WHEN thought came clearly to him he halted irresolute. For Mescal's sake he must not appear to have had any part in her headlong flight, or any knowledge of it.
With stealthy footsteps he reached the cottonwoods, stole under the gloomy shade, and felt his way to a point beyond the twinkling lights. Then, peering through the gloom until assured he was safe from observation, and taking the dark side of the house, he gained the hall, and his room. He threw himself on his bed, and endeavored to compose himself, to quiet his vibrating nerves, to still the triumphant bell-beat of his heart. For a while all his being swung to the palpitating consciousness of joy--Mescal had taken her freedom. She had escaped the swoop of the hawk.
While Hare lay there, trying to gather his shattered senses, the merry sound of voices and the music of an accordion hummed from the big living-room next to his. Presently heavy boots thumped on the floor of the hall; then a hand rapped on his door.
"Jack, are you there?" called August Naab.
"Come along then."
Hare rose, opened the door and followed August. The room was bright with lights; the table was set, and the Naabs, large and small, were standing expectantly. As Hare found a place behind them Snap Naab entered with his wife. She was as pale as if she were in her shroud. Hare caught Mother Ruth's pitying subdued glance as she drew the frail little woman to her side. When August Naab began fingering his Bible the whispering ceased.
"Why don't they fetch her?" he questioned.
"Judith, Esther, bring her in," said Mother Mary, calling into the hallway.
Quick footsteps, and the girls burst in impetuously, exclaiming: "Mescal's not there!"
"Where is she, then?" demanded August Naab, going to the door. "Mescal!" he called.
Succeeding his authoritative summons only the cheery sputter of the wood-fire broke the silence.
"She hadn't put on her white frock," went on Judith.
"Her buckskins aren't hanging where they always are," continued Esther.
August Naab laid his Bible on the table. "I always feared it," he said simply.
"She's gone!" cried Snap Naab. He ran into the hall, into Mescal's room, and returned trailing the white wedding-dress. "The time we thought she spent to put this on she's been--"
He choked over the words, and sank into a chair, face convulsed, hands shaking, weak in the grip of a grief that he had never before known. Suddenly he flung the dress into the fire. His wife fell to the floor in a dead faint. Then the desert-hawk showed his claws. His hands tore at the close scarf round his throat as if to liberate a fury that was stifling him; his face lost all semblance to anything human. He began to howl, to rave, to curse; and his father circled him with iron arm and dragged him from the room.
The children were whimpering, the wives lamenting. The quiet men searched the house and yard and corrals and fields. But they found no sign of Mescal. After long hours the excitement subsided and all sought their beds.
Morning disclosed the facts of Mescal's flight. She had dressed for the trail; a knapsack was missing and food enough to fill it; Wolf was gone; Noddle was not in his corral; the peon slave had not slept in his shack; there were moccasin-tracks and burro-tracks and dog-tracks in the sand at the river crossing, and one of the boats was gone. This boat was not moored to the opposite shore. Questions arose. Had the boat sunk? Had the fugitives crossed safely or had they drifted into the canyon? Dave Naab rode out along the river and saw the boat, a mile below the rapids, bottom side up and lodged on a sand-bar.
"She got across, and then set the boat loose," said August. "That's the Indian of her. If she went up on the cliffs to the Navajos maybe we'll find her. If she went into the Painted Desert--" a grave shake of his shaggy head completed his sentence.
Morning also disclosed Snap Naab once more in the clutch of his demon, drunk and unconscious, lying like a log on the porch of his cottage.
"This means ruin to him," said his father. "He had one chance; he was mad over Mescal, and if he had got her, he might have conquered his thirst for rum."
He gave orders for the sheep to be driven up on the plateau, and for his sons to ride out to the cattle ranges. He bade Hare pack and get in readiness to accompany him to the Navajo cliffs, there to search for Mescal.
The river was low, as the spring thaws had not yet set in, and the crossing promised none of the hazard so menacing at a later period. Billy Naab rowed across with the saddle and packs. Then August had to crowd the lazy burros into the water. Silvermane went in with a rush, and Charger took to the river like an old duck. August and Jack sat in the stern of the boat, while Billy handled the oars. They crossed swiftly and safely. The three burros were then loaded, two with packs, the other with a heavy water-bag.
"See there," said August, pointing to tracks in the sand. The imprints of little moccasins reassured Hare, for he had feared the possibility suggested by the upturned boat. "Perhaps it'll be better if I never find her," continued Naab. "If I bring her back Snap's as likely to kill her as to marry her. But I must try to find her. Only what to do with her--"
"Give her to me," interrupted Jack.
"I love her!"
Naab's stern face relaxed. "Well, I'm beat! Though I don't see why you should be different from all the others. It was that time you spent with her on the plateau. I thought you too sick to think of a woman!"
"Mescal cares for me," said Hare.
"Ah! That accounts. Hare, did you play me fair?"
"We tried to, though we couldn't help loving."
"She would have married Snap but for you."
"Yes. But I couldn't help that. You brought me out here, and saved my life. I know what I owe you. Mescal meant to marry your son when I left for the range last fall. But she's a true woman and couldn't. August Naab, if we ever find her will you marry her to him--now?"
"That depends. Did you know she intended to run?"
"I never dreamed of it. I learned it only at the last moment. I met her on the river trail."
"You should have stopped her."
Hare maintained silence.
"You should have told me," went on Naab.
"I couldn't. I'm only human."
"Well, well, I'm not blaming you, Hare. I had hot blood once. But I'm afraid the desert will not be large enough for you and Snap. She's pledged to him. You can't change the Mormon Church. For the sake of peace I'd give you Mescal, if I could. Snap will either have her or kill her. I'm going to hunt this desert in advance of him, because he'll trail her like a hound. It would be better to marry her to him than to see her dead."
"I'm not so sure of that."
"Hare, your nose is on a blood scent, like a wolf's. I can see--I've always seen--well, remember, it's man to man between you now."
During this talk they were winding under Echo Cliffs, gradually climbing, and working up to a level with the desert, which they presently attained at a point near the head of the canyon. The trail swerved to the left following the base of the cliffs. The tracks of Noddle and Wolf were plainly visible in the dust. Hare felt that if they ever led out into the immense airy space of the desert all hope of finding Mescal must be abandoned.
They trailed the tracks of the dog and burro to Bitter Seeps, a shallow spring of alkali, and there lost all track of them. The path up the cliffs to the Navajo ranges was bare, time-worn in solid rock, and showed only the imprint of age. Desertward the ridges of shale, the washes of copper earth, baked in the sun, gave no sign of the fugitives' course. August Naab shrugged his broad shoulders and pointed his horse to the cliff. It was dusk when they surmounted it.
They camped in the lee of an uplifting crag. When the wind died down the night was no longer unpleasantly cool; and Hare, finding August Naab uncommunicative and sleepy, strolled along the rim of the cliff, as he had been wont to do in the sheep-herding days. He could scarcely dissociate them from the present, for the bitter-sweet smell of tree and bush, the almost inaudible sigh of breeze, the opening and shutting of the great white stars in the blue dome, the silence, the sense of the invisible void beneath him--all were thought-provoking parts of that past of which nothing could ever be forgotten. And it was a silence which brought much to the ear that could hear. It was a silence penetrated by faint and distant sounds, by mourning wolf, or moan of wind in a splintered crag. Weird and low, an inarticulate voice, it wailed up from the desert, winding along the hollow trail, freeing itself in the wide air, and dying away. He had often heard the scream of lion and cry of wildcat, but this was the strange sound of which August Naab had told him, the mysterious call of canyon and desert night.
Daylight showed Echo Cliffs to be of vastly greater range than the sister plateau across the river. The roll of cedar level, the heave of craggy ridge, the dip of white-sage valley gave this side a diversity widely differing from the two steps of the Vermillion tableland. August Naab followed a trail leading back toward the river. For the most part thick cedars hid the surroundings from Hare's view; occasionally, however, he had a backward glimpse from a high point, or a wide prospect below, where the trail overlooked an oval hemmed-in valley.
About midday August Naab brushed through a thicket, and came abruptly on a declivity. He turned to his companion with a wave of his hand.
"The Navajo camp," he said. "Eschtah has lived there for many years. It's the only permanent Navajo camp I know. These Indians are nomads. Most of them live wherever the sheep lead them. This plateau ranges for a hundred miles, farther than any white man knows, and everywhere, in the valleys and green nooks, will be found Navajo hogans. That's why we may never find Mescal."
Hare's gaze travelled down over the tips of cedar and crag to a pleasant vale, dotted with round mound-like white-streaked hogans, from which lazy floating columns of blue smoke curled upward. Mustangs and burros and sheep browsed on the white patches of grass. Bright-red blankets blazed on the cedar branches. There was slow colorful movement of Indians, passing in and out of their homes. The scene brought irresistibly to Hare the thought of summer, of long warm afternoons, of leisure that took no stock of time.
On the way down the trail they encountered a flock of sheep driven by a little Navajo boy on a brown burro. It was difficult to tell which was the more surprised, the long-eared burro, which stood stock-still, or the boy, who first kicked and pounded his shaggy steed, and then jumped off and ran with black locks flying. Farther down Indian girls started up from their tasks, and darted silently into the shade of the cedars. August Naab whooped when he reached the valley, and Indian braves appeared, to cluster round him, shake his hand and Hare's, and lead them toward the centre of the encampment.
The hogans where these desert savages dwelt were all alike; only the chief's was larger. From without it resembled a mound of clay with a few white logs, half imbedded, shining against the brick red. August Naab drew aside a blanket hanging over a door, and entered, beckoning his companion to follow. Inured as Hare had become to the smell and smart of wood-smoke, for a moment he could not see, or scarcely breathe, so thick was the atmosphere. A fire, the size of which attested the desert Indian's love of warmth, blazed in the middle of the hogan, and sent part of its smoke upward through a round hole in the roof. Eschtah, with blanket over his shoulders, his lean black head bent, sat near the fire. He noted the entrance of his visitors, but immediately resumed his meditative posture, and appeared to be unaware of their presence.
Hare followed August's example, sitting down and speaking no word. His eyes, however, roved discreetly to and fro. Eschtah's three wives presented great differences in age and appearance. The eldest was a wrinkled, parchment-skinned old hag who sat sightless before the fire; the next was a solid square squaw, employed in the task of combing a naked boy's hair with a comb made of stiff thin roots tied tightly in a round bunch. Judging from the youngster's actions and grimaces, this combing process was not a pleasant one. The third wife, much younger, had a comely face, and long braids of black hair, of which, evidently, she was proud. She leaned on her knees over a flat slab of rock, and holding in her hands a long oval stone, she rolled and mashed corn into meal. There were young braves, handsome in their bronze-skinned way, with bands binding their straight thick hair, silver rings in their ears, silver bracelets on their wrists, silver buttons on their moccasins. There were girls who looked up from their blanket-weaving with shy curiosity, and then turned to their frames strung with long threads. Under their nimble fingers the wool-carrying needles slipped in and out, and the colored stripes grew apace. Then there were younger boys and girls, all bright-eyed and curious; and babies sleeping on blankets. Where the walls and ceiling were not covered with buckskin garments, weapons and blankets, Hare saw the white wood-ribs of the hogan structure. It was a work of art, this circular house of forked logs and branches, interwoven into a dome, arched and strong, and all covered and cemented with clay.
At a touch of August's hand Hare turned to the old chief; and awaited his speech. It came with the uplifting of Eschtah's head, and the offering of his hand in the white man's salute. August's replies were slow and labored; he could not speak the Navajo language fluently, but he understood it.
"The White Prophet is welcome," was the chief's greeting. "Does he come for sheep or braves or to honor the Navajo in his home?"
"Eschtah, he seeks the Flower of the Desert," replied August Naab. "Mescal has left him. Her trail leads to the bitter waters under the cliff, and then is as a bird's."
"Eschtah has waited, yet Mescal has not come to him."
"She has not been here?"
"Mescal's shadow has not gladdened the Navajo's door."
"She has climbed the crags or wandered into the canyons. The white father loves her; he must find her."
"Eschtah's braves and mustangs are for his friend's use. The Navajo will find her if she is not as the grain of drifting sand. But is the White Prophet wise in his years? Let the Flower of the Desert take root in the soil of her forefathers."
"Eschtah's wisdom is great, but he thinks only of Indian blood. Mescal is half white, and her ways have been the ways of the white man. Nor does Eschtah think of the white man's love."
"The desert has called. Where is the White Prophet's vision? White blood and red blood will not mix. The Indian's blood pales in the white man's stream; or it burns red for the sun and the waste and the wild. Eschtah's forefathers, sleeping here in the silence, have called the Desert Flower."
"It is true. But the white man is bound; he cannot be as the Indian; he does not content himself with life as it is; he hopes and prays for change; he believes in the progress of his race on earth. Therefore Eschtah's white friend smelts Mescal; he has brought her up as his own; he wants to take her home, to love her better, to trust to the future."
"The white man's ways are white man's ways. Eschtah understands. He remembers his daughter lying here. He closed her dead eyes and sent word to his white friend. He named this child for the flower that blows in the wind of silent places. Eschtah gave his granddaughter to his friend. She has been the bond between them. Now she is flown and the White Father seeks the Navajo. Let him command. Eschtah has spoken."
Eschtah pressed into Naab's service a band of young braves, under the guidance of several warriors who knew every trail of the range, every waterhole, every cranny where even a wolf might hide. They swept the river-end of the plateau, and working westward, scoured the levels, ridges, valleys, climbed to the peaks, and sent their Indian dogs into the thickets and caves. From Eschtah's encampment westward the hogans diminished in number till only one here and there was discovered, hidden under a yellow wall, or amid a clump of cedars. All the Indians met with were sternly questioned by the chiefs, their dwellings were searched, and the ground about their waterholes was closely examined. Mile after mile the plateau was covered by these Indians, who beat the brush and penetrated the fastnesses with a hunting instinct that left scarcely a rabbit-burrow unrevealed. The days sped by; the circle of the sun arched higher; the patches of snow in high places disappeared; and the search proceeded westward. They camped where the night overtook them, sometimes near water and grass, sometimes in bare dry places. To the westward the plateau widened. Rugged ridges rose here and there, and seared crags split the sky like sharp sawteeth. And after many miles of wild up-ranging they reached a divide which marked the line of Eschtah's domain.
Naab's dogged persistence and the Navajos' faithfulness carried them into the country of the Moki Indians, a tribe classed as slaves by the proud race of Eschtah. Here they searched the villages and ancient tombs and ruins, but of Mescal there was never a trace.
Hare rode as diligently and searched as indefatigably as August, but he never had any real hope of finding the girl. To hunt for her, however, despite its hopelessness, was a melancholy satisfaction, for never was she out of his mind.
Nor was the month's hard riding with the Navajos without profit. He made friends with the Indians, and learned to speak many of their words. Then a whole host of desert tricks became part of his accumulating knowledge. In climbing the crags, in looking for water and grass, in loosing Silvermane at night and searching for him at dawn, in marking tracks on hard ground, in all the sight and feeling and smell of desert things he learned much from the Navajos. The whole outward life of the Indian was concerned with the material aspect of Nature--dust, rock, air, wind, smoke, the cedars, the beasts of the desert. These things made up the Indians' day. The Navajos were worshippers of the physical; the sun was their supreme god. In the mornings when the gray of dawn flushed to rosy red they began their chant to the sun. At sunset the Navajos were watchful and silent with faces westward. The Moki Indians also, Hare observed, had their morning service to the great giver of light. In the gloom of early dawn, before the pink appeared in the east, and all was whitening gray, the Mokis emerged from their little mud and stone huts and sat upon the roofs with blanketed and drooping heads.
One day August Naab showed in few words how significant a factor the sun was in the lives of desert men.
"We've got to turn back," he said to Hare. "The sun's getting hot and the snow will melt in the mountains. If the Colorado rises too high we can't cross."
They were two days in riding back to the encampment. Eschtah received them in dignified silence, expressive of his regret. When their time of departure arrived he accompanied them to the head of the nearest trail, which started down from Saweep Peak, the highest point of Echo Cliffs. It was the Navajos' outlook over the Painted Desert.
"Mescal is there," said August Naab. "She's there with the slave Eschtah gave her. He leads Mescal. Who can follow him there?"
The old chieftain reined in his horse, beside the time-hollowed trail, and the same hand that waved his white friend downward swept up in slow stately gesture toward the illimitable expanse. It was a warrior's salute to an unconquered world. Hare saw in his falcon eyes the still gleam, the brooding fire, the mystical passion that haunted the eyes of Mescal.
"The slave without a tongue is a wolf. He scents the trails and the waters. Eschtah's eyes have grown old watching here, but he has seen no Indian who could follow Mescal's slave. Eschtah will lie there, but no Indian will know the path to the place of his sleep. Mescal's trail is lost in the sand. No man may find it. Eschtah's words are wisdom. Look!"
To search for any living creatures in that borderless domain of colored dune, of shifting cloud of sand, of purple curtain shrouding mesa and dome, appeared the vainest of all human endeavors. It seemed a veritable rainbow realm of the sun. At first only the beauty stirred Hare--he saw the copper belt close under the cliffs, the white beds of alkali and washes of silt farther out, the wind-ploughed canyons and dust-encumbered ridges ranging west and east, the scalloped slopes of the flat tableland rising low, the tips of volcanic peaks leading the eye beyond to veils and vapors hovering over blue clefts and dim line of level lanes, and so on, and on, out to the vast unknown. Then Hare grasped a little of its meaning. It was a sun-painted, sun-governed world. Here was deep and majestic Nature eternal and unchangeable. But it was only through Eschtah's eyes that he saw its parched slopes, its terrifying desolateness, its sleeping death.
When the old chieftain's lips opened Hare anticipated the austere speech, the import that meant only pain to him, and his whole inner being seemed to shrink.
"The White Prophet's child of red blood is lost to him," said Eschtah. "The Flower of the Desert is as a grain of drifting sand."