F OR three days the snow fell, softly, swiftly, filling all the little gorges, all the hollows, all the lesser valleys, making the seamed mountain sides beautiful and soft and white—well, as white as snow. I almost said whiter, for no other snow is so white as that that falls high up on the mountains. The air is so pure up there and everything is so clean, that not a flake is soiled, for the mountains are swept every fall from end to end by the whirling brooms of the winds. They drive everything before them, and if you go out you will need to be careful or they will sweep you away, too.
The Hofer house was buried half way up the windows in this whitest of white snow, and some of the houses on the slopes below were nearly hidden. The village down in the Toy Valley, like the rest of the world, lay under the same white blanket.
Winter had come. There was no doubt of that. With her magic she had turned the world into fairyland, hanging a wreath of lilies on every tree branch, weaving frost flowers over every window pane.
Only the tremendous, pale cliffs, that were the summits of the mountains, stood bare against the sky, like watch towers guarding the still, white world below them.
John stood with his arm over old Franz's neck, looking at the shining earth and thinking of the people down below the great mountain in the Toy Valley. He well knew how warm and cosey they were in their thick-walled houses, and how in each one, all the family sat at work carving, carving all day long, while piles of toys grew under their skilful fingers to be carried out into the big world to delight the children there.
It was bitter cold. The icy air stung John's skin and made his red cheeks yet redder.
"Come, son!" It was his father ready to break a path along the mountain side to their next neighbor's, a quarter of a mile away. Franz was already attached to the wooden snow plough, and away they went floundering through the snow, now digging old Franz out when he got in too deep, or pulling each other out with loud shouts and much laughter on John's part, and always making the white snow fly like chaff. Cold? Who said it was cold?
They were warm enough at any rate, puffing and panting with the hard work. When they got to the top of the swell they saw their neighbor out with his big sons also making paths in the spotless snow. They all shouted and laughed, and presently were working together on the path leading to the house where John and Anton had started out with the goats and sheep in the summer.
The grain was off the lattices in front of the houses; in its place flapped and rustled the withered leaves of the turnips, shrivelled and tasteless now, yet relished by the sheep and goats.
Cold? John, muffled to his eyes, half buried and sometimes wholly so, as the snow flew from the workers' shovels or he fell into a ditch or a drift, cared no more for the nipping air than did the great hawk muffled in his feathers and always on the lookout for a careless bird or squirrel. And when they went home, tired after their struggle with the white troops of old King Winter, the mother was waiting with a steaming pot for their supper.
Old Franz felt so frisky these days that once out it was almost impossible to catch him. But John understood, for he felt frisky himself in the clear, dry cold that seemed to whip up all one's energies.
His daily work was the care of Franz and the sheep and goats, as well as the little flock of hens that would eat out of his hand, and the great red rooster that never had quite enough tail-feathers, but which always acted as though nothing were lacking.
Yet, when his work was done there was plenty of time those short winter days, and John liked better than anything else to take the strong sled his father had made for him and slide down the long, long slope above the house. Again and again he toiled up over the hard crust of the snow; and this he could do because of the iron spikes in his wooden shoes that dug into the slippery crust and kept him from falling. Up the steep and slippery slope he would go as safe as a fly on a wall, and down he would come guiding his sled steadily as a strong boy should, and taking the wide curve skilfully as can only be done by one with a clear head and a fearless heart. It was great sport.
One day his father stood and watched him, and when he got to the stopping-place called out, "You may sled down to Anton if you like."
Now, although sliding is glorious it is twice as much fun if you have some one to slide with you, so you can imagine John needed no second invitation. Anton lived below them on the mountain at the foot of a long, steep incline, a hard walk in winter, but reached in a few short moments if one could only slide down it. This John had never been allowed to do alone though he had sometimes gone down on the sled behind his father. And now! his heart gave a great thump at his father's words and he hurried off to the well-known starting-point, where he placed himself firmly on the sled and in another moment was flashing down the wide, white waste of the mountain side.
"Anton!" he cried exultantly, as he stopped the sled at Anton's very door. Had he looked back he might have seen his father's face peering over the brow of the hill far, far above, and if he could have seen clearly at such a distance he would have been proud to see how satisfied his father looked at the way he had managed the descent.
Anton came running out surprised and almost as delighted as John. "Now," he cried, "we can go often to the sliding-places," and they hurried through the crackling snow to their favorite slopes and yelled with joy as they started on their swift descent through the keen air; then they struggled up again dragging the sleds.
There were only a few slopes they ever ventured to slide upon, for all about them the terrible mountain fell off into the valley so suddenly, that had they started down they would soon have been dashed to pieces. This they well knew and kept to the safe slopes where their fathers allowed them to slide, though, truth to tell, these were steep enough to test their skill and their strength to the utmost. But it made them strong and fearless and as unafraid of their terrible winter and their terrible mountain as the birds themselves.
Terrible the mountain was to those ice-bound dwellers on its slopes. In the still nights John sometimes wakened to hear the thunder of the avalanche and shudder at the sound.
One day as he came in from the stable he heard a strange rumbling like thunder, though there was not a cloud in the sky. He looked over to the mountain across the valley and there saw a glistening speck—a cloudy white smother, and above it a long smooth track.
"Father!" he shrieked, putting his head in at the door of the inner room, "come quick! the mountain across the valley is moving!"
Father Hofer sprang out upon the snow in front of the house and looked long at the strange spot. Mother Hofer at his side had her hands clasped and her lips were pale. "Where is the Werner house?" she murmured, "it is surely gone." And John, looking, could no longer find the dark spot that he knew was the house where his little cousins lived,—only that long line on the mountain side!
Father Hofer turned and ran towards the house. "My sled!" he called, as he dashed inside.
John got out the sled, and in a moment his father returned well muffled up and with his long-spiked shoes on his feet. John and the mother ran with him to the long gully that led down in a frightful incline, now one smooth, shining bed of hard-crusted snow. On the rim of this Father Hofer cautiously planted his sled, placed himself upon it, and John held his breath as he saw his father disappear like a falling star in a whirl of loose snow, which presently gathered into a dense cloud at a frightful curve around a rock, after which they saw no more and he and his mother could only go home and wait and pray that the father had reached the bottom of the dangerous descent in safety.
As the day wore on Mother Hofer told her boy many tales of the terrible avalanches. He already knew how the snow piled deeper and deeper on the steep slopes, until some day or maybe in the still night or in a wild wind storm, a great mass loosened and began to move faster and faster until it fell with a crash like thunder, burying houses and barns and everything that lay in its way, and sometimes carrying with it great masses of rock from the torn side of the mountain. Ah, the avalanche! It was the wrath of God, and who could escape its terrible stroke! And Mother Hofer rocked back and forth with her hands over her face at memory of the homes destroyed and the brave hunters overwhelmed.
John was awed and afraid at these times, though he knew little of the sad scenes depicted, only remembering that his father's brother had gone out from their home one day in early spring to cross a mountain pass above them. That they had heard the thunder of the avalanche, and his parents had fallen on their knees and prayed long and fervently for the life of the wanderer, but in vain, for the uncle never came back.
Father Hofer did not return until next day, when he came in towards night tired but happy, and told them how he had roused the village and all had gone as best they could with shovels and food and clothing. The avalanche had buried the house just as Father Hofer guessed when he tore so madly down his side of the mountain. "But," he said, "only an edge of it struck them so that we were able to dig them out. The house was not crushed and no one was hurt—but," he concluded, "you should have seen the mountain of snow piled about them. If it had hit square—but then it didn't, thanks be to God, and all are alive this night and well."