The Story of a Bad Boy

by Thomas Bailey Aldrich

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IX. The Scent of Desert-Water

SOON the shepherds were left to a quiet unbroken by the whistle of wild mustangs, the whoop of hunters, the ring of iron-shod hoofs on the stones. The scream of an eagle, the bleating of sheep, the bark of a coyote were once more the only familiar sounds accentuating the silence of the plateau. For Hare, time seemed to stand still. He thought but little; his whole life was a matter of feeling from without. He rose at dawn, never failing to see the red sun tip the eastern crags; he glowed with the touch of cold spring-water and the morning air; he trailed Silvermane under the cedars and thrilled when the stallion, answering his call, thumped the ground with hobbled feet and came his way, learning day by day to be glad at sight of his master. He rode with Mescal behind the flock; he hunted hour by hour, crawling over the fragrant brown mats of cedar, through the sage and juniper, up the grassy slopes. He rode back to camp beside Mescal, drove the sheep, and put Silvermane to his fleetest to beat Black Bolly down the level stretch where once the gray, even with freedom at stake, had lost to the black. Then back to camp and fire and curling blue smoke, a supper that testified to busy Piute's farmward trips, sunset on the rim, endless changing desert, the wind in the cedars, bright stars in the blue, and sleep--so time stood still.

Mescal and Hare were together, or never far apart, from dawn to night. Until the sheep were in the corral, every moment had its duty, from camp-work and care of horses to the many problems of the flock, so that they earned the rest on the rim-wall at sundown. Only a touch of hands bridged the chasm between them. They never spoke of their love, of Mescal's future, of Jack's return to hearth; a glance and a smile, scarcely sad yet not altogether happy, was the substance of their dream. Where Jack had once talked about the canyon and desert, he now seldom spoke at all. From watching Mescal he had learned that to see was enough. But there were moments when some association recalled the past and the strangeness of the present faced him. Then he was wont to question Mescal.

"What are you thinking of?" he asked, curiously, interrupting their silence. She leaned against the rocks and kept a changeless, tranquil, unseeing gaze on the desert. The level eyes were full of thought, of sadness, of mystery; they seemed to look afar.

Then she turned to him with puzzled questioning look and enigmatical reply. "Thinking?" asked her eyes. "I wasn't thinking," were her words.

"I fancied--I don't know exactly what," he went on. "You looked so earnest. Do you ever think of going to the Navajos?"


"Or across that Painted Desert to find some place you seem to know, or see?"


"I don't know why, but, Mescal, sometimes I have the queerest ideas when I catch your eyes watching, watching. You look at once happy and sad. You see something out there that I can't see. Your eyes are haunted. I've a feeling that if I'd look into them I'd see the sun setting, the clouds coloring, the twilight shadows changing; and then back of that the secret of it all--of you--Oh! I can't explain, but it seems so."

"I never had a secret, except the one you know," she answered. "You ask me so often what I think about, and you always ask me when we're here." She was silent for a pause. "I don't think at all till you make me. It's beautiful out there. But that's not what it is to me. I can't tell you. When I sit down here all within me is--is somehow stilled. I watch--and it's different from what it is now, since you've made me think. Then I watch, and I see, that's all."

It came to Hare afterward with a little start of surprise that Mescal's purposeless, yet all-satisfying, watchful gaze had come to be part of his own experience. It was inscrutable to him, but he got from it a fancy, which he tried in vain to dispel, that something would happen to them out there on the desert.

And then he realized that when they returned to the camp-fire they seemed freed from this spell of the desert. The blaze-lit circle was shut in by the darkness; and the immensity of their wild environment, because for the hour it could not be seen, lost its paralyzing effect. Hare fell naturally into a talkative mood. Mescal had developed a vivacity, an ambition which contrasted strongly with her silent moods; she became alive and curious, human like the girls he had known in the East, and she fascinated him the more for this complexity.

The July rains did not come; the mists failed; the dews no longer freshened the grass, and the hot sun began to tell on shepherds and sheep. Both sought the shade. The flowers withered first--all the blue-bells and lavender patches of primrose, and pale-yellow lilies, and white thistle-blossoms. Only the deep magenta of cactus and vermilion of Indian paint-brush, flowers of the sun, survived the heat. Day by day the shepherds scanned the sky for storm-clouds that did not appear. The spring ran lower and lower. At last the ditch that carried water to the corral went dry, and the margin of the pool began to retreat. Then Mescal sent Piute down for August Naab.

He arrived at the plateau the next day with Dave and at once ordered the breaking up of camp.

"It will rain some time," he said, "but we can't wait any longer. Dave, when did you last see the Blue Star waterhole?"

"On the trip in from Silver Cup, ten days ago. The waterhole was full then."

"Will there be water enough now?"

"We've got to chance it. There's no water here, and no springs on the upper range where we can drive sheep; we've got to go round under the Star."

"That's so," replied August. His fears needed confirmation, because his hopes always influenced his judgment till no hope was left. "I wish I had brought Zeke and George. It'll be a hard drive, though we've got Jack and Mescal to help."

Hot as it was August Naab lost no time in the start. Piute led the train on foot, and the flock, used to following him, got under way readily. Dave and Mescal rode along the sides, and August with Jack came behind, with the pack-burros bringing up the rear. Wolf circled them all, keeping the flanks close in, heading the lambs that strayed, and, ever vigilant, made the drive orderly and rapid.

The trail to the upper range was wide and easy of ascent, the first of it winding under crags, the latter part climbing long slopes. It forked before the summit, where dark pine trees showed against the sky, one fork ascending, the other, which Piute took, beginning to go down. It admitted of no extended view, being shut in for the most part on the left, but there were times when Hare could see a curving stream of sheep on half a mile of descending trail. Once started down the flock could not be stopped, that was as plain as Piute's hard task. There were times when Hare could have tossed a pebble on the Indian just below him, yet there were more than three thousand sheep, strung out in line between them. Clouds of dust rolled up, sheets of gravel and shale rattled down the inclines, the clatter, clatter, clatter of little hoofs, the steady baa-baa-baa filled the air. Save for the crowding of lambs off the trail, and a jamming of sheep in the corners, the drive went on without mishap. Hare was glad to see the lambs scramble back bleating for their mothers, and to note that, though peril threatened at every steep turn, the steady down-flow always made space for the sheep behind. He was glad, too, when through a wide break ahead his eye followed the face of a vast cliff down to the red ground below, and he knew the flock would soon be safe on the level.

A blast as from a furnace smote Hare from this open break in the wall. The air was dust-laden, and carried besides the smell of dust and the warm breath of desert growths, a dank odor that was unpleasant.

The sheep massed in a flock on the level, and the drivers spread to their places. The route lay under projecting red cliffs, between the base and enormous sections of wall that had broken off and fallen far out. There was no weathering slope; the wind had carried away the smaller stones and particles, and had cut the huge pieces of pinnacle and tower into hollowed forms. This zone of rim merged into another of strange contrast, the sloping red stream of sand which flowed from the wall of the canyon.

Piute swung the flock up to the left into an amphitheatre, and there halted. The sheep formed a densely packed mass in the curve of the wall. Dave Naab galloped back toward August and Hare, and before he reached them shouted out: "The waterhole's plugged!"

"What?" yelled his father.

"Plugged, filled with stone and sand."

"Was it a cave-in?"

"I reckon not. There's been no rain."

August spurred his roan after Dave, and Hare kept close behind them, till they reined in on a muddy bank. What had once been a waterhole was a red and yellow heap of shale, fragments of stones, gravel, and sand. There was no water, and the sheep were bleating. August dismounted and climbed high above the hole to examine the slope; soon he strode down with giant steps, his huge fists clinched, shaking his gray mane like a lion.

"I've found the tracks! Somebody climbed up and rolled the stones, started the cave-in. Who?"

"Holderness's men. They did the same for Martin Cole's waterhole at Rocky Point. How old are the tracks?"

"Two days, perhaps. We can't follow them. What can be done?"

"Some of Holderness's men are Mormons, and others are square fellows. They wouldn't stand for such work as this, and somebody ought to ride in there and tell them."

"And get shot up by the men paid to do the dirty work. No. I won't hear of it. This amounts to nothing; we seldom use this hole, only twice a year when driving the flock. But it makes me fear for Silver Cup and Seeping Springs."

"It makes me fear for the sheep, if this wind doesn't change."

"Ah! I had forgotten the river scent. It's not strong to-night. We might venture if it wasn't for the strip of sand. We'll camp here and start the drive at dawn."

The sun went down under a crimson veil; a dull glow spread, fan-shaped, upward; twilight faded to darkness with the going down of the wind. August Naab paced to and fro before his tired and thirsty flock.

"I'd like to know," said Hare to Dave, "why those men filled up this waterhole."

"Holderness wants to cut us off from Silver Cup Spring, and this was a half-way waterhole. Probably he didn't know we had the sheep upland, but he wouldn't have cared. He's set himself to get our cattle range and he'll stop at nothing. Prospects look black for us. Father never gives up. He doesn't believe yet that we can lose our water. He prays and hopes, and sees good and mercy in his worst enemies."

"If Holderness works as far as Silver Cup, how will he go to work to steal another man's range and water?"

"He'll throw up a cabin, send in his men, drive in ten thousand steers."

"Well, will his men try to keep you away from your own water, or your cattle?"

"Not openly. They'll pretend to welcome us, and drive our cattle away in our absence. You see there are only five of us to ride the ranges, and we'd need five times five to watch all the stock."

"Then you can't stop this outrage?"

"There's only one way," said Dave, significantly tapping the black handle of his Colt. "Holderness thinks he pulls the wool over our eyes by talking of the cattle company that employs him. He's the company himself, and he's hand and glove with Dene."

"And I suppose, if your father and you boys were to ride over to Holderness's newest stand, and tell him to get off there would be a fight."

"We'd never reach him now, that is, if we went together. One of us alone might get to see him, especially in White Sage. If we all rode over to his ranch we'd have to fight his men before we reached the corrals. You yourself will find it pretty warm when you go out with us on the ranges, and if you make White Sage you'll find it hot. You're called 'Dene's spy' there, and the rustlers are still looking for you. I wouldn't worry about it, though."

"Why not, I'd like to know?" inquired Hare, with a short laugh.

"Well, if you're like the other Gentiles who have come into Utah you won't have scruples about drawing on a man. Father says the draw comes natural to you, and you're as quick as he is. Then he says you can beat any rifle shot he ever saw, and that long-barrelled gun you've got will shoot a mile. So if it comes to shooting--why, you can shoot. If you want to run--who's going to catch you on that white-maned stallion? We talked about you, George and I; we're mighty glad you're well and can ride with us."

Long into the night Jack Hare thought over this talk. It opened up a vista of the range-life into which he was soon to enter. He tried to silence the voice within that cried out, eager and reckless, for the long rides on the windy open. The years of his illness returned in fancy, the narrow room with the lamp and the book, and the tears over stories and dreams of adventure never to be for such as he. And now how wonderful was life! It was, after all, to be full for him. It was already full. Already he slept on the ground, open to the sky. He looked up at a wild black cliff, mountain-high, with its windworn star of blue; he felt himself on the threshold of the desert, with that subtle mystery waiting; he knew himself to be close to strenuous action on the ranges, companion of these sombre Mormons, exposed to their peril, making their cause his cause, their life his life. What of their friendship, their confidence? Was he worthy? Would he fail at the pinch? What a man he must become to approach their simple estimate of him! Because he had found health and strength, because he could shoot, because he had the fleetest horse on the desert, were these reasons for their friendship? No, these were only reasons for their trust. August Naab loved him. Mescal loved him; Dave and George made of him a brother. "They shall have my life," he muttered.

The bleating of the sheep heralded another day. With the brightening light began the drive over the sand. Under the cliff the shade was cool and fresh; there was no wind; the sheep made good progress. But the broken line of shade crept inward toward the flock, and passed it. The sun beat down, and the wind arose. A red haze of fine sand eddied about the toiling sheep and shepherds. Piute trudged ahead leading the king-ram, old Socker, the leader of the flock; Mescal and Hare rode at the right, turning their faces from the sand-filled puffs of wind; August and Dave drove behind; Wolf, as always, took care of the stragglers. An hour went by without signs of distress; and with half the five-mile trip at his back August Naab's voice gathered cheer. The sun beat hotter. Another hour told a different story--the sheep labored; they had to be forced by urge of whip, by knees of horses, by Wolf's threatening bark. They stopped altogether during the frequent hot sand-blasts, and could not be driven. So time dragged. The flock straggled out to a long irregular line; rams refused to budge till they were ready; sheep lay down to rest; lambs fell. But there was an end to the belt of sand, and August Naab at last drove the lagging trailers out upon the stony bench.

The sun was about two hours past the meridian; the red walls of the desert were closing in; the V-shaped split where the Colorado cut through was in sight. The trail now was wide and unobstructed and the distance short, yet August Naab ever and anon turned to face the canyon and shook his head in anxious foreboding.

It quickly dawned upon Hare that the sheep were behaving in a way new and singular to him. They packed densely now, crowding forward, many raising their heads over the haunches of others and bleating. They were not in their usual calm pattering hurry, but nervous, excited, and continually facing west toward the canyon, noses up.

On the top of the next little ridge Hare heard Silvermane snort as he did when led to drink. There was a scent of water on the wind. Hare caught it, a damp, muggy smell. The sheep had noticed it long before, and now under its nearer, stronger influence began to bleat wildly, to run faster, to crowd without aim.

"There's work ahead. Keep them packed and going. Turn the wheelers," ordered August.

What had been a drive became a flight. And it was well so long as the sheep headed straight up the trail. Piute had to go to the right to avoid being run down. Mescal rode up to fill his place. Hare took his cue from Dave, and rode along the flank, crowding the sheep inward. August cracked his whip behind. For half a mile the flock kept to the trail, then, as if by common consent, they sheered off to the right. With this move August and Dave were transformed from quiet almost to frenzy. They galloped to the fore, and into the very faces of the turning sheep, and drove them back. Then the rear-guard of the flock curved outward.

"Drive them in!" roared August.

Hare sent Silvermane at the deflecting sheep and frightened them into line.

Wolf no longer had power to chase the stragglers; they had to be turned by a horse. All along the flank noses pointed outward; here and there sheep wilder than the others leaped forward to lead a widening wave of bobbing woolly backs. Mescal engaged one point, Hare another, Dave another, and August Naab's roan thundered up and down the constantly broken line. All this while as the shepherds fought back the sheep, the flight continued faster eastward, farther canyonward. Each side gained, but the flock gained more toward the canyon than the drivers gained toward the oasis.

By August's hoarse yells, by Dave's stern face and ceaseless swift action, by the increasing din, Hare knew terrible danger hung over the flock; what it was he could not tell. He heard the roar of the river rapids, and it seemed that the sheep heard it with him. They plunged madly; they had gone wild from the scent and sound of water. Their eyes gleamed red; their tongues flew out. There was no aim to the rush of the great body of sheep, but they followed the leaders and the leaders followed the scent. And the drivers headed them off, rode them down, ceaselessly, riding forward to check one outbreak, wheeling backward to check another.

The flight became a rout. Hare was in the thick of dust and din, of the terror-stricken jumping mob, of the ever-starting, ever-widening streams of sheep; he rode and yelled and fired his Colt. The dust choked him, the sun burned him, the flying pebbles cut his cheek. Once he had a glimpse of Black Bolly in a melee of dust and sheep; Dave's mustang blurred in his sight; August's roan seemed to be double. Then Silvermane, of his own accord, was out before them all.

The sheep had almost gained the victory; their keen noses were pointed toward the water; nothing could stop their flight; but still the drivers dashed at them, ever fighting, never wearying, never ceasing.

At the last incline, where a gentle slope led down to a dark break in the desert, the rout became a stampede. Left and right flanks swung round, the line lengthened, and round the struggling horses, knee-deep in woolly backs, split the streams to flow together beyond in one resistless river of sheep. Mescal forced Bolly out of danger; Dave escaped the right flank, August and Hare swept on with the flood, till the horses, sighting the dark canyon, halted to stand like rocks.

"Will they run over the rim ?" yelled Hare, horrified. His voice came to him as a whisper. August Naab, sweat-stained in red dust, haggard, gray locks streaming in the wind, raised his arms above his head, hopeless.

The long nodding line of woolly forms, lifting like the crest of a yellow wave, plunged out and down in rounded billow over the canyon rim. With din of hoofs and bleats the sheep spilled themselves over the precipice, and an awful deafening roar boomed up from the river, like the spreading thunderous crash of an avalanche.

How endless seemed that fatal plunge! The last line of sheep, pressing close to those gone before, and yet impelled by the strange instinct of life, turned their eyes too late on the brink, carried over by their own momentum.

The sliding roar ceased; its echo, muffled and hollow, pealed from the cliffs, then rumbled down the canyon to merge at length in the sullen, dull, continuous sound of the rapids.

Hare turned at last from that narrow iron-walled cleft, the depth of which he had not seen, and now had no wish to see; and his eyes fell upon a little Navajo lamb limping in the trail of the flock, headed for the canyon, as sure as its mother in purpose. He dismounted and seized it to find, to his infinite wonder and gladness, that it wore a string and bell round its neck. It was Mescal's pet.


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