The Story of a Bad Boy

by Thomas Bailey Aldrich

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

III. The Trail of the Red Wall

AFTER the departure of Dene and his comrades Naab decided to leave White Sage at nightfall. Martin Cole and the Bishop's sons tried to persuade him to remain, urging that the trouble sure to come could be more safely met in the village. Naab, however, was obdurate, unreasonably so, Cole said, unless there were some good reason why he wished to strike the trail in the night. When twilight closed in Naab had his teams ready and the women shut in the canvas-covered wagons. Hare was to ride in an open wagon, one that Naab had left at White Sage to be loaded with grain. When it grew so dark that objects were scarcely discernible a man vaulted the cottage fence.

"Dave, where are the boys?" asked Naab.

"Not so loud! The boys are coming," replied Dave in a whisper. "Dene is wild. I guess you snapped a bone in his arm. He swears he'll kill us all. But Chance and the rest of the gang won't be in till late. We've time to reach the Coconina Trail, if we hustle."

"Any news of Snap?"

"He rode out before sundown."

Three more forms emerged from the gloom.

"All right, boys. Go ahead, Dave, you lead."

Dave and George Naab mounted their mustangs and rode through the gate; the first wagon rolled after them, its white dome gradually dissolving in the darkness; the second one started; then August Naab stepped to his seat on the third with a low cluck to the team. Hare shut the gate and climbed over the tail-board of the wagon.

A slight swish of weeds and grasses brushing the wheels was all the sound made in the cautious advance. A bare field lay to the left; to the right low roofs and sharp chimneys showed among the trees; here and there lights twinkled. No one hailed; not a dog barked.

Presently the leaders turned into a road where the iron hoofs and wheels cracked and crunched the stones.

Hare thought he saw something in the deep shade of a line of poplar-trees; he peered closer, and made out a motionless horse and rider, just a shade blacker than the deepest gloom. The next instant they vanished, and the rapid clatter of hoofs down the road told Hare his eyes had not deceived him.

"Getup," growled Naab to his horses. "Jack, did you see that fellow?"

"Yes. What was he doing there?"

"Watching the road. He's one of Dene's scouts."

"Will Dene--"

One of Naab's sons came trotting back. "Think that was Larsen's pal. He was laying in wait for Snap."

"I thought he was a scout for Dene," replied August.

"Maybe he's that too."

"Likely enough. Hurry along and keep the gray team going lively. They've had a week's rest."

Hare watched the glimmering lights of the village vanish one by one, like Jack-o'-lanterns. The horses kept a steady, even trot on into the huge windy hall of the desert night. Fleecy clouds veiled the stars, yet transmitted a wan glow. A chill crept over Hare. As he crawled under the blankets Naab had spread for him his hand came into contact with a polished metal surface cold as ice. It was his rifle. Naab had placed it under the blankets. Fingering the rifle Hare found the spring opening on the right side of the breech, and, pressing it down, he felt the round head of a cartridge. Naab had loaded the weapon, he had placed it where Hare's hand must find it, yet he had not spoken of it. Hare did not stop to reason with his first impulse. Without a word, with silent insistence, disregarding his shattered health, August Naab had given him a man's part to play. The full meaning lifted Hare out of his self-abasement; once more he felt himself a man.

Hare soon yielded to the warmth of the blankets; a drowsiness that he endeavored in vain to throw off smothered his thoughts; sleep glued his eyelids tight. They opened again some hours later. For a moment he could not realize where he was; then the whip of the cold wind across his face, the woolly feel and smell of the blankets, and finally the steady trot of horses and the clink of a chain swinging somewhere under him, recalled the actually of the night ride. He wondered how many miles had been covered, how the drivers knew the direction and kept the horses in the trail, and whether the outlaws were in pursuit. When Naab stopped the team and, climbing down, walked back some rods to listen, Hare felt sure that Dene was coming. He listened, too, but the movements of the horses and the rattle of their harness were all the sounds he could hear. Naab returned to his seat; the team started, now no longer in a trot; they were climbing. After that Hare fell into a slumber in which he could hear the slow grating whirr of wheels, and when it ceased he awoke to raise himself and turn his ear to the back trail. By-and-by he discovered that the black night had changed to gray; dawn was not far distant; he dozed and awakened to clear light. A rose-red horizon lay far below and to the eastward; the intervening descent was like a rolling sea with league-long swells.

"Glad you slept some," was Naab's greeting. "No sign of Dene yet. If we can get over the divide we're safe. That's Coconina there, Fire Mountain in Navajo meaning. It's a plateau low and narrow at this end, but it runs far to the east and rises nine thousand feet. It forms a hundred miles of the north rim of the Grand Canyon. We're across the Arizona line now."

Hare followed the sweep of the ridge that rose to the eastward, but to his inexperienced eyes its appearance carried no sense of its noble proportions.

"Don't form any ideas of distance and size yet a while," said Naab, reading Hare's expression. "They'd only have to be made over as soon as you learn what light and air are in this country. It looks only half a mile to the top of the divide; well, if we make it by midday we're lucky. There, see a black spot over this way, far under the red wall? Look sharp. Good I That's Holderness's ranch. It's thirty miles from here. Nine Mile Valley heads in there. Once it belonged to Martin Cole. Holderness stole it. And he's begun to range over the divide."

The sun rose and warmed the chill air. Hare began to notice the increased height and abundance of the sagebrush, which was darker in color. The first cedar-tree, stunted in growth, dead at the top, was the half-way mark up the ascent, so Naab said; it was also the forerunner of other cedars which increased in number toward the summit. At length Hare, tired of looking upward at the creeping white wagons, closed his eyes. The wheels crunched on the stones; the horses heaved and labored; Naab's "Getup" was the only spoken sound; the sun beamed down warm, then hot; and the hours passed. Some unusual noise roused Hare out of his lethargy. The wagon was at a standstill. Naab stood on the seat with outstretched arm. George and Dave were close by their mustangs, and Snap Naab, mounted on a cream-colored pinto, reined him under August's arm, and faced the valley below.

"Maybe you'll make them out," said August. "I can't, and I've watched those dust-clouds for hours. George can't decide, either."

Hare, looking at Snap, was attracted by the eyes from which his father and brothers expected so much. If ever a human being had the eyes of a hawk Snap Naab had them. The little brown flecks danced in clear pale yellow. Evidently Snap had not located the perplexing dust-clouds, for his glance drifted. Suddenly the remarkable vibration of his pupils ceased, and his glance grew fixed, steely, certain.

"That's a bunch of wild mustangs," he said.

Hare gazed till his eyes hurt, but could see neither clouds of dust nor moving objects. No more was said. The sons wheeled their mustangs and rode to the fore; August Naab reseated himself and took up the reins; the ascent proceeded.

But it proceeded leisurely, with more frequent rests. At the end of an hour the horses toiled over the last rise to the summit and entered a level forest of cedars; in another hour they were descending gradually.

"Here we are at the tanks," said Naab.

Hare saw that they had come up with the other wagons. George Naab was leading a team down a rocky declivity to a pool of yellow water. The other boys were unharnessing and unsaddling.

"About three," said Naab, looking at the sun. "We're in good time. Jack, get out and stretch yourself. We camp here. There's the Coconina Trail where the Navajos go in after deer."

It was not a pretty spot, this little rock-strewn glade where the white hard trail forked with the road. The yellow water with its green scum made Hare sick. The horses drank with loud gulps. Naab and his sons drank of it. The women filled a pail and portioned it out in basins and washed their faces and hands with evident pleasure. Dave Naab whistled as he wielded an axe vigorously on a cedar. It came home to Hare that the tension of the past night and morning had relaxed. Whether to attribute that fact to the distance from White Sage or to the arrival at the water-hole he could not determine. But the certainty was shown in August's cheerful talk to the horses as he slipped bags of grain over their noses, and in the subdued laughter of the women. Hare sent up an unspoken thanksgiving that these good Mormons had apparently escaped from the dangers incurred for his sake. He sat with his back to a cedar and watched the kindling of fires, the deft manipulating of biscuit dough in a basin, and the steaming of pots. The generous meal was spread on a canvas cloth, around which men and women sat cross-legged, after the fashion of Indians. Hare found it hard to adapt his long legs to the posture, and he wondered how these men, whose legs were longer than his, could sit so easily. It was the crown of a cheerful dinner after hours of anxiety and abstinence to have Snap Naab speak civilly to him, and to see him bow his head meekly as his father asked the blessing. Snap ate as though he had utterly forgotten that he had recently killed a man; to hear the others talk to him one would suppose that they had forgotten it also.

All had finished eating, except Snap and Dave Naab, when one of the mustangs neighed shrilly. Hare would not have noticed it but for looks exchanged among the men The glances were explained a few minutes later when a pattering of hoofs came from the cedar forest, and a stream of mounted Indians poured into the glade.

The ugly glade became a place of color and action. The Navajos rode wiry, wild-looking mustangs and drove ponies and burros carrying packs, most of which consisted of deer-hides. Each Indian dismounted, and unstrapping the blanket which had served as a saddle headed his mustang for the water-hole and gave him a slap. Then the hides and packs were slipped from the pack-train, and soon the pool became a kicking, splashing melee. Every cedar-tree circling the glade and every branch served as a peg for deer meat. Some of it was in the haunch, the bulk in dark dried strips. The Indians laid their weapons aside. Every sagebush and low stone held a blanket. A few of these blankets were of solid color, most of them had bars of white and gray and red, the last color predominating. The mustangs and burros filed out among the cedars, nipping at the sage and the scattered tufts of spare grass. A group of fires, sending up curling columns of blue smoke, and surrounded by a circle of lean, half-naked, bronze-skinned Indians, cooking and eating, completed a picture which afforded Hare the satisfying fulfilment of boyish dreams. What a contrast to the memory of a camp-site on the Connecticut shore, with boy friends telling tales in the glow of the fire, and the wash of the waves on the beach!

The sun sank low in the west, sending gleams through the gnarled branches of the cedars, and turning the green into gold. At precisely the moment of sunset, the Mormon women broke into soft song which had the element of prayer; and the lips of the men moved in silent harmony. Dave Naab, the only one who smoked, removed his pipe for the moment's grace to dying day.

This simple ceremony over, one of the boys put wood on the fire, and Snap took a jews'-harp out of his pocket and began to extract doleful discords from it, for which George kicked at him in disgust, finally causing him to leave the circle and repair to the cedars, where he twanged with supreme egotism.

"Jack," said August Naab, "our friends the Navajo chiefs, Scarbreast and Eschtah, are coming to visit us. Take no notice of them at first. They've great dignity, and if you entered their hogans they'd sit for some moments before appearing to see you. Scarbreast is a war-chief. Eschtah is the wise old chief of all the Navajos on the Painted Desert. It may interest you to know he is Mescal's grandfather. Some day I'll tell you the story."

Hare tried very hard to appear unconscious when two tall Indians stalked into the circle of Mormons; he set his eyes on the white heart of the camp-fire and waited. For several minutes no one spoke or even moved. The Indians remained standing for a time; then seated themselves. Presently August Naab greeted them in the Navajo language. This was a signal for Hare to use his eyes and ears. Another interval of silence followed before they began to talk. Hare could see only their blanketed shoulders and black heads.

"Jack, come round here," said Naab at length. "I've been telling them about you. These Indians do not like the whites, except my own family. I hope you'll make friends with them."

"How do?" said the chief whom Naab had called Eschtah, a stately, keen-eyed warrior, despite his age.

The next Navajo greeted him with a guttural word. This was a warrior whose name might well have been Scarface, for the signs of conflict were there. It was a face like a bronze mask, cast in the one expression of untamed desert fierceness.

Hare bowed to each and felt himself searched by burning eyes, which were doubtful, yet not unfriendly.

"Shake," finally said Eschtah, offering his hand.

"Ugh!" exclaimed Scarbreast, extending a bare silver-braceleted arm.

This sign of friendship pleased Naab. He wished to enlist the sympathies of the Navajo chieftains in the young man's behalf. In his ensuing speech, which was plentifully emphasized with gestures, he lapsed often into English, saying "weak--no strong" when he placed his hand on Hare's legs, and "bad" when he touched the young man's chest, concluding with the words "sick--sick."

Scarbreast regarded Hare with great earnestness, and when Naab had finished he said: "Chineago--ping!" and rubbed his hand over his stomach.

"He says you need meat--lots of deer-meat," translated Naab.

"Sick," repeated Eschtah, whose English was intelligible. He appeared to be casting about in his mind for additional words to express his knowledge of the white man's tongue, and, failing, continued in Navajo: "Tohodena-- moocha--malocha."

Hare was nonplussed at the roar of laughter from the Mormons. August shook like a mountain in an earthquake.

"Eschtah says, 'you hurry, get many squaws--many wives.'"

Other Indians, russet-skinned warriors, with black hair held close by bands round their foreheads, joined the circle, and sitting before the fire clasped their knees and talked. Hare listened awhile, and then, being fatigued, he sought the cedar-tree where he had left his blankets. The dry mat of needles made an odorous bed. He placed a sack of grain for a pillow, and doubling up one blanket to lie upon, he pulled the others over him. Then he watched and listened. The cedar-wood burned with a clear flame, and occasionally snapped out a red spark. The voices of the Navajos, scarcely audible, sounded "toa's" and "taa's"--syllables he soon learned were characteristic and dominant--in low, deep murmurs. It reminded Hare of something that before had been pleasant to his ear. Then it came to mind: a remembrance of Mescal's sweet voice, and that recalled the kinship between her and the Navajo chieftain. He looked about, endeavoring to find her in the ring of light, for he felt in her a fascination akin to the charm of this twilight hour. Dusky forms passed to and fro under the trees; the tinkle of bells on hobbled mustangs rang from the forest; coyotes had begun their night quest with wild howls; the camp-fire burned red, and shadows flickered on the blanketed Indians; the wind now moaned, now lulled in the cedars.

Hare lay back in his blankets and saw lustrous stars through the network of branches. With their light in his face and the cold wind waving his hair on his brow he thought of the strangeness of it all, of its remoteness from anything ever known to him before, of its inexpressible wildness. And a rush of emotion he failed wholly to stifle proved to him that he could have loved this life if--if he had not of late come to believe that he had not long to live. Still Naab's influence exorcised even that one sad thought; and he flung it from him in resentment.

Sleep did not come so readily; he was not very well this night; the flush of fever was on his cheek, and the heat of feverish blood burned his body. He raised himself and, resolutely seeking for distraction, once more stared at the camp-fire. Some time must have passed during his dreaming, for only three persons were in sight. Naab's broad back was bowed and his head nodded. Across the fire in its ruddy flicker sat Eschtah beside a slight, dark figure. At second glance Hare recognized Mescal. Surprise claimed him, not more for her presence there than for the white band binding her smooth black tresses. She had not worn such an ornament before. That slender band lent her the one touch which made her a Navajo. Was it worn in respect to her aged grandfather? What did this mean for a girl reared with Christian teaching? Was it desert blood? Hare had no answers for these questions. They only increased the mystery and romance. He fell asleep with the picture in his mind of Eschtah and Mescal, sitting in the glow of the fire, and of August Naab, nodding silently.

"Jack, Jack, wake up." The words broke dully into his slumbers; wearily he opened his eyes. August Naab bent over him, shaking him gently.

"Not so well this morning, eh? Here's a cup of coffee. We're all packed and starting. Drink now, and climb aboard. We expect to make Seeping Springs to-night."

Hare rose presently and, laboring into the wagon, lay down on the sacks. He had one of his blind, sickening headaches. The familiar lumbering of wheels began, and the clanking of the wagon-chain. Despite jar and jolt he dozed at times, awakening to the scrape of the wheel on the leathern brake. After a while the rapid descent of the wagon changed to a roll, without the irritating rattle. He saw a narrow valley; on one side the green, slow-swelling cedar slope of the mountain; on the other the perpendicular red wall, with its pinnacles like spears against the sky. All day this backward outlook was the same, except that each time he opened aching eyes the valley had lengthened, the red wall and green slope had come closer together in the distance. By and by there came a halt, the din of stamping horses and sharp commands, the bustle and confusion of camp. Naab spoke kindly to him, but he refused any food, lay still and went to sleep.

Daylight brought him the relief of a clear head and cooled blood. The camp had been pitched close under the red wall. A lichen-covered cliff, wet with dripping water, overhung a round pool. A ditch led the water down the ridge to a pond. Cattle stood up to their knees drinking; others lay on the yellow clay, which was packed as hard as stone; still others were climbing the ridge and passing down on both sides.

"You look as if you enjoyed that water," remarked Naab, when Hare presented himself at the fire. "Well, it's good, only a little salty. Seeping Springs this is, and it's mine. This ridge we call The Saddle; you see it dips between wall and mountain and separates two valleys. This valley we go through to-day is where my cattle range. At the other end is Silver Cup Spring, also mine. Keep your eyes open now, my lad."

How different was the beginning of this day! The sky was as blue as the sea; the valley snuggled deep in the embrace of wall and mountain. Hare took a place on the seat beside Naab and faced the descent. The line of Navajos, a graceful straggling curve of color on the trail, led the way for the white-domed wagons.

Naab pointed to a little calf lying half hidden under a bunch of sage. "That's what I hate to see. There's a calf, just born; its mother has gone in for water. Wolves and lions range this valley. We lose hundreds of calves that way."

As far as Hare could see red and white and black cattle speckled the valley.

"If not overstocked, this range is the best in Utah," said Naab. "I say Utah, but it's really Arizona. The Grand Canyon seems to us Mormons to mark the line. There's enough browse here to feed a hundred thousand cattle. But water's the thing. In some seasons the springs go almost dry, though Silver Cup holds her own well enough for my cattle."

Hare marked the tufts of grass lying far apart on the yellow earth; evidently there was sustenance enough in every two feet of ground to support only one tuft.

"What's that?" he asked, noting a rolling cloud of dust with black bobbing borders.

"Wild mustangs," replied Naab. "There are perhaps five thousand on the mountain, and they are getting to be a nuisance. They're almost as bad as sheep on the browse; and I should tell you that if sheep pass over a range once the cattle will starve. The mustangs are getting too plentiful. There are also several bands of wild horses."

"What's the difference between wild horses and mustangs?"

"I haven't figured that out yet. Some say the Spaniards left horses in here three hundred years ago. Wild? They are wilder than any naturally wild animal that ever ran on four legs. Wait till you get a look at Silvermane or Whitefoot."

"What are they?"

"Wild stallions. Silvermane is an iron gray, with a silver mane, the most beautiful horse I ever saw. Whitefoot's an old black shaggy demon, with one white foot. Both stallions ought to be killed. They fight my horses and lead off the mares. I had a chance to shoot Silvermane on the way over this trip, but he looked so splendid that I just laid down my rifle."

"Can they run?" asked Hare eagerly, with the eyes of a man who loved a horse.

"Run? Whew! Just you wait till you see Silvermane cover ground! He can look over his shoulder at you and beat any horse in this country. The Navajos have given up catching him as a bad job. Why--here! Jack! quick, get out your rifle--coyotes!"

Naab pulled on the reins, and pointed to one side. Hare discerned three grayish sharp-nosed beasts sneaking off in the sage, and he reached back for the rifle. Naab whistled, stopping the coyotes; then Hare shot. The ball cut a wisp of dust above and beyond them. They loped away into the sage.

"How that rifle spangs!" exclaimed Naab. "It's good to hear it. Jack, you shot high. That's the trouble with men who have never shot at game. They can't hold low enough. Aim low, lower than you want. Ha! There's another--this side--hold ahead of him and low, quick!--too high again."

It was in this way that August and Hare fell far behind the other wagons. The nearer Naab got to his home the more genial he became. When he was not answering Hare's queries he was giving information of his own accord, telling about the cattle and the range, the mustangs, the Navajos, and the desert. Naab liked to talk; he had said he had not the gift of revelation, but he certainly had the gift of tongues.

The sun was in the west when they began to climb a ridge. A short ascent, and a long turn to the right brought them under a bold spur of the mountain which shut out the northwest. Camp had been pitched in a grove of trees of a species new to Hare. From under a bowlder gushed the sparkling spring, a grateful sight and sound to desert travellers. In a niche of the rock hung a silver cup.

"Jack, no man knows how old this cup is, or anything about it. We named the spring after it--Silver Cup. The strange thing is that the cup has never been lost nor stolen. But--could any desert man, or outlaw, or Indian, take it away, after drinking here?"

The cup was nicked and battered, bright on the sides, moss-green on the bottom. When Hare drank from it he understood.

That evening there was rude merriment around the campfire. Snap Naab buzzed on his jews'-harp and sang. He stirred some of the younger braves to dancing, and they stamped and swung their arms, singing, "hoya-heeya- howya," as they moved in and out of the firelight.

Several of the braves showed great interest in Snap's jews'-harp and repeatedly asked him for it. Finally the Mormon grudgingly lent it to a curious Indian, who in trying to play it went through such awkward motions and made such queer sounds that his companions set upon him and fought for possession of the instrument. Then Snap, becoming solicitous for its welfare, jumped into the fray. They tussled for it amid the clamor of a delighted circle. Snap, passing from jest to earnest, grew so strenuous in his efforts to regain the harp that he tossed the Navajos about like shuttle-cocks. He got the harp and, concealing it, sought to break away. But the braves laid hold upon him, threw him to the ground, and calmly sat astride him while they went through his pockets. August Naab roared his merriment and Hare laughed till he cried. The incident was as surprising to him as it was amusing. These serious Mormons and silent Navajos were capable of mirth.

Hare would have stayed up as late as any of them, but August's saying to him, "Get to bed: to-morrow will be bad!" sent him off to his blankets, where he was soon fast asleep. Morning found him well, hungry, eager to know what the day would bring.

"Wait," said August, soberly.

They rode out of the gray pocket in the ridge and began to climb. Hare had not noticed the rise till they were started, and then, as the horses climbed steadily he grew impatient at the monotonous ascent. There was nothing to see; frequently it seemed that they were soon to reach the summit, but still it rose above them. Hare went back to his comfortable place on the sacks.

"Now, Jack," said August.

Hare gasped. He saw a red world. His eyes seemed bathed in blood. Red scaly ground, bare of vegetation, sloped down, down, far down to a vast irregular rent in the earth, which zigzagged through the plain beneath. To the right it bent its crooked way under the brow of a black-timbered plateau; to the left it straightened its angles to find a V-shaped vent in the wall, now uplifted to a mountain range. Beyond this earth-riven line lay something vast and illimitable, a far-reaching vision of white wastes, of purple plains, of low mesas lost in distance. It was the shimmering dust-veiled desert.

"Here we come to the real thing," explained Naab. "This is Windy Slope; that black line is the Grand Canyon of Arizona; on the other side is the Painted Desert where the Navajos live; Coconina Mountain shows his flat head there to the right, and the wall on our left rises to the Vermillion Cliffs. Now, look while you can, for presently you'll not be able to see."


"Wind, sand, dust, gravel, pebbles--watch out for your eyes!"

Naab had not ceased speaking when Hare saw that the train of Indians trailing down the slope was enveloped in red clouds. Then the white wagons disappeared. Soon he was struck in the back by a gust which justified Naab's warning. It swept by; the air grew clear again; once more he could see. But presently a puff, taking him unawares, filled his eyes with dust difficult of removal. Whereupon he turned his back to the wind.

The afternoon grew apace; the sun glistened on the white patches of Coconina Mountain; it set; and the wind died.

"Five miles of red sand," said Naab. "Here's what kills the horses. Getup."

There was no trail. All before was red sand, hollows, slopes, levels, dunes, in which the horses sank above their fetlocks. The wheels ploughed deep, and little red streams trailed down from the tires. Naab trudged on foot with the reins in his hands. Hare essayed to walk also, soon tired, and floundered behind till Naab ordered him to ride again. Twilight came with the horses still toiling.

"There! thankful I am when we get off that strip! But, Jack, that trailless waste prevents a night raid on my home. Even the Navajos shun it after dark. We'll be home soon. There's my sign. See? Night or day we call it the Blue Star."

High in the black cliff a star-shaped, wind-worn hole let the blue sky through.

There was cheer in Naab's "Getup," now, and the horses quickened with it. Their iron-shod hoofs struck fire from the rosy road. "Easy, easy-- soho!" cried Naab to his steeds. In the pitchy blackness under the shelving cliff they picked their way cautiously, and turned a corner. Lights twinkled in Hare's sight, a fresh breeze, coming from water, dampened his cheek, and a hollow rumble, a long roll as of distant thunder, filled his ears.

"What's that?" he asked.

"That, my lad, is what I always love to hear. It means I'm home. It's the roar of the Colorado as she takes her first plunge into the Canyon."


Return to the The Story of a Bad Boy Summary Return to the Thomas Bailey Aldrich Library

© 2022