live by us!”
The others ran after her to explain the happy news.
Carol, watching, smiled tenderly, “Elizabeth’s children! How dear they are!”
Brent’s arm went around her. “Yes, darling. But somehow, I have a feeling that ours will be just as dear!”
Radiant, completely at peace, Carol smiled up at the man she loved.