PIUTE'S Indian sense of the advantage of position in attack stood Jack in good stead; he led him up the ledge which overhung one end of the corral. In the pale starlight the sheep could be seen running in bands, massing together, crowding the fence; their cries made a deafening din.
The Indian shouted, but Jack could not understand him. A large black object was visible in the shade of the ledge. Piute fired his carbine. Before Jack could bring his rifle up the black thing moved into startlingly rapid flight. Then spouts of red flame illumined the corral. As he shot, Jack got fleeting glimpses of the bear moving like a dark streak against a blur of white. For all he could tell no bullet took effect.
When certain that the visitor had departed Jack descended into the corral. He and Piute searched for dead sheep, but, much to their surprise, found none. If the grizzly had killed one he must have taken it with him; and estimating his strength from the gap he had broken in the fence, he could easily have carried off a sheep. They repaired the break and returned to camp.
"He's gone, Mescal. Come down," called Jack into the cedar. "Let me help you--there! Wasn't it lucky? He wasn't so brave. Either the flashes from the guns or the dog scared him. I was amazed to see how fast he could run."
Piute found woolly brown fur hanging from Wolf's jaws.
"He nipped the brute, that's sure," said Jack. "Good dog! Maybe he kept the bear from-- Why Mescal! you're white--you're shaking. There's no danger. Piute and I'll take turns watching with Wolf."
Mescal went silently into her tent.
The sheep quieted down and made no further disturbance that night. The dawn broke gray, with a cold north wind. Dun-colored clouds rolled up, hiding the tips of the crags on the upper range, and a flurry of snow whitened the cedars. After breakfast Jack tried to get Wolf to take the track of the grizzly, but the scent had cooled.
Next day Mescal drove the sheep eastward toward the crags, and about the middle of the afternoon reached the edge of the slope. Grass grew luxuriantly and it was easy to keep the sheep in. Moreover, that part of the forest had fewer trees, and scarcely any sage or thickets, so that the lambs were safer, barring danger which might lurk in the seamed and cracked cliffs overshadowing the open grassy plots. Piute's task at the moment was to drag dead coyotes to the rim, near at hand, and throw them over. Mescal rested on a stone, and Wolf reclined at her feet.
Jack presently found a fresh deer track, and trailed it into the cedars, then up the slope to where the huge rocks massed.
Suddenly a cry from Mescal halted him; another, a piercing scream of mortal fright, sent him flying down the slope. He bounded out of the cedars into the open.
The white, well-bunched flock had spread, and streams of jumping sheep fled frantically from an enormous silver-backed bear.
As the bear struck right and left, a brute-engine of destruction, Jack sent a bullet into him at long range. Stung, the grizzly whirled, bit at his side, and then reared with a roar of fury.
But he did not see Jack. He dropped down and launched his huge bulk for Mescal. The blood rushed back to Jack's heart, and his empty veins seemed to freeze.
The grizzly hurdled the streams of sheep. Terror for Mescal dominated Jack; if he had possessed wings he could not have flown quickly enough to head the bear. Checking himself with a suddenness that fetched him to his knees, he levelled the rifle. It waved as if it were a stick of willow. The bead-sight described a blurred curve round the bear. Yet he shot--in vain--again--in vain.
Above the bleat of sheep and trample of many hoofs rang out Mescal's cry, despairing.
She had turned, her hands over her breast. Wolf spread his legs before her and crouched to spring, mane erect, jaws wide.
By some lightning flash of memory, August Naab's words steadied Jack's shaken nerves. He aimed low and ahead of the running bear. Down the beast went in a sliding sprawl with a muffled roar of rage. Up he sprang, dangling a useless leg, yet leaping swiftly forward. One blow sent the attacking dog aside. Jack fired again. The bear became a wrestling, fiery demon, death-stricken, but full of savage fury. Jack aimed low and shot again.
Slowly now the grizzly reared, his frosted coat blood-flecked, his great head swaying. Another shot. There was one wide sweep of the huge paw, and then the bear sank forward, drooping slowly, and stretched all his length as if to rest.
Mescal, recalled to life, staggered backward. Between her and the outstretched paw was the distance of one short stride.
Jack, bounding up, made sure the bear was dead before he looked at Mescal. She was faint. Wolf whined about her. Piute came running from the cedars. Her eyes were still fixed in a look of fear.
"I couldn't run--I couldn't move," she said, shuddering. A blush drove the white from her cheeks as she raised her face to Jack. "He'd soon have reached me."
Piute added his encomium: "Damn--heap big bear-- Jack kill um--big chief!"
Hare laughed away his own fear and turned their attention to the stampeded sheep. It was dark before they got the flock together again, and they never knew whether they had found them all. Supper-time was unusually quiet that night. Piute was jovial, but no one appeared willing to talk save the peon, and he could only grimace. The reaction of feeling following Mescal's escape had robbed Jack of strength of voice; he could scarcely whisper. Mescal spoke no word; her black lashes hid her eyes; she was silent, but there was that in her silence which was eloquent. Wolf, always indifferent save to Mescal, reacted to the subtle change, and as if to make amends laid his head on Jack's knees. The quiet hour round the camp-fire passed, and sleep claimed them. Another day dawned, awakening them fresh, faithful to their duties, regardless of what had gone before.
So the days slipped by. June came, with more leisure for the shepherds, better grazing for the sheep, heavier dews, lighter frosts, snow-squalls half rain, and bursting blossoms on the prickly thorns, wild-primrose patches in every shady spot, and bluebells lifting wan azure faces to the sun.
The last snow-storm of June threatened all one morning; hung menacing over the yellow crags, in dull lead clouds waiting for the wind. Then like ships heaving anchor to a single command they sailed down off the heights; and the cedar forest became the centre of a blinding, eddying storm. The flakes were as large as feathers, moist, almost warm. The low cedars changed to mounds of white; the sheep became drooping curves of snow; the little lambs were lost in the color of their own pure fleece. Though the storm had been long in coming it was brief in passing. Wind-driven toward the desert, it moaned its last in the cedars, and swept away, a sheeted pall. Out over the Canyon it floated, trailing long veils of white that thinned out, darkened, and failed far above the golden desert. The winding columns of snow merged into straight lines of leaden rain; the rain flowed into vapory mist, and the mist cleared in the gold-red glare of endless level and slope. No moisture reached the parched desert.
Jack marched into camp with a snowy burden over his shoulder. He flung it down, disclosing a small deer; then he shook the white mantle from his coat, and whistling, kicked the fire-logs, and looked abroad at the silver cedars, now dripping under the sun, at the rainbows in the settling mists, at the rapidly melting snow on the ground.
"Got lost in that squall. Fine! Fine!" he exclaimed, and threw wide his arms.
"Jack!" said Mescal. "Jack!" Memory had revived some forgotten thing. The dark olive of her skin crimsoned; her eyes dilated and shadowed with a rare change of emotion.
"Jack," she repeated.
"Well?" he replied, in surprise.
"To look at you!--I never dreamed--I'd forgotten--"
"What's the matter with me?" demanded Jack.
Wonderingly, her mind on the past, she replied: "You were dying when we found you at White Sage."
He drew himself up with a sharp catch in his breath, and stared at her as if he saw a ghost.
"Oh--Jack! You're going to get well!"
Her lips curved in a smile.
For an instant Jack Hare spent his soul in searching her face for truth. While waiting for death he had utterly forgotten it; he remembered now, when life gleamed in the girl's dark eyes. Passionate joy flooded his heart.
"Mescal--Mescal!" he cried, brokenly. The eyes were true that shed this sudden light on him; glad and sweet were the lips that bade him hope and live again. Blindly, instinctively he kissed them--a kiss unutterably grateful; then he fled into the forest, running without aim.
That flight ended in sheer exhaustion on the far rim of the plateau. The spreading cedars seemed to have eyes; and he shunned eyes in this hour. "God! to think I cared so much," he whispered. "What has happened?" With time relief came to limbs, to labored breast and lungs, but not to mind. In doubt that would not die, he looked at himself. The leanness of arms, the flat chest, the hollows were gone. He did not recognize his own body. He breathed to the depths of his lungs. No pain--only ex- hilaration! He pounded his chest--no pain! He dug his trembling fingers into the firm flesh over the apex of his right lung--the place of his torture--no pain!
"I wanted to live!" he cried. He buried his face in the fragrant juniper; he rolled on the soft brown mat of earth and hugged it close; he cooled his hot cheeks in the primrose clusters. He opened his eyes to new bright green of cedar, to sky of a richer blue, to a desert, strange, beckoning, enthralling as life itself. He counted backward a month, two months, and marvelled at the swiftness of time. He counted time forward, he looked into the future, and all was beautiful--long days, long hunts, long rides, service to his friend, freedom on the wild steppes, blue-white dawns upon the eastern crags, red-gold sunsets over the lilac mountains of the desert. He saw himself in triumphant health and strength, earning day by day the spirit of this wilderness, coming to fight for it, to live for it, and in far-off time, when he had won his victory, to die for it.
Suddenly his mind was illumined. The lofty plateau with its healing breath of sage and juniper had given back strength to him; the silence and solitude and strife of his surroundings had called to something deep within him; but it was Mescal who made this wild life sweet and significant. It was Mescal, the embodiment of the desert spirit. Like a man facing a great light Hare divined his love. Through all the days on the plateau, living with her the natural free life of Indians, close to the earth, his unconscious love had ripened. He understood now her charm for him; he knew now the lure of her wonderful eyes, flashing fire, desert-trained, like the falcon eyes of her Indian grandfather. The knowledge of what she had become to him dawned with a mounting desire that thrilled all his blood.
Twilight had enfolded the plateau when Hare traced his way back to camp. Mescal was not there. His supper awaited him; Piute hummed a song; the peon sat grimacing at the fire. Hare told them to eat, and moved away toward the rim.
Mescal was at her favorite seat, with the white dog beside her; and she watched the desert where the last glow of sunset gilded the mesas. How cold and calm was her face! How strange to him in this new character!
"Mescal, I didn't know I loved you--then--but I know it now."
Her face dropped quickly from its level poise, hiding the brooding eyes; her hand trembled on Wolf's head.
"You spoke the truth. I'll get well. I'd rather have had it from your lips than from any in the world. I mean to live my life here where these wonderful things have come to me. The friendship of the good man who saved me, this wild, free desert, the glory of new hope, strength, life-- and love."
He took her hand in his and whispered, "For I love you. Do you care for me? Mescal! It must be complete. Do you care--a little?"
The wind blew her dusky hair; he could not see her face; he tried gently to turn her to him. The hand he had taken lay warm and trembling in his, but it was not withdrawn. As he waited, in fear, in hope, it became still. Her slender form, rigid within his arm, gradually relaxed, and yielded to him; her face sank on his breast, and her dark hair loosened from its band, covered her, and blew across his lips. That was his answer.
The wind sang in the cedars. No longer a sigh, sad as thoughts of a past forever flown, but a song of what had come to him, of hope, of life, of Mescal's love, of the things to be!