Page:O Henry Prize Stories of 1924.djvu/287

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freshet, and the earliest arrival in the processional of the flowers; summer, with larks and blue-birds; and columbines a-sway to every breeze . . . until the time when the rosy mauve of fireweed ran up the slopes and the deer star hung low in the sky. And always—always—the faithful gentians had come back.

Remembering these, and all of nature’s concern for flower, bird, and beast, Jem Brown wondered with sudden petulance why she was so unmindful of man. Now that his life was so nearly over he pondered—divided between elation and resentment—upon what had happened to man’s invention, progress . . . that, for so long a period, his life’s path had gone by unpunctuated by one of her devastating milestones. Progress would need to hurry if she held anything in wait for him now! “She’s welcome to do her worst!” he muttered aloud. Three days later he regretted his challenge; half-awakening from feverish slumber, he blinked incredulously at a strange, far-away sound. Remote at first, then drawing slowly nearer, there was about its rhythmic, pulsing steadiness something appalling, threatening, and sinister. Jem Brown could not connect it with anything familiar. . . . A drum, perhaps? . . . But what could a drum be doing, high up in the air? He listened more closely, craving reassurance. There was none . . . instead the steady beat was developing into a monstrous humming—into a dull roar . . . but not like the intermittent crashing with which, during a landslide the year of the big rains, the towering pines and the huge rocks had gone down the mountain. . . .

Feverishly, he tossed and turned, trying to escape from the enveloping sound. Was this, perhaps, what was meant by illness: all sorts of breathless, groundless, vain imaginings bred in houses? Scornfully he derided himself for his cowardice in coming indoors. This noise at which he cowered was thunder—thunder, which had so often before volleyed and echoed in the mountains during fierce electrical storms. Defiantly he raised his head. The sound was still there, steady, regular, insistent—and near!

Dully he wondered if this was death—but why had he never been told what it would be like? Was death, then, a hideous, unending race through labyrinths of clamour and tumult? To him, who had spent his life in the stillness of