The Story of a Bad Boy

by Thomas Bailey Aldrich

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IV. The Oasis

AUGUST NAAB'S oasis was an oval valley, level as a floor, green with leaf and white with blossom, enclosed by a circle of colossal cliffs of vivid vermilion hue. At its western curve the Colorado River split the red walls from north to south. When the wind was west a sullen roar, remote as of some far-off driving mill, filled the valley; when it was east a dreamy hollow hum, a somnolent song, murmured through the cottonwoods; when no wind stirred, silence reigned, a silence not of serene plain or mountain fastness, but shut in, compressed, strange, and breathless. Safe from the storms of the elements as well as of the world was this Garden of Eschtah.

Naab had put Hare to bed on the unroofed porch of a log house, but routed him out early, and when Hare lifted the blankets a shower of cotton-blossoms drifted away like snow. A grove of gray-barked trees spread green canopy overhead, and through the intricate web shone crimson walls, soaring with resistless onsweep up and up to shut out all but a blue lake of sky.

"I want you to see the Navajos cross the river," said Naab.

Hare accompanied him out through the grove to a road that flanked the first rise of the red wall; they followed this for half a mile, and turning a corner came into an unobstructed view. A roar of rushing waters had prepared Hare, but the river that he saw appalled him. It was red and swift; it slid onward like an enormous slippery snake; its constricted head raised a crest of leaping waves, and disappeared in a dark chasm, whence came a bellow and boom.

"That opening where she jumps off is the head of the Grand Canyon," said Naab. "It's five hundred feet deep there, and thirty miles below it's five thousand. Oh, once in, she tears in a hurry! Come, we turn up the bank here."

Hare could find no speech, and he felt immeasurably small. All that he had seen in reaching this isolated spot was dwarfed in comparison. This "Crossing of the Fathers," as Naab called it, was the gateway of the desert. This roar of turbulent waters was the sinister monotone of the mighty desert symphony of great depths, great heights, great reaches.

On a sandy strip of bank the Navajos had halted. This was as far as they could go, for above the wall jutted out into the river. From here the head of the Canyon was not visible, and the roar of the rapids was accordingly lessened in volume. But even in this smooth water the river spoke a warning.

"The Navajos go in here and swim their mustangs across to that sand bar," explained Naab. "The current helps when she's high, and there's a three-foot raise on now."

"I can't believe it possible. What danger they must run--those little mustangs!" exclaimed Hare.

"Danger? Yes, I suppose so," replied Naab, as if it were a new idea. "My lad, the Mormons crossed here by the hundreds. Many were drowned. This trail and crossing were unknown except to Indians before the Mormon exodus."

The mustangs had to be driven into the water. Scarbreast led, and his mustang, after many kicks and reluctant steps, went over his depth, wetting the stalwart chief to the waist. Bare-legged Indians waded in and urged their pack-ponies. Shouts, shrill cries, blows mingled with snorts and splashes.

Dave and George Naab in flat boats rowed slowly on the down-stream side of the Indians. Presently all the mustangs and ponies were in, the procession widening out in a triangle from Scarbreast, the leader. The pack-ponies appeared to swim better than the mounted mustangs, or else the packs of deer-pelts made them more buoyant. When one-third way across the head of the swimming train met the current, and the line of progress broke. Mustang after mustang swept down with a rapidity which showed the power of the current. Yet they swam steadily with flanks shining, tails sometimes afloat, sometimes under, noses up, and riders holding weapons aloft. But the pack-ponies labored when the current struck them, and whirling about, they held back the Indians who were leading them, and blocked those behind. The orderly procession of the start became a broken line, and then a rout. Here and there a Navajo slipped into the water and swam, leading his mustang; others pulled on pack-ponies and beat their mounts; strong-swimming mustangs forged ahead; weak ones hung back, and all obeyed the downward will of the current.

While Hare feared for the lives of some of the Navajos, and pitied the laden ponies, he could not but revel in the scene, in its vivid action and varying color, in the cries and shrill whoops of the Indians, and the snorts of the frightened mustangs, in Naab's hoarse yells to his sons, and the ever-present menacing roar from around the bend. The wildness of it all, the necessity of peril and calm acceptance of it, stirred within Hare the call, the awakening, the spirit of the desert.

August Naab's stentorian voice rolled out over the river. "Ho! Dave--the yellow pinto--pull him loose--George, back this way--there's a pack slipping--down now, downstream, turn that straggler in--Dave, in that tangle--quick! There's a boy drowning-- his foot's caught-- he's been kicked-- Hurry! Hurry!-- pull him in the boat-- There's a pony under-- Too late, George, let that one go-- let him go, I tell you!"

So the crossing of the Navajos proceeded, never an instant free from danger in that churning current. The mustangs and ponies floundered somewhat on the sand-bar and then parted the willows and appeared on a trail skirting the red wall. Dave Naab moored his boat on that side of the river, and returned with George.

"We'll look over my farm," said August, as they retraced their steps. He led Hare through fields of alfalfa, in all stages of growth, explaining that it yielded six crops a year. Into one ten-acre lot pigs and cows had been turned to feed at will. Everywhere the ground was soggy; little streams of water trickled down ditches. Next to the fields was an orchard, where cherries were ripe, apricots already large, plum-trees shedding their blossoms, and apple-trees just opening into bloom. Naab explained that the products of his oasis were abnormal; the ground was exceedingly rich and could be kept always wet; the reflection of the sun from the walls robbed even winter of any rigor, and the spring, summer, and autumn were tropical. He pointed to grape-vines as large as a man's thigh and told of bunches of grapes four feet long; he showed sprouting plants on which watermelons and pumpkins would grow so large that one man could not lift them; he told of one pumpkin that held a record of taking two men to roll it.

"I can raise any kind of fruit in such abundance that it can't be used. My garden is prodigal. But we get little benefit, except for our own use, for we cannot transport things across the desert."

The water which was the prime factor in all this richness came from a small stream which Naab, by making a dam and tunnelling a corner of cliff, had diverted from its natural course into his oasis.

Between the fence and the red wall there was a wide bare plain which stretched to the house. At its farthest end was a green enclosure, which Hare recognized as the cemetery mentioned by Snap. Hare counted thirty graves, a few with crude monuments of stone, the others marked by wooden head-pieces.

"I've the reputation of doctoring the women, and letting the men die," said Naab, with a smile." I hardly think it's fair. But the fact is no women are buried here. Some graves are of men I fished out of the river; others of those who drifted here, and who were killed or died keeping their secrets. I've numbered those unknown graves and have kept a description of the men, so, if the chance ever comes, I may tell some one where a father or brother lies buried. Five sons of mine, not one of whom died a natural death, found graves here--God rest them! Here's the grave of Mescal's father, a Spaniard. He was an adventurer. I helped him over in Nevada when he was ill; he came here with me, got well, and lived nine years, and he died without speaking one word of himself or telling his name."

"What strange ends men come to!" mused Hare. Well, a grave was a grave, wherever it lay. He wondered if he would come to rest in that quiet nook, with its steady light, its simple dignity of bare plain graves fitting the brevity of life, the littleness of man.

"We break wild mustangs along this stretch," said Naab, drawing Hare away. "It's a fine run. Wait till you see Mescal on Black Bolly tearing up the dust! She's a Navajo for riding."

Three huge corrals filled a wide curved space in the wall. In one corral were the teams that had hauled the wagons from White Sage; in another upward of thirty burros, drooping, lazy little fellows half asleep; in the third a dozen or more mustangs and some horses which delighted Hare. Snap Naab's cream pinto, a bay, and a giant horse of mottled white attracted him most.

"Our best stock is out on the range," said Naab. "The white is Charger, my saddle-horse. When he was a yearling he got away and ran wild for three years. But we caught him. He's a weight-carrier and he can run some. You're fond of a horse--I can see that."

"Yes," returned Hare, "but I--I'll never ride again." He said it brightly, smiling the while; still the look in his eyes belied the cheerful resignation.

"I've not the gift of revelation, yet I seem to see you on a big gray horse with a shining mane." Naab appeared to be gazing far away.

The cottonwood grove, at the western curve of the oasis, shaded the five log huts where August's grown sons lived with their wives, and his own cabin, which was of considerable dimensions. It had a covered porch on one side, an open one on the other, a shingle roof, and was a roomy and comfortable habitation.

Naab was pointing out the school-house when he was interrupted by childish laughter, shrieks of glee, and the rush of little feet.

"It's recess-time," he said.

A frantic crowd of tousled-headed little ones were running from the log school-house to form a circle under the trees. There were fourteen of them, from four years of age up to ten or twelve. Such sturdy, glad-eyed children Hare had never seen. In a few moments, as though their happy screams were signals, the shady circle was filled with hounds, and a string of puppies stepping on their long ears, and ruffling turkey-gobblers, that gobbled and gobbled, and guinea-hens with their shrill cries, and cackling chickens, and a lame wild goose that hobbled along alone. Then there were shiny peafowls screeching clarion calls from the trees overhead, and flocks of singing blackbirds, and pigeons hovering over and alighting upon the house. Last to approach were a woolly sheep that added his baa-baa to the din, and a bald-faced burro that walked in his sleep. These two became the centre of clamor. After many tumbles four chubby youngsters mounted the burro; and the others, with loud acclaim, shouting, "Noddle, Noddle, getup! getup!" endeavored to make him go. But Noddle nodded and refused to awaken or budge. Then an ambitious urchin of six fastened his hands in the fur of the sheep and essayed to climb to his back. Willing hands assisted him. "Ride him, Billy, ride him. Getup, Navvy, getup!"

Navvy evidently had never been ridden, for he began a fair imitation of a bucking bronco. Billy held on, but the smile vanished and he corners of his mouth drew down

"Hang on, Billy, hang on," cried August Naab, in delight. Billy hung on a moment longer, and then Navvy, bewildered by the pestering crowd about him, launched out and, butting into Noddle, spilled the four youngsters and Billy also into a wriggling heap.

This recess-time completed Hare's introduction to the Naabs. There were Mother Mary, and Judith and Esther, whom he knew, and Mother Ruth and her two daughters very like their sisters. Mother Ruth, August's second wife, was younger than Mother Mary, more comely of face, and more sad and serious of expression. The wives of the five sons, except Snap Naab's frail bride, were stalwart women, fit to make homes and rear children.

"Now, Jack, things are moving all right," said August. "For the present you must eat and rest. Walk some, but don't tire yourself. We'll practice shooting a little every day; that's one thing I'll spare time for. I've a trick with a gun to teach you. And if you feel able, take a burro and ride. Anyway, make yourself at home."

Hare found eating and resting to be matters of profound enjoyment. Before he had fallen in with these good people it had been a year since he had sat down to a full meal; longer still since he had eaten whole some food. And now he had come to a "land overflowing with milk and honey," as Mother Ruth smilingly said. He could not choose between roast beef and chicken, and so he waived the question by taking both; and what with the biscuits and butter, apple-sauce and blackberry jam, cherry pie and milk like cream, there was danger of making himself ill. He told his friends that he simply could not help it, which shameless confession brought a hearty laugh from August and beaming smiles from his women-folk.

For several days Hare was remarkably well, for an invalid. He won golden praise from August at the rifle practice, and he began to take lessons in the quick drawing and rapid firing of a Colt revolver. Naab was wonderfully proficient in the use of both firearms; and his skill in drawing the smaller weapon, in which his movement was quicker than the eye, astonished Hare. "My lad," said August, "it doesn't follow because I'm a Christian that I don't know how to handle a gun. Besides, I like to shoot."

In these few days Hare learned what conquering the desert made of a man. August Naab was close to threescore years; his chest was wide as a door, his arm like the branch of an oak. He was a blacksmith, a mechanic, a carpenter, a cooper, a potter. At his forge and in his shop, everywhere, were crude tools, wagons, farming implements, sets of buckskin harness, odds and ends of nameless things, eloquent and pregnant proof of the fact that necessity is the mother of invention. He was a mason; the levee that buffeted back the rage of the Colorado in flood, the wall that turned the creek, the irrigation tunnel, the zigzag trail cut on the face of the cliff--all these attested his eye for line, his judgment of distance, his strength in toil. He was a farmer, a cattle man, a grafter of fruit-trees, a breeder of horses, a herder of sheep, a preacher, a physician. Best and strangest of all in this wonderful man was the instinct and the heart to heal. "I don't combat the doctrine of the Mormon church," he said, "but I administer a little medicine with my healing. I learned that from the Navajos." The children ran to him with bruised heads, and cut fingers, and stubbed toes; and his blacksmith's hands were as gentle as a woman's. A mustang with a lame leg claimed his serious attention; a sick sheep gave him an anxious look; a steer with a gored skin sent him running for a bucket of salve. He could not pass by a crippled quail. The farm was overrun by Navajo sheep which he had found strayed and lost on the desert. Anything hurt or helpless had in August Naab a friend. Hare found himself looking up to a great and luminous figure, and he loved this man.

As the days passed Hare learned many other things. For a while illness confined him to his bed on the porch. At night he lay listening to the roar of the river, and watching the stars. Twice he heard a distant crash and rumble, heavy as thunder, and he knew that somewhere along the cliffs avalanches were slipping. By day he watched the cotton snow down upon him, and listened to the many birds, and waited for the merry show at recess-time. After a short time the children grew less shy and came readily to him. They were the most wholesome children he had ever known. Hare wondered about it, and decided it was not so much Mormon teaching as isolation from the world. These children had never been out of their cliff-walled home, and civilization was for them as if it were not. He told them stories, and after school hours they would race to him and climb on his bed, and beg for more.

He exhausted his supply of fairy-stories and animal stories; and had begun to tell about the places and cities which he had visited when the eager-eyed children were peremptorily called within by Mother Mary. This pained him and he was at a loss to understand it. Enlightenment came, however, in the way of an argument between Naab and Mother Mary which he overheard. The elder wife said that the stranger was welcome to the children, but she insisted that they hear nothing of the outside world, and that they be kept to the teachings of the Mormon geography--which made all the world outside Utah an untrodden wilderness. August Naab did not hold to the letter of the Mormon law; he argued that if the children could not be raised as Mormons with a full knowledge of the world, they would only be lost in the end to the Church.

Other developments surprised Hare. The house of this good Mormon was divided against itself. Precedence was given to the first and elder wife--Mother Mary; Mother Ruth's life was not without pain. The men were out on the ranges all day, usually two or more of them for several days at a time, and this left the women alone. One daughter taught the school, the other daughters did all the chores about the house, from feeding the stock to chopping wood. The work was hard, and the girls would rather have been in White Sage or Lund. They disliked Mescal, and said things inspired by jealousy. Snap Naab's wife was vindictive, and called Mescal "that Indian!"

It struck him on hearing this gossip that he had missed Mescal. What had become of her? Curiosity prompting him, he asked little Billy about her.

"Mescal's with the sheep," piped Billy.

That she was a shepherdess pleased Hare, and he thought of her as free on the open range, with the wind blowing her hair.

One day when Hare felt stronger he took his walk round the farm with new zest. Upon his return to the house he saw Snap's cream pinto in the yard, and Dave's mustang cropping the grass near by. A dusty pack lay on the ground. Hare walked down the avenue of cottonwoods and was about to turn the corner of the old forge when he stopped short.

"Now mind you, I'll take a bead on this white-faced spy if you send him up there."

It was Snap Naab's voice, and his speech concluded with the click of teeth characteristic of him in anger.

"Stand there!" August Naab exclaimed in wrath. "Listen. You have been drinking again or you wouldn't talk of killing a man. I warned you. I won't do this thing you ask of me till I have your promise. Why won't you leave the bottle alone?"

"I'll promise," came the sullen reply.

"Very well. Then pack and go across to Bitter Seeps."

"That job'll take all summer," growled Snap.

"So much the better. When you come home I'll keep my promise."

Hare moved away silently; the shock of Snap's first words had kept him fast in his tracks long enough to hear the conversation. Why did Snap threaten him? Where was August Naab going to send him? Hare had no means of coming to an understanding of either question. He was disturbed in mind and resolved to keep out of Snap's way. He went to the orchard, but his stay of an hour availed nothing, for on his return, after threading the maze of cottonwoods, he came face to face with the man he wanted to avoid.

Snap Naab, at the moment of meeting, had a black bottle tipped high above his lips.

With a curse he threw the bottle at Hare, missing him narrowly. He was drunk. His eyes were bloodshot.

"If you tell father you saw me drinking I'll kill you!" he hissed, and rattling his Colt in its holster, he walked away.

Hare walked back to his bed, where he lay for a long time with his whole inner being in a state of strife. It gradually wore off as he strove for calm. The playground was deserted; no one had seen Snap's action, and for that he was glad. Then his attention was diverted by a clatter of ringing hoofs on the road; a mustang and a cloud of dust were approaching.

"Mescal and Black Bolly!" he exclaimed, and sat up quickly. The mustang turned in the gate, slid to a stop, and stood quivering, restive, tossing its thoroughbred head, black as a coal, with freedom and fire in every line. Mescal leaped off lightly. A gray form flashed in at the gate, fell at her feet and rose to leap about her. It was a splendid dog, huge in frame, almost white, wild as the mustang.

This was the Mescal whom he remembered, yet somehow different. The sombre homespun garments had given place to fringed and beaded buckskin.

"I've come for you," she said.

"For me?" he asked, wonderingly, as she approached with the bridle of the black over her arm.

"Down, Wolf!" she cried to the leaping dog. "Yes. Didn't you know? Father Naab says you're to help me tend the sheep. Are you better? I hope so-- You're quite pale."

"I--I'm not so well," said Hare.

He looked up at her, at the black sweep of her hair under the white band, at her eyes, like jet; and suddenly realized, with a gladness new and strange to him, that he liked to look at her, that she was beautiful.


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