TOWARD the close of the next day Jack Hare arrived at Seeping Springs. A pile of gray ashes marked the spot where the trimmed logs had lain. Round the pool ran a black circle hard packed into the ground by many hoofs. Even the board flume had been burned to a level with the glancing sheet of water. Hare was slipping Silvermane's bit to let him drink when he heard a halloo. Dave Naab galloped out of the cedars, and presently August Naab and his other sons appeared with a pack-train.
"Now you've played bob!" exclaimed Dave. He swung out of his saddle and gripped Hare with both hands. "I know what you've done; I know where you've been. Father will be furious, but don't you care."
The other Naabs trotted down the slope and lined their horses before the pool. The sons stared in blank astonishment; the father surveyed the scene slowly, and then fixed wrathful eyes on Hare.
"What does this mean?" he demanded, with the sonorous roll of his angry voice.
Hare told all that had happened.
August Naab's gloomy face worked, and his eagle-gaze had in it a strange far-seeing light; his mind was dwelling upon his mystic power of revelation.
"I see--I see," he said haltingly.
"Ki--yi-i-i!" yelled Dave Naab with all the power of his lungs. His head was back, his mouth wide open, his face red, his neck corded and swollen with the intensity of his passion.
"Be still--boy!" ordered his father. "Hare, this was madness--but tell me what you learned."
Briefly Hare repeated all that he had been told at the Bishop's, and concluded with the killing of Martin Cole by Dene.
August Naab bowed his head and his giant frame shook under the force of his emotion. Martin Cole was the last of his life-long friends.
"This--this outlaw--you say you ran him down?" asked Naab, rising haggard and shaken out of his grief.
"Yes. He didn't recognize me or know what was coming till Silvermane was on him. But he was quick, and fell sidewise. Silvermane's knee sent him sprawling."
"What will it all lead to?" asked August Naab, and in his extremity he appealed to his eldest son.
"The bars are down," said Snap Naab, with a click of his long teeth.
"Father," began Dave Naab earnestly, "Jack has done a splendid thing. The news will fly over Utah like wildfire. Mormons are slow. They need a leader. But they can follow and they will. We can't cure these evils by hoping and praying. We've got to fight!"
"Dave's right, dad, it means fight," cried George, with his fist clinched high.
"You've been wrong, father, in holding back," said Zeke Naab, his lean jaw bulging. "This Holderness will steal the water and meat out of our children's mouths. We've got to fight!"
"Let's ride to White Sage," put in Snap Naab, and the little flecks in his eyes were dancing. "I'll throw a gun on Dene. I can get to him. We've been tolerable friends. He's wanted me to join his band. I'll kill him."
He laughed as he raised his right hand and swept it down to his left side; the blue Colt lay on his outstretched palm. Dene's life and Holderness's, too, hung in the balance between two deadly snaps of this desert-wolf's teeth. He was one of the Naabs, and yet apart from them, for neither religion, nor friendship, nor life itself mattered to him.
August Naab's huge bulk shook again, not this time with grief, but in wrestling effort to withstand the fiery influence of this unholy fighting spirit among his sons.
"I am forbidden."
His answer was gentle, but its very gentleness breathed of his battle over himself, of allegiance to something beyond earthly duty. "We'll drive the cattle to Silver Cup," he decided, "and then go home. I give up Seeping Springs. Perhaps this valley and water will content Holderness."
When they reached the oasis Hare was surprised to find that it was the day before Christmas. The welcome given the long-absent riders was like a celebration. Much to Hare's disappointment Mescal did not appear; the homecoming was not joyful to him because it lacked her welcoming smile.
Christmas Day ushered in the short desert winter; ice formed in the ditches and snow fell, but neither long resisted the reflection of the sun from the walls. The early morning hours were devoted to religious services. At midday dinner was served in the big room of August Naab's cabin. At one end was a stone fireplace where logs blazed and crackled.
In all his days Hare had never seen such a bountiful board. Yet he was unable to appreciate it, to share in the general thanksgiving. Dominating all other feeling was the fear that Mescal would come in and take a seat by Snap Naab's side. When Snap seated himself opposite with his pale little wife Hare found himself waiting for Mescal with an intensity that made him dead to all else. The girls, Judith, Esther, Rebecca, came running gayly in, clad in their best dresses, with bright ribbons to honor the occasion. Rebecca took the seat beside Snap, and Hare gulped with a hard contraction of his throat. Mescal was not yet a Mormon's wife! He seemed to be lifted upward, to grow light-headed with the blessed assurance. Then Mescal entered and took the seat next to him. She smiled and spoke, and the blood beat thick in his ears.
That moment was happy, but it was as nothing to its successor. Under the table-cover Mescal's hand found his, and pressed it daringly and gladly. Her hand lingered in his all the time August Naab spent in carving the turkey--lingered there even though Snap Naab's hawk eyes were never far away. In the warm touch of her hand, in some subtle thing that radiated from her Hare felt a change in the girl he loved. A few months had wrought in her some indefinable difference, even as they had increased his love to its full volume and depth. Had his absence brought her to the realization of her woman's heart?
In the afternoon Hare left the house and spent a little while with Silvermane; then he wandered along the wall to the head of the oasis, and found a seat on the fence. The next few weeks presented to him a situation that would be difficult to endure. He would be near Mescal, but only to have the truth forced cruelly home to him every sane moment-- that she was not for him. Out on the ranges he had abandoned himself to dreams of her; they had been beautiful; they had made the long hours seem like minutes; but they had forged chains that could not be broken, and now he was hopelessly fettered.
The clatter of hoofs roused him from a reverie which was half sad, half sweet. Mescal came tearing down the level on Black Bolly. She pulled in the mustang and halted beside Hare to hold out shyly a red scarf embroidered with Navajo symbols in white and red beads.
"I've wanted a chance to give you this," she said, "a little Christmas present."
For a few seconds Hare could find no words.
"Did you make it for me, Mescal?" he finally asked. "How good of you! I'll keep it always."
"Put it on now--let me tie it--there!"
"But, child. Suppose he--they saw it?"
"I don't care who sees it."
She met him with clear, level eyes. Her curt, crisp speech was full of meaning. He looked long at her, with a yearning denied for many a day. Her face was the same, yet wonderfully changed; the same in line and color, but different in soul and spirit. The old sombre shadow lay deep in the eyes, but to it had been added gleam of will and reflection of thought. The whole face had been refined and transformed.
"Mescal! What's happened? You're not the same. You seem almost happy. Have you--has he--given you up?"
"Don't you know Mormons better than that? The thing is the same--so far as they're concerned."
"But Mescal--are you going to marry him? For God's sake, tell me."
"Never." It was a woman's word, instant, inflexible, desperate. With a deep breath Hare realized where the girl had changed.
"Still you're promised, pledged to him! How'll you get out of it?"
"I don't know how. But I'll cut out my tongue, and be dumb as my poor peon before I'll speak the word that'll make me Snap Naab's wife."
There was a long silence. Mescal smoothed out Bolly's mane, and Hare gazed up at the walls with eyes that did not see them.
Presently he spoke. "I'm afraid for you. Snap watched us to-day at dinner."
"Suppose he sees this scarf?"
Mescal laughed defiantly. It was bewildering for Hare to hear her.
"He'll--Mescal, I may yet come to this." Hare's laugh echoed Mescal's as he pointed to the enclosure under the wall, where the graves showed bare and rough.
Her warm color fled, but it flooded back, rich, mantling brow and cheek and neck.
"Snap Naab will never kill you," she said impulsively.
She swiftly turned her face away as his hand closed on hers.
"Mescal, do you love me?"
The trembling of her fingers and the heaving of her bosom lent his hope conviction. "Mescal," he went on, "these past months have been years, years of toiling, thinking, changing, but always loving. I'm not the man you knew. I'm wild-- I'm starved for a sight of you. I love you! Mescal, my desert flower!"
She raised her free hand to his shoulder and swayed toward him. He held her a moment, clasped tight, and then released her.
"I'm quite mad!" he exclaimed, in a passion of self-reproach. "What a risk I'm putting on you! But I couldn't help it. Look at me-- Just once--please-- Mescal, just one look. . . . Now go."
The drama of the succeeding days was of absorbing interest. Hare had liberty; there was little work for him to do save to care for Silvermane. He tried to hunt foxes in the caves and clefts; he rode up and down the broad space under the walls; he sought the open desert only to be driven in by the bitter, biting winds. Then he would return to the big living-room of the Naabs and sit before the burning logs. This spacious room was warm, light, pleasant, and was used by every one in leisure hours. Mescal spent most of her time there. She was engaged upon a new frock of buckskin, and over this she bent with her needle and beads. When there was a chance Hare talked with her, speaking one language with his tongue, a far different one with his eyes. When she was not present he looked into the glowing red fire and dreamed of her.
In the evenings when Snap came in to his wooing and drew Mescal into a corner, Hare watched with covert glance and smouldering jealousy. Somehow he had come to see all things and all people in the desert glass, and his symbol for Snap Garb was the desert-hawk. Snap's eyes were as wild and piercing as those of a hawk; his nose and mouth were as the beak of a hawk; his hands resembled the claws of a hawk; and the spurs he wore, always bloody, were still more significant of his ruthless nature. Then Snap's courting of the girl, the cool assurance, the unhastening ease, were like the slow rise, the sail, and the poise of a desert-hawk before the downward lightning-swift swoop on his quarry.
It was intolerable for Hare to sit there in the evenings, to try to play with the children who loved him, to talk to August Naab when his eye seemed ever drawn to the quiet couple in the corner, and his ear was unconsciously strained to catch a passing word. That hour was a miserable one for him, yet he could not bring himself to leave the room. He never saw Snap touch her; he never heard Mescal's voice; he believed that she spoke very little. When the hour was over and Mescal rose to pass to her room, then his doubt, his fear, his misery, were as though they had never been, for as Mescal said good-night she would give him one look, swift as a flash, and in it were womanliness and purity, and some- thing beyond his comprehension. Her Indian serenity and mysticism veiled yet suggested some secret, some power by which she might yet escape the iron band of this Mormon rule. Hare could not fathom it. In that good-night glance was a meaning for him alone, if meaning ever shone in woman's eyes, and it said: "I will be true to you and to myself!"
Once the idea struck him that as soon as spring returned it would be an easy matter, and probably wise, for him to leave the oasis and go up into Utah, far from the desert-canyon country. But the thought refused to stay before his consciousness a moment. New life had flushed his veins here. He loved the dreamy, sleepy oasis with its mellow sunshine always at rest on the glistening walls; he loved the cedar-scented plateau where hope had dawned, and the wind-swept sand-strips, where hard out-of-door life and work had renewed his wasting youth; he loved the canyon winding away toward Coconina, opening into wide abyss; and always, more than all, he loved the Painted Desert, with its ever-changing pictures, printed in sweeping dust and bare peaks and purple haze. He loved the beauty of these places, and the wildness in them had an affinity with something strange and untamed in him. He would never leave them. When his blood had cooled, when this tumultuous thrill and swell had worn themselves out, happiness would come again.
Early in the winter Snap Naab had forced his wife to visit his father's house with him; and she had remained in the room, white-faced, passionately jealous, while he wooed Mescal. Then had come a scene. Hare had not been present, but he knew its results. Snap had been furious, his father grave, Mescal tearful and ashamed. The wife found many ways to interrupt her husband's lovemaking. She sent the children for him; she was taken suddenly ill; she discovered that the corral gate was open and his cream-colored pinto, dearest to his heart, was running loose; she even set her cottage on fire.
One Sunday evening just before twilight Hare was sitting on the porch with August Naab and Dave, when their talk was interrupted by Snap's loud calling for his wife. At first the sounds came from inside his cabin. Then he put his head out of a window and yelled. Plainly he was both impatient and angry. It was nearly time for him to make his Sunday call upon Mescal.
"Something's wrong," muttered Dave.
"Hester! Hester!" yelled Snap.
Mother Ruth came out and said that Hester was not there.
"Where is she?" Snap banged on the window-sill with his fists. "Find her, somebody--Hester!"
"Son, this is the Sabbath," called Father Naab, gravely. "Lower your voice. Now what's the matter?"
"Matter!" bawled Snap, giving way to rage. "When I was asleep Hester stole all my clothes. She's hid them--she's run off--there's not a d--n thing for me to put on! I'll--"
The roar of laughter from August and Dave drowned the rest of the speech. Hare managed to stifle his own mirth. Snap pulled in his head and slammed the window shut.
"Jack," said August, "even among Mormons the course of true love never runs smooth."
Hare finally forgot his bitter humor in pity for the wife. Snap came to care not at all for her messages and tricks, and he let nothing interfere with his evening beside Mescal. It was plain that he had gone far on the road of love. Whatever he had been in the beginning of the betrothal, he was now a lover, eager, importunate. His hawk's eyes were softer than Hare had ever seen them; he was obliging, kind, gay, an altogether different Snap Naab. He groomed himself often, and wore clean scarfs, and left off his bloody spurs. For eight months he had not touched the bottle. When spring approached he was madly in love with Mescal. And the marriage was delayed because his wife would not have another woman in her home.
Once Hare heard Snap remonstrating with his father.
"If she don't come to time soon I'll keep the kids and send her back to her father."
"Don't be hasty, son. Let her have time," replied August. "Women must be humored. I'll wager she'll give in before the cottonwood blows, and that's not long."
It was Hare's habit, as the days grew warmer, to walk a good deal, and one evening, as twilight shadowed the oasis and grew black under the towering walls, he strolled out toward the fields. While passing Snap's cottage Hare heard a woman's voice in passionate protest and a man's in strident anger. Later as he stood with his arm on Silvermane, a woman's scream, at first high-pitched, then suddenly faint and smothered, caused him to grow rigid, and his hand clinched tight. When he went back by the cottage a low moaning confirmed his suspicion.
That evening Snap appeared unusually bright and happy; and he asked his father to name the day for the wedding. August did so in a loud voice and with evident relief. Then the quaint Mormon congratulations were offered to Mescal. To Hare, watching the strange girl with the distressingly keen intuition of an unfortunate lover, she appeared as pleased as any of them that the marriage was settled. But there was no shyness, no blushing confusion. When Snap bent to kiss her--his first kiss--she slightly turned her face, so that his lips brushed her cheek, yet even then her self-command did not break for an instant. It was a task for Hare to pretend to congratulate her; nevertheless he mumbled something. She lifted her long lashes, and there, deep beneath the shadows, was unutterable anguish. It gave him a shock. He went to his room, convinced that she had yielded; and though he could not blame her, and he knew she was helpless, he cried out in reproach and resentment. She had failed him, as he had known she must fail. He tossed on his bed and thought; he lay quiet, wide-open eyes staring into the darkness, and his mind burned and seethed. Through the hours of that long night he learned what love had cost him.
With the morning light came some degree of resignation. Several days went slowly by, bringing the first of April, which was to be the wedding-day. August Naab had said it would come before the cottonwoods shed their white floss; and their buds had just commenced to open. The day was not a holiday, and George and Zeke and Dave began to pack for the ranges, yet there was an air of jollity and festivity. Snap Naab had a springy step and jaunty mien. Once he regarded Hare with a slow smile.
Piute prepared to drive his new flock up on the plateau. The women of the household were busy and excited; the children romped.
The afternoon waned into twilight, and Hare sought the quiet shadows under the wall near the river trail. He meant to stay there until August Naab had pronounced his son and Mescal man and wife. The dull roar of the rapids borne on a faint puff of westerly breeze was lulled into a soothing murmur. A radiant white star peeped over the black rim of the wall. The solitude and silence were speaking to Hare's heart, easing his pain, when a soft patter of moccasined feet brought him bolt upright.
A slender form rounded the corner wall. It was Mescal. The white dog Wolf hung close by her side. Swiftly she reached Hare.
"Mescal!" he exclaimed.
"Hush! Speak softly," she whispered fearfully. Her hands were clinging to his.
"Jack, do you love me still?"
More than woman's sweetness was in the whisper; the portent of indefinable motive made Hare tremble like a shaking leaf.
"Good heavens! You are to be married in a few minutes--What do you mean? Where are you going? this buckskin suit--and Wolf with you-- Mescal!"
"There's no time--only a word--hurry--do you love me still?" she panted, with great shining eyes close to his.
"Love you? With all my soul!"
"Listen," she whispered, and leaned against him. A fresh breeze bore the boom of the river. She caught her breath quickly: "I love you!--I love you!--Good-bye!"
She kissed him and broke from his clasp. Then silently, like a shadow, with the white dog close beside her, she disappeared in the darkness of the river trail.
She was gone before he came out of his bewilderment. He rushed down the trail; he called her name. The gloom had swallowed her, and only the echo of his voice made answer.